“Don’t touch the art” is not a rule in Uzumaki Cepeda’s studio. You can make yourself comfortable in a fur chair and admire the fur paintings hanging from the walls or stroke the fur sculptures. In one of her installation rooms, she invites people to take a nap in a soft space full of oversized fur shapes. A bottle of Agua de Florida, wrapped in pink fur that belonged to her mother, is an amalgamation of her childhood, when she grew up in a Dominican household, and her present whimsical dreamscape. Each room, each object, and each image invoke curiosity; they make you want to touch, hold, engage, and bask in the childlike joy you’ll undoubtedly feel. You are transported into the playground of your six-year-old dreams or, perhaps, a Dr. Seuss book that takes place in the Bronx.
Uzumaki herself has a presence in her art; she exudes confidence and serenity and is usually wearing something elegant and avant-garde, meticulously crafted by herself or a collaborator. What is apparent in all of her photos, no matter who the subject, is that her art is a place where you can feel safe enough to reveal your most vulnerable self. Uzumaki’s process and finished product are ways in which she can reshape and restructure her childhood and current environment. She isn’t just creating art for the sake of it; she is building spaces that allow her healing and security. And you are invited.
How do your background, art, and style intersect and influence each other?
I come from a Dominican background; my people are colorful, vibrant, and loud and so is my work. The bright, bold colors of my work reflect the innocence of childhood and the noisy palette of bodegas and fresh acrylic nails, among other things. Black and brown culture gave me the perspective to look at life through this artistic lens. Being raised in a low-income household, I learned to make stuff with what I had. If I had a stick, a coin, a paper, I turned that into a doll. Being poor taught me how to be creative.
How does your family respond to your work?
They don’t understand it, but they like it and support me. My mom came from a place that, in order to leave, you needed to get married or be a lawyer or a doctor. It was financially impossible [to succeed] unless you came from or had access to wealth. So being an artist wasn’t really an option. I am the first artist in my family. They are still trying to understand it.
How did your work evolve from the abstract paintings and drawings you used to make, to the faux-fur pieces you make now?
I always wanted to build installations and make bigger pieces, once I got to L.A. I finally had the space to do it, so I took advantage of that. I always made art, but I never loved any of my pieces. I kept switching from medium to medium until I finally loved what I made.
I think your use of faux fur instead of real fur maintains the playfulness and innocence of your creations even in the more serious installations like the Indigo Room.
I don’t eat meat, so it would be weird for me to use actual animal fur. I love animals. I follow a bunch of animal accounts on Instagram! [laughs]The Indigo Room does have some seriousness to it. As a child, I spent a lot of time trying to get in contact with my father. In the Indigo Room, I wanted to portray the feeling of those moments. A phone, a mother, a child, and the colors of part of my origin on a field of yellow melancholy.
Who else do you want to collaborate with? Where do you want to take your work, literally and figuratively?
I want to collaborate with Jee Young Lee and Ivy Queen. I don’t want to take my art anywhere; I want my art to take me places. I want my art to connect me to anything and everything I want to manifest. I see myself in museums. I want to be able to bring my family into a museum for them to understand my art.
What do you want people to feel when they see or interact with your art?
I want to invite the viewer to touch, and if they can't touch, it’s even more alluring when they mischievously do anyway. They leave a mark on the work. It’s like giving someone something in exchange for something else. It speaks of nostalgia and guilt and love, and it makes me really emotional. I guess that's the association I'm drawing with my fur paintings. It's a material that comforts a lot of us. But I do that for the viewer in a more direct way. It doesn't tell you what to feel or what I'm seeing. You’re making all these connections yourself. Most of all, I want people to feel safe and at peace. I construct these installations to create safe places for people with mental trauma.