Mariela Ajras: “I Think of the City as a Large Canvas Loaded With Morphological and Historical Stories”

Mariela Ajras is an Argentinean visual artist who also works as a muralist. Her art can be seen on walls in many cities, including Los Angeles, San Diego and San Diego. A psychologist by training, she participated in various urban art festivals, fairs, and public art projects. One of the most prominent murals in Buenos Aires was the one she created for “Corredor de la Memoria”, a commemoration of the 25th anniversary the AMIA bombing.

Public Art Review recognized her as one of South America’s most influential female muralists. Mariela Ajras and I discussed the creative process and the art behind her murals. We also explored how she views cities and how they relate to the architecture.

"Mañana Inmenso", Buenos Aires Museo 2022. Image © Diego Astarita

Agustina Iniguez, ArchDaily: Where do you get your inspiration for designing murals? Are there any references you can look up?

Mariela Ajras My inspiration for painting murals is diverse. The context of the wall, its history, the community it belonged to, its particular architecture and how old it are all play a major role in the design process. The colour palette around the wall is also very inspiring, as well as the textures created by time and the roofs surrounding it, including any patterns of tiles, mouldings, or sculptures.

"La memoria y las mujeres", Buenos Aires Museo 2022. Image © Martín Rois

The surrounding colours and shapes can have a powerful visual impact when I start to design. But, on the other hand, I encounter the wall and its forms and a kind of story emerges. This visual narrative corresponds to my sensations. Although inspiration is difficult to find, it often appears in a blurred form. It’s a combination of the visual impact of colours and shapes, as well as a conceptual narrative I use in my work on the concept of memory, oblivion, and a question about our feminine universe. The city is a vast canvas that I view as full of historical and morphological narratives.

AI: How is the creative process before the site’s realization?

MA A field survey is part of the creative process before the realization. If it’s a historic building, I walk around the wall. This was the case with the Museo de la Ciudad’s last project in Buenos Aires. I had to cross the dividing wall between the Ezcurra House (one of the oldest mansions of Buenos Aires, dating back to 1830), and the Heights of the La Estrella Pharmacy. These properties are part of the historic center of the city and belong to the museum. They are both historic and have architectural significance.

"Latin American Identity"; Mural para el Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo BID; Washington DC, VA, USA; 2019

The original facades, domes, sculptures of Plaza de Mayo, basilica, tiles of houses, vitreaux that let light in to these old houses, and wooden staircases are all preserved. Some areas that were abandoned by time have retained their structure. They are now covered with vegetation, which is a stimulating visual texture. There are many stories that have been told in these rooms, which have shaped the city’s history. When I think about designing this mural, all these variables influence my creativity.

AI – What was your most difficult mural?

MA Murals are always difficult in many ways. The larger-scale murals are the most difficult because of the high degree of production and delivery. Although the mural to commemorate the 25th anniversary AMIA bombing at Hospital de Clinicas was a difficult technical challenge, it also had a lot of responsibility due to the significance of the subject for Buenos Aires society. The last mural I did for the Ministry of Culture at the Museo de la Ciudad was a very technical challenge. I had to paint a portrait of an immense scale, one of my most memorable faces.

"Motherhood and migration"; Minneapolis, MN, USA; 2019. Image © Alex Olson Arts

AI – What role do you believe murals have in cities?

MA Community Role: The mural is a mark of colour and form in the cityscape that triggers emotions on a visual and community level. A mural can provoke certain types of interactions among passers-by, who, when challenged by it, are more open to interacting with one another based on what it generates in them. The mural is a third occasion between two people, who now interact as peers and share emotions and create meaning together. This third fact is the catalyst for interaction between pairs. It’s not just two people facing each another who are defining themselves by their opposition but by that which unites them and summons them. The mural is a great relational event with great potential. Particularly murals that address historical issues that impact the community they are part of.

"Pedido de Justicia", Mural conmemoración 25 años AMIA; Buenos Aires, Argentina; 2019. Image © Sergio Bianchi para Marie Claire Magazine

Unblocking the aesthetic dimension. The encounter with an artifact that becomes part their daily landscape provokes the activation and imagination of the citizens. This is a playful, imaginative treatment that unblocks the aesthetic dimension. This encounter is therapeutic. It creates an experience that expands our subjectivity. It is possible to experience something at the level or subjective power of being affected or summoned by art. And this not just in a positive manner. Although I believe my murals do not always inspire good feelings (in fact, they are often criticized by me), I believe this is an affectation. The transformation of an exterior space causes something to happen within the interior. The city becomes a museum. This opens up new artistic dimensions and offers new urban poetics.

"What it feels like"; Buenos Aires, Argentina; 2017. Image © Marie AJRAS

The role of art in general. I am fascinated by the potential for artistic practice to expand our everyday experience. It is possible to create an “other space” in which we can experience transcendence. We can break the veil of anaesthetized every day to experience a moment of grace that restores us to a more authentic state of being. These are the states I try to invoke in my work. A strong commotion, a pause. The profound reflection of the art’s scope is found in the social cross-section of artistic practice. To create works that move us, to unify us as viewers of beauty. To be free from the monotony of a modern, alienating daily life and to accept beauty as a political-aesthetic resistance. My quest is for everyday sensitization. While I cannot change the world through my art, I can create artistic experiences that inspire and empower people. To further explore the complexity of human experience, I design experiences that inspire and strengthen the spirit.

"Estrategias para organizar el caos"; Las Vegas, NV, USA; 2019. Image © Luke Shirlaw para "Mural Oasis"

AI: Do You Think Muralism Depends on Architecture?

MA: 100 per cent! From my experience, the one is not sufficient without the other. It is inexorable that a wall, which initially emerges as an architect’s thought product, and the mural that will be inscribed on it later becomes a dialogue. They are always in dialogue. Architecture is a key factor in the compositions and realizations. The architecture provides a platform on which to realize the work. However, there are many variables that can influence the execution of the mural’s design and execution. My interest is in the idea that murals can be thought of as knottings between poetic and aesthetic meanings within architectural boundaries. Urban cartographies that are intertwined between architecture and the markings of a mural are new ways to rewrite the city’s map in constant dialogue. It is time to think about these issues in a holistic way. I would love to see mural art integrated into architectural layouts. Walls and buildings could be constructed with murals from the start, which would improve visibility and accessibility, and enhance the aesthetic and poetic potential of both of these proposals in the experience of living in a city.

"Horizonte de sucesos"; Montevideo, Uruguay; 2015. Image © Wang Cultural Festival, Uruguay