Maker Spotlight: Malaika Astorga

Illustration by Malaika Astorga

Illustration by Malaika Astorga

In late October, we caught up with illustrator Malaika Astorga in Montréal’s Plateau. Over drinks at Else’s, we talked about creative collaborations, the importance of showing up for your friends, and the significance of making empathetic work.

What was your relationship with art as a child and how did it progress into the fine art and communications background you found yourself in?
I’ve been drawing since I could hold a pencil. I need to draw to feel normal and functional (laughs). I was primarily drawing for a very long time, and in high school I was more focused on painting. In grades eleven and twelve I was no longer stoked about high school, and started getting into the DIY music scene. It was because of this that I learned how to silkscreen to make band t-shirts. This is what sparked my drive to create work for musicians. I still primarily draw—I draw throughout all of my lectures, and I need to do it everyday to get out whatever is in my head. I express myself so much better in visual formats than I do through words.

I also got into short-filmmaking. I’ve always filmed and documented things around me because I’m afraid I’ll forget small important things about the world that seem mundane, but I enjoy, like walking home
from school, or my route to work. In high school I was primarily filming the things that made me happy because I had a really hard time distinguishing how I was feeling about the world and myself at the
time. I’ve tried to integrate that with a filmmaking approach and a more polished aesthetic that I had developed during that time. I worked on my first music video last year for my friend Michael Charles Hansford, whose project name is Molly Drag. He is great. He does lo-fi bedroom pop; if you’re ever emotional, you should listen to his music. It’s amazing.

I love that you’re collaborating with a lot of musicians and discovering your own creative journey with them. How did you get into that world?
I started by making show posters. My friend Luke Martin has a venue in Ottawa called Gabba Hey and helps with Ottawa Explosion, a DIY punk festival that is run every year in Ottawa. I was a really bored angsty teenager and was like, “Let me do stuff!” So he had me create some posters. When I moved to Montréal, I looked for the same kind of community. I feel like there was a little bit of gatekeeping initially, but everyone here has been supportive and collaborative and so lovely to work with. My job surprisingly helps a lot. I work at a sandwich shop, and everyone who works there is a musician, so we all help each other out quite a bit. I get along with musicians really well. I love music so much, but I can’t make music myself. It’s not a natural process for my brain because I compare it to how I would creatively make a drawing or a painting; I can’t create music as quickly or as well as I would like to, so I just get frustrated. Making work for music is the closest I can get to what I would want to achieve with making my own music.

What was it like coming from Ottawa to Montréal and getting into the scene here? Do you have any advice for newcomers who want to build a similar community around them?

During my first year here, I was really involved in a relationship, and didn’t make too many friends, so I don’t recommend that (laughs). As lovely as it was, if you’re moving to a new city by yourself, it’s good to have your own life. I got into the scene by finding events on Facebook. However, I’m very shy and introverted. I’ve worked in retail for a long time so I know “how” to talk to people, but it’s very nerve-wracking for me. By going to shows and doing art events, I met a lot of people who I now consider close friends.

For any community, it’s really important to be present, and to show up. Show up to your friends’ events even if you’re tired and don’t feel like going out. Being there is really important. In the same way that I would appreciate my friends coming to my art shows, I know it’s important for me to go to my friends’ shows. It’s important to me to show them that I care about them and what they’re doing. I thought Montréal was quite big—compared to Ottawa which is this tiny speck—but everyone knows each other here. It’s ridiculous. You never know when you’re going to run into someone again so it’s better to be kind to people. I feel like there have been times where I’ve made what I thought was the smallest effort and then months later that exchange turned into something much bigger than I could have anticipated.

How did you get involved with Pink Things Mag?

Pink Things is an intersectional feminist magazine all about pink—as a color, as a concept, as a feeling. It was founded by Sarah Sickles, who is currently living in Brooklyn. She was doing everything by herself for the longest time, which is crazy to me. She is the ultimate Virgo, and I have so much respect for her. I initially got involved with the magazine when I submitted a series called “How to Hold Hands.” She did a little write-up and featured my work on the site, so we kept in contact. One day, she posted on her Instagram story saying, “I need an intern because I’m overwhelmed.” I replied immediately saying, “Hello! I have pink hair. Hire me!” I made a really cute pink résumé and submitted a portfolio of my art. I started working on the social media and basic admin work. At the time she was living in the Midwest, and had decided to move to New York. During the move, she was obviously super busy, so I started doing more and more—article illustrations, curation, and finding people to work with. At one point, she said, “You’re doing a lot. You’re not an intern. What do you want to be?” Now I do creative direction and all of the online content. I’ve been shifting the content to be submissions that are created intentionally for Pink Things, and have been initiating projects myself. A recent collaboration was with a vibrator company called Sweet Vibrations. They sent some of their products and I created an accessory shoot to play off of their marketing strategy. I find their marketing so funny—they have this concept of someone on a bad date fantasizing about their vibrators, so I imagined the vibrators as an accessory to keep casually in your purse.

Do you have a personal philosophy when it comes to your work?
As much as I can, I try to incorporate the aspects of my identity that aren’t always physically visible. I know I’m often perceived as white passing—especially because I have blonde hair right now—but I’m half Mexican and half Polish. I’m legally Canadian and Mexican, and it’s an important aspect to my identity. I think about it a lot. On top of that, being queer and non-binary while still presenting very femme, as well as coming across to a lot of people as cis or straight. I think it’s really important for me to use all of that privilege to get myself into spaces where I can express my identity, be visible, and bring other people up with me. I know I get treated better than people with darker skin than I do—even in my family. People treat me better than they treat my dad and it has always been that way. It’s super upsetting. I know the best that I can do is get myself into positions where I can help other people. That’s what I try to do with the magazine.

It’s a weird in-between place that a lot of mixed people have to navigate—being a bridge and putting in a lot of emotional labor without receiving any in return and answering the question, “So, what are you?” all of the time. I do my best to take the silly questions and experience and translate them into visual content in whatever form I’m making as much as possible. It informs a lot of what I do.

I think that it’s irresponsible to make art and not be aware of your positionality, privilege, who you’re speaking to and what you’re representing. Being self-aware is not that difficult. It’s definitely something that’s a constant learning process where you adjust, change, apologize and learn but if you’re putting stuff out publicly then you need to think about how your work will affect other people and how it will be received by different kinds of people other than yourself. You’re not making art for other people like you—whether you think about it or not. It’s uncomfortable to think about these things but I think it’s really important. Just be empathetic. The past few months have been hard for everyone so just be nice (laughs). Even if you don’t understand what other people are doing. It’s not difficult to be respectful.

- Autumn Fox