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Artist Daniel Aguilar Ruvalcaba talks desire and economics at Ruby Friday event

Aguilar Ruvalcaba’s “A Talk about Turtles” was the first Ruby Friday event of the new school year.
Aguilar Ruvalcaba’s “A Talk about Turtles” was the first Ruby Friday event of the new school year.

When I strolled into the Ruby Lounge on a hot Friday morning, artist Daniel Aguilar Ruvalcaba was perched on a couch in the back of the room, staring pensively at his computer screen. He looked young and lively, with unruly brown hair and a smile that never quite left his face.

Aguilar Ruvalcaba’s “A Talk about Turtles” was the first Ruby Friday event of the new school year, and the artist came to Duke to discuss his work complemented by his own exhibited art. Ruby Fridays invite artists to Duke to share their work and careers in the Ruby Lounge, and this year they will occur every Friday at 12 p.m. These art talks are the brainchild of Scott Lindroth, vice provost for the arts and a professor of music at Duke.

“[Lindroth] proposed the idea of a casual, a regular lunchtime talk program at the Rubenstein Arts Center as a way to showcase different artists who are either at Duke … or artists in the community or artists who are on campus for a residency,” said Katy Clune, arts communication specialist at the Ruby.

I sat down with Aguilar Ruvalcaba for a discussion about the past work he has done. A smile broke out on his face, and he gestured with his hands in excitement. 

“My piece is on a killer whale,” he began.

He was talking about the life-sized killer whale that he and Biquini Wax EPS — a contemporary art space in Mexico City founded by Aguilar Ruvalcaba and run by a collective of artists, writers, historians and curators — had created. The piece is inspired by the “Free Willy” phenomenon in the 1990s, where thousands in the world gathered to protest a killer whale named Willy who was mistreated in an amusement park in Mexico City. It was both a national and international issue, and Aguilar Ruvalcaba and his team used the whale to portray desires that the public had projected onto the animal, but also the desires Willy’s owners had for economic gain.

As the clock hit noon, Aguilar Ruvalcaba adjusted his shirt and ambled toward the stage. He introduced himself and opened his talk with a paradox — more specifically, one by Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea. The story is that of a tortoise who was allowed a head start in a race against the Greek god Achilles. Zeno argues that, logically, Achilles will never catch up to the tortoise, because for every second he uses to catch up, the tortoise also uses that time to run even farther; therefore, he can never catch up to the tortoise. Aguilar Ruvalcaba explained that Zeno’s story is an allegory of desire.

“We always focus on something and we try to reach that, but when we reach it, we realize that we actually want something else now,” Aguilar Ruvalcaba said.

Aguilar Ruvalcaba’s artwork is full of hidden meanings, which are usually related to desire and economics — his favorite topics. This is especially true in his piece that is currently on display at the Rubenstein Arts Center. The installation features a man whom Aguilar Ruvalcaba is very interested in: David Rubenstein himself. 

“I want to explore something I was really curious about: [Rubenstein’s] philanthropy,” Aguilar Ruvalcaba said. 

The art piece will also include a poem that details Rubenstein’s philanthropic efforts and poverty in Mexico, as well as an “elephant in the room,” which Aguilar Ruvalcaba says I’ll understand when I see it.

The Ruby Friday series has substantially flourished since its induction in the fall of 2018, and Clune has high hopes that this growth will only continue.

“The hope is that the people who attend … discover that there’s infinite ways to be an artist and practice creativity,” Clune said.

For more information on upcoming Ruby Friday events, visit