Courtesy of Daniel Rey

Our Looks, Our History

"When people see you, they hardly imagine who the other individuals were, cultures and ethnicities that led you to being who you are now."

NYU Abu Dhabi is a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities. An outsider would be shocked when confronted with how different all individuals look and yet how well we coexist. But as different as we are from each other on the outside, it’s striking how similar we actually are.
On the outside, freshman Daniel Rey-Rosas is your average size 18-year-old with a carefully crafted beard and the type of face you’d want to make art out of. His friend Julia Damphouse already took advantage of this by including him in photo artwork which develops the theme of androgyny.
Speaking Spanish is the first assumption people tend to present him with, yet he’s never been able to understand why. The fact is, yes, he speaks Spanish — he was born in Colombia and raised in Paraguay.
Looking at his artwork in the header, one would think NYUAD is his destiny. The art piece was one of the projects he did as a second-year International Baccalaureate Higher Level Visual Arts student.
“Art found me first. I made of it a way of living and we bonded together,” Rey told me of his relationship with art. “We became best friends, we have our deep conversations and when we want, we can also be superficial. It’s not only about deep stuff.”
Throughout the IB Diploma Programme, Rey had two major themes he worked with: “First, deconstructing my identity. Second, seeking some of my work to be artivistic, art for activism.” The words flow naturally from his mouth without fear of not being understood. “It’s about making statements about things that concern me.”
On the surface, this piece is aesthetically interesting — like NYUAD. At first sight, it seems as though Rey wanted to mold his facial features to resemble those of different ethnicities. Viewers run the risk of being too quick to judge it as cultural appropriation.
“Am I appropriating any culture? Even when it’s actually part of my identity, my DNA? What brought me here? ... My friends get dreadlocks and [people] tell them, Oh, you’re appropriating so much, but what if they knew their stories? What if we all traced back our history? I’m not appropriating anything,” he shared.
“My mom tells me: You know what? Our family dances a lot to drum’s music and she tells me that when they were my age everyone had an afro, a natural one. And I’m like, Why? How is that?” Rey added.
To the left of Rey’s actual face in the artwork, you see his dad’s side: Native American and Germanic. To the right, his mom’s: Spanish and African American. As a result of years of independent assortment, crossing over and random orientation during meiosis, but also hints of love and — sometimes forced — migration, Rey appears today as though he wasn’t part of the family. And that’s exactly what he wanted to show in his artwork.
“We are a result of other people’s stories. And that when people see you, they hardly imagine who the other individuals were, [the] cultures and ethnicities that led you to being who you are now,” Rey summarized his motives. “I wanted to see how the perception of myself changed first for me but then for others when they saw which were my ethnic origins. I feel like I wanted them to appreciate a part of me that they cannot see, but I can’t see either, yet I know it’s there, it’s in my blood, in my DNA, in some stories from my childhood.”
At first, he didn’t know where his project would lead him.
“I just wanted to know how to retell stories,” Rey admitted. “The first part of the project that I actually made was trying to paint my face with different colors, by hand. Then I realized, what if I could look radically different. What if it was only a black and white project [where I could] say, this is another person.”
Rey spent more than 40 hours watching makeup tutorials on YouTube in order to create the aesthetic effect.
“Just in order to understand how different techniques can provoke a different effect and we can play with our angles, with how round or how straight our face is … all those little things. After that I realized I have all of this and now I can manipulate it and I can redefine my skin color, I can redefine the size of my eyes, of my nose, I can change the shape of my face, I can add, I can remove.”
Rey hopes, firstly, to retell the stories of the forgotten people that came before him — the people that allowed him to be Daniel Rey-Rosas today. Secondly, he wants people to react to art in certain ways: “Just giving an individual the opportunity to recognize that that’s me imagining myself with another ethnicity, for example, is useful for them to say, Oh, what if I looked like that? ... If someone says, Oh, he was just testing aesthetics, then that’s totally fine. Because every day in our lives we’re testing out aesthetics from the moment we wear some clothes,” he summarized.
Rey added: “I’m taking our experimentation with aesthetics and [positioning it with] stories at the same time. One of the problems with us people is that when we see others physically, we assume [things about] them. What if instead of assuming we imagine?”
The project led him to more questions. Rey plans to continue exploring questions of ancestry, forgotten stories and roots.
daniel rey
Courtesy of Daniel Rey
“For example, now I’m trying to see whether with those who do look alike from us, especially family, or people from our societies, there is a pattern or what is the average look. So I’m taking pictures of my mom and her sisters and mounting one over the other, and if I take that overlapping, multi-layered picture, and I compare it to each of the original ones, I can see their relation, I can see that these people are sisters. And if they were one individual they’d look like this.”
Josefina Dumay Neder is Features Editor. Email her at
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