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The beauty of Afro-Peruvian women through Ayleen Díaz's illustrations

Peruvian illustrator Ayleen Díaz in front of one of her murals. Photo by Afroféminas, used with permission.

This interview was conducted by Diana Sierra and originally appeared on the website of Afroféminas. A slightly edited version is published below as part of a content partnership with Global Voices.

Ayleen Díaz is an architect and freelance illustrator from Peru. Through her work, she wants women of African descent to feel not only represented but also proud of their natural beauty.

Her art draws from her personal experiences of struggling to fit in mainstream beauty standards, which in Peruvian culture means Caucasian features. Her illustrations revolve around femininity, self-love, and the celebration of difference.

Ayleen has been drawing since she was very young, but she only turned that into a career that after a friend was captivated by her portraits, which she'd do whenever she was bored at work. She began using social media to show off her drawings and selling them.

Diana Sierra: What inspires you to draw?

Ayleen Díaz: Empecé dibujando cabello rizado porque yo me alisaba el cabello con productos y plancha todos los días durante ocho años. Recuperar mi cabello me ha costado un montón de tiempo, de dedicación, de amor. Aparte, desde que empecé a dejarme mi cabello natural empecé todo este proceso de reconocimiento personal y de amor propio. Creo que eso es lo que trato de reflejar. A muchas mujeres afrodescendientes nos cuesta abrazarnos con todas nuestras virtudes y defectos. Este camino es largo y tedioso y a veces la gente no ayuda, te crítica y te pone las cosas difíciles. Pero creo que al final lo puedes conseguir y llegas a un equilibrio en el que te puedes aceptar y amar tal como eres. A mi me pasó eso con mi cabello, siento que desde que empecé a aceptar mi cabello rizado y esponjoso cambió todo.

Ayleen Díaz: I started by drawing curly hair because I used to straighten mine with products and flat irons every day for eight years. Recovering the natural shape of my hair has taken time, dedication, and love. That is how I've started this process of personal recognition and self-love, and I think that's what I try to reflect on. For many Afro-descendant women, it is difficult to embrace all of our virtues and shortcomings. The journey is long and tedious, and people don't always help, they criticize and make things harder. But I believe in the end you can make it, you can finally find a balance in which you're able to love and accept yourself the way you are. That is what happened to me. I feel that when I started to accept my curls and fluffy hair everything changed. 

Illustration by Ayleen Díaz, used with permission.

DS: Do you feel that Peru lacks a high representation of the Afro-descendant population?

AD: En Perú no existe mucha representación. De hecho, la mayoría de personas que aparecen en la publicidad o en la televisión siempre siguen un mismo patrón con la tez clara y el cabello liso. Es cierto que desde hace unos años esto está cambiando, pero acá era complicado hasta conseguir productos para el cabello. Si querías un champú específico tenías que traerlo de fuera. Ahora ya hay muchas marcas y muchas personas que te enseñan a cuidarte tu cabello con productos naturales. También muchas activistas afroperuanas que están luchando contra el racismo y contra los prejuicios, que te enseñan a aceptarte tal como eres.

AM: In Peru, there isn't much representation. Indeed, most people who appear in advertising or television always follow the same standards with a light complexion and straight hair. It's true that in the past few years this has been changing. However, for a while it was complicated even to find hair products. If you wanted a specific shampoo you had to bring it from abroad. There are many more brands available to the public now, and there are people who teach you how to take care of your hair with natural products. There are also many Afro-Peruvian activists fighting racism and prejudice, people who teach you to love and accept yourself.

An ilustración by Ayleen Díaz, used with permission.

DS: In your illustrations, you also show bodies of women with stretch marks and who are not thin…

AD: Sí, lo de las estrías empezó porque vi una foto de una chica en una pose echada y con sus estrías. Me dije “guau se ve increíble”. Yo escondía mis estrías, pero ahora es como que me gustan, me dan un encanto diferente. Mientras más las enseñemos la gente las va a aceptar más. Es algo normal que te sale en el cuerpo por muchas razones y no te lo puedes quitar. Hay que abrazarlo y aceptarlo y decir “esto es lo que tengo”.

AM: Yes, the stretch marks thing started because I saw a picture of a girl posing, lying down and with all her stretch marks. I was like “wow, she looks incredible”. I used to hide my stretch marks, but now I even like them, they give me a different kind of charm. The more we show them, the more people will accept them. It is something normal that happens to your body for many reasons and you can't get rid of them. We have to embrace and accept it and say “this is what I have”. 

DS: In your Instagram stories, you tend to talk about self-acceptance…

Sí. Un día mostré en mi historia una foto de mis estrías así, en primer plano, y comencé a hablarles a las chicas que me siguen para que ellas también compartieran las cosas que les cuesta aceptar o que ya aceptaron y de las que se sienten orgullosas.

Además, fue justo en internet que encontré la frase “nos esforzamos en encajar cuando podemos sobresalir”, que me pareció perfecta para saber de lo que estaba hablando. La publiqué y un montón de gente la compartió. Me pareció muy lindo que se identifiquen con esto. Yo también he pasado por momentos en los que no me gustaba mi cuerpo. Me gusta que se den cuenta de que no están solas, de que todo el mundo pasa por problemas como estos. Todos hemos pasado por ese momento en el que queremos cambiarnos algo.

