From New York’s DIY art scene to the year’s most incendiary youth culture movie, India Menuez is the girl-of-the-moment determined to spread opportunity and support her peers
Taken from the summer 2016 issue of Dazed:
On a rare beauty of a day in an unseasonably chilly May, India Salvor Menuez walks from her Chinatown live-work studio to meet me at SoHo’s Harney & Sons tea house. For someone up to her ears in self-propelled projects, this is a rare midday respite. In a few hours, the artist, model and muse-turned-actress will be teaching a children’s collage workshop at the Queens Museum, in association with zine-making collective 8-Ball. She blends into the cafe’s cosy whimsy in a spearmint-hued t-shirt with a saucer-eyed kitten on the front – ideal attire for teaching ten-year-olds the art of DIY expression, but also a peek into her own off-kilter style. “I’m 23 now,” she later jokes, “and I feel like some people are giving me a bit of shade for dressing like such a little kid all the time. Am I going to be one of those old ladies who still dresses like a child?”
Why not, I say, namedropping Baddie Winkle as proof of concept.
Menuez is calm, measured, and adapts easily to our tranquil environment. And that’s part of her gift: mega-flexibility. She is low-key and make-up-free, but looks vaguely familiar in that New Yorker art-star way – her copper-rose hair colour, pale, delicate bird-like features and constellation of freckles give her the allure of a young adult protagonist from the 70s. You’ve seen her somewhere, you might think. And you probably have: she’s the moody sophisticate in Miu Miu’s SS16 campaign, a dreamy subject in Petra Collins’ work (who also appears in this issue’s Ryan McGinley-lensed shoot), and – almost sneakily – the redhead in shades on the cover of Pharrell’s G I R L. More importantly, she’s a classic New York City muse who also makes stuff of her own – lots of it, and often. A fixture on the city’s DIY art scene since the age of 15, when her pioneering work with the Luck You art collective made headlines, she continues to expand her craft, writing, painting, sculpting, modelling and recently garnering acclaim for her work in movement and performance. If the market favours specialisation, she hasn’t let it stop her multi-tiered advancement.
That flair for the dramatic is earning her a spot as a fresh face and voice in independent cinema, too. After a role as an activist youth in Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air put her on the silver-screen radar in 2012, she played a pregnant teenager in Nathan Silver’s 2014 drama Uncertain Terms – early explorations of rebellious girlhood that set her up nicely for her upcoming role in writer-director Elizabeth Wood’s White Girl. A semi-autobiographical nailbiter, White Girl showcases Menuez’s smart capacity for balancing thrills with darkness and danger. With its title semi-satirising its premise – white girls can get real, too – the movie follows the troubling travails of a New York college freshman (Morgan Saylor) who falls for a Puerto Rican drug dealer, then gets entangled with his drug-dealing business in order to bail him out of prison.
Menuez plays Katie, the best friend of the main character, Leah. “She’s a party girl, to reduce it,” she says bluntly. “But it all revolves around Elizabeth (Wood)’s friends. It’s the sort of thing where everyone’s in their early 20s and they just moved to New York, and it’s all so exciting – they think they’re living in a movie. They don’t really know how to distinguish between fun and danger. Everyone’s so wrapped up in their own story that they don’t realise when some of their friends go a little too far.”
“There is something to be said for going out of your way to make opportunities for your female peers – not just your cisgender female peers, but all different kinds of female peers and people of colour” — India Menuez
Plotlines depicting the young, privileged and naive of New York are nothing new, but Menuez immediately saw the potential in the film – and in its strong, collaborative team. “I enjoyed making that movie, especially working with Elizabeth,” she says. “I’m always excited to be working with female directors, especially when it’s someone really bold who stands her ground on set. In contrast, I’ve been in smaller projects where there’s a female director, but then you’ll have the male DP, the male producer – the male everything else talking a little bit louder than her, and her voice can get drowned out. I’ve seen that happen and it’s not surprising. It’s really annoying. But it was cool to work for this woman who was like, ‘I wrote this, no one on set knows how this is supposed to be better than me.’ Elizabeth was really not demanding, but she had clear ideas of what she wanted.”
