‘Build the world anew’ Saya Woolfalk heats up Frieze Los Angeles

World-famous artist debuts brand new mural with Yieldstreet 

In November 2018, the New York-based multi-disciplinary artist, Saya Woolfalk, stood before an audience during a TED Talk and posed a series of questions. “What kind of world do you want to live in?” she wondered. “If you had the chance to build the world anew, what would it look like?” 

It was Albert Einstein who once said that no problem could be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. Problem solving, in other words, required a fundamental shift in perspective. And what Woolfalk soon offered those before her, was a deeply considered shift she’d spent nearly two decades rendering. She offered them a portal into an empathic universe.  

Woolfalk is an artist perpetually engaged in the notion of hybridity. Her immersive installations of imaginary and futuristic worlds transport viewers into a liminal space that at once occupies the past, present, and future. She is researcher, interlocutor, and performer—her explosively colorful aesthetic fearlessly zigzagging the mediums of sculpture, painting, video, papermaking, and textile work that was informed by time spent in Japan, where her maternal grandmother taught her to sew (Woolfalk mostly grew up in Westchester, New York. She is of African American, European American, and Japanese descent.) 

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Artwork by Saya Woolfalk commissioned by ArtWorks Cincinnati
Artwork by Saya Woolfalk commissioned by ArtWorks Cincinnati

In Woolfalk’s ongoing series entitled The Empathics, she has conceptualized an “interspecies hybridization” that is part-plant, part-human, and imbued with the ability to change gender and color, and transform waste into usable technologies. “I’m really interested in forcing people to look at something and then having them no longer assume that that object is stable. I’m trying to force the instability of an object so that we can really look at it, question and figure out what exactly is going on,” Woolfalk has said. 

For centuries, mankind has anthropologically assessed the origin and development of cultures, and Woolfalk, who studied philosophy, theories of race and ethnicity, and gender/sexuality studies at Brown University, uses ethnographic methods, folklore, and museum-display techniques to play with the notion of what it means to be human. Take, for example, the Institute of Empathy installation she re-constructed in the Montclair Art Museum in 2012. In it, the empathic species is presented much like other ancient civilizations at the Museum of Natural History. Artifacts like ‘Hides and Sheds from North American Empathics,’ which are crafted from linen, cotton pulp, rhinestones, and plastic bones, can be seen on display with life-sized, realistically rendered mannequins. 

“[My hope is that] the worlds we build—the things that we imagine—give us access to openness, to empathy, to future-forward imagining so that we might be able to imagine a new world,” Woolfalk has said. 

Her work has been exhibited at PS1/MoMA, the Studio Museum in Harlem, Performa 9, Contemporary Art Museum, Houston, and in public spaces including Times Square. Now, in advance of her newest piece, a mural created for Yieldstreet that will be presented on February 18 during Frieze Los Angeles, the artist sheds some light on her process and the importance of investing in the arts community. 

Saya Woolfalk’s photo courtesy of Ka-Man Tse for @TSqArts

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