Tú con tu cuerpo y con todas tus curvas, con todas tus líneas, con todas tus formas, colores, eres igual de linda. No hay por qué estandarizar la belleza. En realidad hay millones de tipos de belleza y depende de cómo tú lo veas. Puedes marcar tu propia belleza. Cuando dibujo distintos tipos de cuerpo y distintas formas de cabello busco que la gente aprenda que todo es bonito.

AM: Yes. One day I showed in my Insta-story a close-up picture of my stretch marks and asked my followers to share the things they found hard to accept, or that they have already accepted, and are proud of. Actually, it was online that I found the phrase “we strive to fit in when we can stand out”. It was perfect to understand what I was talking about. I posted it and people began sharing it. I thought it was amazing that they identified with it. I've also had moments where I did not like my body. I want them to realize that they are not alone, that everyone goes through problems. Everyone at some point wants to change something about themselves.

You are just as beautiful with all your curves, with all your shapes and colors. There is no need to standardize beauty. In reality, beauty comes in a million different ways, it all depends on how you see things. You can highlight your own beauty. By drawing different body types and different hair textures, I want people to learn how everything is beautiful. 

View this post on Instagram

Pintar y vivir ✨ • Me encanta pintar pero por mi chamba de arquitecta 👷🏾‍♀️ y la practicidad del ipad no lo he hecho hace varias lunas, lo bueno es que ayer que volví a pintar, me he re encontrado con el amor y ahora tengo dos lienzos más para darles color 🔥 • Sobre mi experiencia de ayer, es la segunda vez que pinto en vivo y la verdad no es tan fácil pero siempre siempre termina siendo super gratificante 💛 • Pdt. No se olviden de visitar la expo #MARZ8 organizada por @artdictos en @amaru.cc 🌻 • • • • #ayleenmayte #leafillustration #ilustradoras #canvaspainting #canvasart #ilustradoraperuana #illustragram #artistofinstagram #patternlover #printandpattern #curlylover #ilustracionbotanica #colorpalette #handpainted

A post shared by Ayleen Mayte (@ayleen.mayte) on

To paint and to live. I love to paint, but because of my job as an architect and the convenience of using the iPad I haven't done it for many moons now. The good thing is that yesterday I started to paint again. I've found that kind of love again and now I have to more canvases that I can give color to. About my experience yesterday, it's the second time I paint live and it's actually not very easy, but it always ends up being rewarding. Don't forget to visit the exhibition organized by @artdictos.

DS: Do you believe that the work of Afro-Peruvian activists is becoming visible in the country?

AD: Cambiar la sociedad y el pensamiento de tanta gente no es tan fácil. Cuesta un montón de tiempo y puede ser que a corto plazo no lo veamos, pero el cambio se va a dar progresivamente. Me encanta el trabajo de Natalia Barrera, de Una chica afroperuana, por ejemplo. Yo la sigo desde que comenzó hace mucho tiempo. El contenido que comparte es muy bueno y muy educativo.

AD: To change a whole society and the mindset of so many people is not an easy task. It's going to take a long time. We might not see it in the short term, but change is going to happen progressively. I love the work of youtuber Natalia Barrera, for example, and her channel “An Afro-Peruvian girl”. I have been following her since she began a long time ago. The content she shares is very good and very educational.

DS: Are there other illustrators that you admire?

AD: Sí, yo sigo a Carla Llanos que tiene un estilo muy lindo se parece al mío. También a Alja Horvat. Sus ilustraciones me parecen lindas, dibuja mujeres igual que yo, con cuerpos reales. Me encanta su estilo.

AM: Yes, I follow Carla Llanos she has a very nice style that resembles mine. Also, Alja Horvat. She draws women just like me with real bodies, her illustrations are beautiful and I love her style.

DS: You also paint murals, tell me some more about it.

AD: Pertenezco al Colectivo Papaya, somos cinco mujeres artistas, ilustradoras muralistas todas, con un estilo diferente pero con un mismo concepto: todas queremos realzar la belleza de las mujeres y, sobre todo, que se estas mujeres se sientan identificadas, valoradas y que se acepten bellas tal como son. Nos hemos hecho muy buenas amigas dentro del colectivo, lo pasamos bien y nos encanta juntarnos para pintar y poder llevar nuestro mensaje. También hacemos trabajos de obra social junto con una ONG que lleva artistas que quieran pintar las paredes en colegios de bajos recursos.

AM: I belong to the “Colectivo Papaya” (Papaya Collective). We are five women artists. All of us mural illustrators with different styles, but with a similar concept: we all want to highlight women's beauty, and most importantly, we want women to identify in these images, to feel valued, and to accept their beauty just as it is. It's a group of five artists that have become very good friends, who have a good time and love to get together to paint and be able to carry out our message. We also do charitable work together with an NGO that takes artists who wish to paint the walls in low-income schools.

Yesterday, on our first day of work with our first mural as a collective. We finished it today, you can find it at Caminos del Inca 3200 (in the country's capital, Lima). If you visit the mural, take some pics for us. Thank you to the life's wonderful chances to make me meet this wonderful women.

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