Friendship, especially female friendship, is vastly important to Menuez and her art, informing her communities and projects-to-be. From artist Alexandra Marzella to actress Hari Nef, her own evolving but tight-knit crew seems a constant wellspring of support and inspiration. In last year’s self-written and directed play The World of Chibi Cherry, she performed alongside Hayden Dunham and Claire Christerson as a teen pop sensation in well-costumed existential limbo. In the upcoming Authority Figure, a performance piece directed by friends Sarah Kinlaw and FLucT’s Monica Mirabile, Menuez will use her unconventional approach to movement to explore the hot-button complexities of the modern bathroom as an intimate, body-positive sanctuary or battleground. “I don’t have much traditional dance training, if any,” she says. “I have a huge love for dance, but thinking about it (in terms of) the conceptual power of improvised movements. It’s more of a group exercise, finding something that feels sincere, rather than me generating the choreography and putting it on the group.”
“I do a lot of projects and sometimes it’s all at once. I think it would really be a challenge for me to force myself to focus more on one thing” — India Menuez
In general, Menuez prefers to avoid comparisons and competition. When I bring it up, she shifts in her seat, visibly perturbed.
“It doesn’t just turn me off – it upsets me, because it is just not a productive way to move through the world,” she says. “When I see my friends doing well, it makes me so happy. Sure, I get Fomo and stuff: like, I am bummed when I miss opportunities. But I think there’s a difference between being competitive and having a little twinge, like, ‘I should have done that,’ or, ‘I wish I could do that next time.’ There is always a moment there when I can say, ‘Well, I can try that next time.’ With art that makes you feel that way – you have to take that feeling and use it.”
This generosity of spirit and passion for hands-on beauty comes in part from her parents: her mother, Johanna, is an Icelandic-born jewellery maker and founder of the Kria brand, while her father, Ross, founded downtown fashion label Salvor Projects and now makes music. “My parents are creative people,” she says. “They had me when they were really young and raised me with an open mind, which I appreciate. I always had a lot of freedom in how I expressed myself – like, I always dressed myself just crazy as a kid.”
Menuez might be the ultimate power generalist right now, but she just might be eyeing a more specific future, after all. Her latest goal? “To do less,” she says. “I do a lot of projects and sometimes it’s all at once. I think it would really be a challenge for me to force myself to focus more on one thing.”
Before she narrows down her options, though, she may find even more doors opening up to her. She already has more films due to premiere this year – Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, Technology, an experimental feature she co-wrote with Japanese filmmaker Maiko Endo over the course of four years, and a lead role in Luigi Campi’s My First Kiss and the People Involved. “I haven’t even seen the final cut,” she admits. “I’m nervous. It’s hard to watch yourself.” Also making moves on the small screen, she recently participated in the pilot for Jill Soloway’s highly-anticipated adaptation of Chris Kraus’s seminal I Love Dick.
Whatever opportunities come her way, Menuez will also be putting out feelers on how she can share those opportunities with others. “Sharing opportunities is more interesting than having to have total consensus all the time,” she says. “I think there is something to be said for going out of your way to make opportunities more available to your female peers – not just your cisgendered female peers, but all different kinds of female peers and also people of colour. Everyone has a responsibility, when they are in a position to make opportunities for other people, to give those opportunities to those within a minority position. That is a privileged position that not everyone has, so I always have to weigh my privilege with my attitude.”
White Girl is out in the US on 26 August
Hair Jimmy Paul at Susan Price using Bumble and bumble., make-up Dick Page at Jed Root using Shiseido, set design Robert Sumrell at Walter Schupfer, models Marland Backus at New York Model Management, Lorena Maraschi at Next, Alexandra Marzella, Maya Monès, light design David Diesing, light assistants Evan Browning, Kevin Vast, fashion assistants Katy Fox, Victor Cordero, Alison Isbell, hair assistant Evanie Frustro, make-up assistant Rena Takeda, Gina Daddona, choreographer Luisa Opalesky, casting Noah Shelley