Bubi Canal is a New York-based artist from Spain whose work playfully engages hybrid mythology, identity and personal history through portraits of whimsical characters dressed in a bright palette of colorful costumes.
While his characters are constructions, the models portraying them are friends and family he has styled using handmade and found materials. Blending everything from American and Japanese pop culture to Cantabrian mythology, Canal’s work encourages us to tap into our own sense of wonder, and make room for magical things to happen.
In this interview for LensCulture, Liz Sales talks to Canal about his influences from childhood, collaborating with the people he photographs to build fantastical worlds and playing through portraiture.
Liz Sales: As an introduction, can you tell me about the themes of your work and how portraiture functions within these themes?
Bubi Canal: My work is intuitive and autobiographical. I grew up in Spain and now live in New York, and I feel like I belong to two different worlds. So, in my work, I cast myself, friends and family members as mythological Spanish creatures or hybrid characters from my imagination. Although these entities all are projections of me and my influences, they each also have their own identity and give the viewer the freedom to create their own story as well.
LS: What was it like growing up in Spain? Who were some of your early influences?
BC: As a child, I was particularly close to my Aunt Ana. She was the most magical and inspiring person I had ever met. She could create her own imaginary world, and I learned many things from her such as a love for dance and photography. She passed away in the 1990s, when she was only 30 years old.
Growing up as a gay boy in the 1980s in Spain was challenging. I’m highly thankful to have a wonderful family and friends. However, unlike today, the gay community didn’t have any representation back then. I couldn’t imagine then that I would be able to live my life the way I do now. Accepting myself as an artist was a similar experience to coming out as queer and accepting my identity. Creativity has been highly therapeutic for me.
LS: How do you create the costumes your characters wear?
BC: For my video projects, I sometimes collaborate with a fashion designer, Chaumen. He is amazing! Other times, I use clothes I find. I look at the colors, shapes, sizes and textures and how they can work with other materials. In Madrid, I lived near Spain’s largest flea market, El Rastro. I was inspired to create works using the unique materials and clothes I found there. This process continued in New York. For example, I found a rubber tree trunk mask and added some elements for the photo, such as red gloves and yellow wool eyes. When I see certain materials, I feel like they are calling me; I feel a connection. Sometimes, I keep materials for years before using them in my work.
LS: I see the bright colors in your work, among other things, as joyful. What draws you to these colors?
BC: When I was in college in Bilbao, in the Basque Country, I took a sculpture class in which I worked with only two colors, red and blue, for a year. I chose these colors because I loved how they interact with each other. The same year, I started taking portraits with my sculptures and using clothes with the same colors. These images made me feel something exciting. So, I continued in that direction. I’ve kept adding colors to my palette, but I’m highly specific about the colors I choose.
LS: Your images are quite playful to me. Could you talk about your process?
BC: Happiness is a highly important part of my process. I am inspired by something David Lynch once said: “A lot of artists think that suffering is necessary but in reality any kind of suffering cramps the flow of creativity.” He also said, “Let’s say that every time Van Gogh painted, he got diarrhea; then it wouldn’t be so good for him to paint.”
Each shoot is different for me. Sometimes, I create an image effortlessly, and other times, I do some sketches in advance. Sometimes, I repeat the same photoshoot until it works, and other times, nothing happens. I’m always looking for something magical in a shoot. The unexpected surprises that appear keep me motivated.
LS: How much of your process would you say is collaborative, and how much is spontaneous?
BC: I shoot different kinds of people, such as family and friends. Sometimes, people ask to be in my photographs. I select the location, the fantastical lighting and the costumes, but I want to capture something from the model that is natural to them in order to create a balance. I let models be themselves in images. I want us to have a pleasant experience creating something together and for them to feel seen.
LS: Your overall images often suggest an alternate fantastical world. What is the relationship between magic and photography for you?
BC: In my case, no matter how fantastical my photographs are, they always express something about our reality. When I look at my early works, I can see how the world was then and how I was feeling. We live in a weird world right now, so at times, my photographs can be dark.
LS: We do live in a weird world right now. What role do you think the artist has in society?
BC: I think artists can only tell their own truth and maybe inspire others. I would like to be useful in that way. So, my work is intuitive and autobiographical, like a journey.
LS: What’s next for you in your journey?
BC: This year, I’m an artist in residence at Silver Art Projects. This organization provides its artists a studio in Manhattan. It has been great to be part of the community and work in a large space. I have been working on some sculpture sketches and on pieces I will later incorporate into new portraits and still life photographs. Shooting in the studio is great, but I can’t wait for spring, when I can start shooting on location.