Some years ago, after an artesano (crafts) festival, Olga Huraira Ayala was packing up her sculptures and artwork into large plastic containers. While loading them into her car, ferocious winds whipped up a plastic lid cutting Ayala. She joked online about “bleeding” for her art. Her friend Candy Warixi Soto, founder of the Taíno Awards, gave Ayala the nickname Huraira, a version of the Taíno word for hurricane.
Growing up in El Barrio and attending the High School of Art and Design, Ayala would prove to be a passionate hurricane for her craft and the Puerto Rican artesanía community. Studying art for much of her life, it wasn’t until 1997 when she was getting a divorce and raising her daughter that Ayala realized she had to earn more money. She had been told by friends on numerous occasions she should sell her jewelry and sculptures but she never thought much of the idea until necessity presented itself.
Before venturing to sell at street fairs and artesano events, Ayala did some market research and found too many “cheap knick knacks” with the label “Made in China” that did not represent Puerto Rican culture. She then painstakingly began a process of researching Boricua history. She began creating sculptures using polymer clay in the likeness of vejigantes (folkloric festival marchers), los Tres Reyes Magos (Three Kings), Puerto Rican musicians, and the Taíno people.
“When I went to street fairs to see what people were selling,” Ayala explained. “I asked myself ‘where are the Puerto Ricans?’ I noticed this void. I try to create handmade artwork that’s free to touch and represents Puerto Rican culture.”
Ayala then decided to visit the Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Park in Ponce, Puerto Rico to discover images of Taínos to include in her work. She had seen drawings of Taínos but those representations were from a European perspective, and she wanted the real thing. When she asked her tour guide what Taíno people really looked like, he said to use his features as a reference. Ayala then incorporated the tour guide’s physical characteristics into her work, brilliantly combining modern Boricua dynamism and ancient Taíno culture.
Taínos once molded cemis, ritualistic, ceramic artifacts representing life, fertility and progress, out of clay. Today, Ayala endows and imbues her sculptures with the same artistic Taíno spirit and a colorful flair for depicting both mythological characters and actual people.
Imaginative yet realistic, Ayala’s clay figures tell stories with a particular worldview and greatly contribute to the culture of the Taíno Diaspora. Like Botero’s larger-than-life figures or Georgia O’Keefe’s desert paintings, her works depict a parallel universe through movement and suggestion. Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and mermaids have also been central themes in recent years. “My ideas come from life,” she explains.
A bohemian with a confident, professional air about her, Ayala frequently sells at street festivals and cultural fairs throughout New York City and has been commissioned for hundreds of private sculptures.
On November 19, Ayala will feature her art at Comité Noviembre’s National Puerto Rican Artisan Fair and Exhibit at Hostos Community College in the Bronx from 12 -7 pm. Attendees will be able to choose from a variety of Taíno warriors, Bomba/Plena dancers and musicians, goddesses, and other ceramic figures – as well as hand-made jewelry and finger puppets to purchase for themselves or as holiday gifts.
This year Comité Noviembre celebrates its 30th year honoring the history and culture of Puerto Rico and the art festival goes into celebrating its 11th year. According to Luis Cordero-Santoni, one of the artisan fair’s directors, nearly 100 artisans and 40 authors presented and sold work in 2015. Since artists now come from all over the country, this is the first year the word “national” was added to the art fair’s name, he explained.
A graphic artist and print maker by trade, Cordero greatly admires Ayala’s work. “Her work is perfect. Everything she makes out of polymer clay. Those are her designs, for example, the musicians. She makes it her way with her twist.”
Maria Aponte, a Bronx-based poet and founder of Latina 50 Plus, first met Ayala eight years ago at a Comité Noviembre fair. “I immediately fell in love with her use of clay and how she can shape image and people into beautiful art honoring our Puerto Rican culture,” Aponte said. “Since then I have always supported Olga’s work and when I founded Latina 50 Plus in 2014, I asked her if she could create our award.”
Aponte gave Ayala a description of what she’d envisioned. The creative process then involved the women going through sketches and bouncing ideas around. The final design has become the official award for Latina 50 Plus, and Aponte made Ayala the organization’s official commissioned artist.
In addition to running her own company, Olga Ayala Handicrafts (Hecho a Mano), she is a co-founder of the Puerto Rican Institute for the Development of the Arts (PRIDA), and serves on the planning committee for Comité Noviembre’s National Puerto Rican Artisan Fair.