Diana Farfán was driven to her current body of work by a stint teaching art to underprivileged children in her hometown of Bogotá, Colombia. She now lives in Greenville, SC and works both from the garage of her house and from White Whale Gallery and Studios, where she hand-builds and displays her pieces. She credits strong coffee with getting her through her daily routine, often working in her studio until late into the night. The need to externalize stories and news that affect her soul and “burn inside” if she doesn’t, keeps her dynamic as an artist and person, and continually redirects and refocuses her passion for intrinsic humanity.
Farfán received her first ceramic training at the age of eleven, with Colombian ceramist Juanita Richter. She recalls classes in Richter’s brick studio, saying “I, naively, thought that I could build my own house if I’d learn how to make my own bricks.” Thought she admits she has not yet made a single brick, her exploration of clay has led to much more. Her education in art continued with a BFA at The National University of Colombia and more recently, an MFA in ceramics at the University of South Carolina.
Exposed as a child to her sister’s psychology studies, she became acquainted with Freudian terminology and theory. This opened her mind to human behavior and has been a driving influence in her dreamlike creations. She says that in working with clay, she has “discovered the freedom and happiness that is play – a way of being that we have forgotten.” In the pursuit of this play, Farfán found that through the form of toys, she could communicate and represent a great deal about what she terms “the ambivalent human condition.”
Each doll, marionette, toy, and puppet that she creates has distinct and exaggerated humanoid qualities of emotion and physicality. Farfán explains “I see our bodies like containers that hold internal processes and emotional charges and our physicality responds reliably to it.” Each piece has its own presence and its own emotion to communicate, standing alone and together in their united imperfection.
All of the people that Farfán creates have surrealistic and often unsettling features which force a warring allure for the familiar human figure and a discomfort in the face of its distortion; among them dimpled potbellies, tangled limbs, lack of limbs, scowls, unfocused eyes, pointing fingers, and childlike pudge. Careful application and technique in the use of her surface glazes, in addition to color adapted to befit the toy itself and the new context in which it is being employed, finish the pieces in a whimsical way characteristic of a specific subconscious state.
The figures, which range in scale from small to life-sized, work together in narrative groups to introduce stories of vulnerability and fragility, of carnival horror and discomfort, and of the workings of society itself. Psychologically and emotionally rich, walking through one of Farfán’s exhibits is like walking through a broken nursery of hazy dreams or circuslike comedies of terror. The carefully laid storyline of each exhibit and figure brings the control of hierarchy and social structure to the forefront of attention. Nostalgia and a prickling discomfort war in this place between dreams, a by-product of the juxtaposition of the toys themselves as vehicles, and the weighty message that they are created to convey.
Farfán’s Latin upbringing brings an important frame through which to shift one’s view of society – a culture of closely bound mysticism, fantasy, and reality. Looking through the lens of surrealism, and particularly, through such disposable and oft forgotten a subject as toys, we are forced to see in a much wider sense the globalism and brotherhood of the human triumphs and afflictions. Her art, without specifically ever seeking to do such a thing, holds people accountable for this globalism and the responsibilities that are incurred by it.
In her exhibition The Toy Republic, figures that represent those in power in a social structure, and those who function as the everyman are actually placeholders for the viewer. These pieces serve as points of reference so that anyone from any culture can fill in their own figureheads from their respective political and personal backgrounds.
One such figure, The First Lady of The Toy Republic, sits impossibly high on a chair above the people together with her elitist companions. A menacing look and wrinkling born of years of scowling are unsettling when compared to her child-shaped body. Long, jointed legs hang from her sickly-colored and paunchy, nude body. In placement and physicality, she is detached from her people. She is armless, implying a purely psychologically exerted control over her subjects. Only in the shadows drawn on the walls does she lift a sharp finger to dictate her will. Subjects like The Clowns of The Toy Republic are low to the floor beneath her. These figures sit in a battered wagon, limbless and with stunted torsos. The largest of the three figures looks up at his rulers with a raw and anguished, open-mouthed expression. Bright paints selectively used on all of their faces appears garish, forgotten and out of place in this sad context. The two smaller figures have less human features; they are clowns whose faces border on animalistic, representative of the loss of humanity that undoubtedly occurs under such a regime.
Farfán has a passionate drive to connect with the viewer through her work, to create narratives expose and question power structures even as they hover on the edge of nightmare. This sensitivity and respect to emotion carries through to her greatest hope for those viewing her work, “When my work makes someone feel intrigued or disturbed, I feel glad to have touched a nerve fiber, but when my work makes someone react emotionally with a smile or a teardrop, I feel successful to have hit the target.”