Wednesday Aja brought a rekindled love of photography and circus life back to Orange County from Paris. The historic Cirque d’Hiver served as inspiration before she chronicled a smaller family circus troupe as it traveled through France.
The graphic designer and photographer returned home and continued snapping circus portraits. For the past five years, she has shot for California-based Circus Vargas, which is billed as one of the largest traveling circuses in the world.
“My real passion is photography,” Aja said. “It’s a way to meet people and explore worlds that I wouldn’t normally have an entry into.”
With “Troupes + Tribes,” an exhibition of her work currently on display at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, travelers similarly have the opportunity to view her work outside of a private collection or conventional art gallery setting.
It’s the Dana Point photographer’s first hometown exhibit in O.C. and is part of the airport’s Community Focus Space Program, which aims to spotlight local artists and organizations with solo-style exhibitions.
Aja first learned of the trend of airports exhibiting art from a friend in Austin. She looked for similar opportunities closer to home and found a call for artists from John Wayne Airport in 2019. Aja submitted her work and was chosen for an exhibit originally slated for 2020 before being postponed by the pandemic.
Now, a dozen of her photographs have finally been installed in the airport’s Riley Terminal, in areas open to the public and that don’t require a flight ticket to view.
“It’s been a two-year journey to get to this point,” she said. “The upside is that the exhibit is serving a different group that maybe wouldn’t normally go to an art opening. I’m getting a much bigger cross-section of people who, hopefully, will enjoy seeing some photography. It’s nice when you’re at the airport — and I’ve spent a lot of time at airports — to have something to look at.”
“Troupes + Tribes” is a roundtrip for Aja in more ways than one.
Raised in East Los Angeles by a family of artists, she spent her formative years in San Clemente before earning an art history degree from UCLA where she also took photography classes and learned darkroom techniques. During a cross-country road trip, Aja settled in Austin where she worked mainly as a graphic designer.
When her father passed away, Aja moved back to O.C. from Austin. He ran an architecture firm in Irvine, not far from the airport where “Troupes + Tribes” is on display. She helped close down the business.
“After that, I just wanted to be home,” she said.
When sojourns in Paris renewed her passion for photography, Aja split her time behind the lens between editorial work and documenting circuses. For several years, she served as a contributing photographer at OC Weekly and her work has appeared in several other publications.
Before the pandemic, Aja enjoyed an artist-in-residence at the historic Hotel Figueroa in downtown Los Angeles where she exhibited her circus-inspired photography.
And now some of those same portraits have traveled down to Santa Ana.
“Troupes + Tribes” is described by Aja as a collection that explores themes of customs, costumes and community all under the big top. There are stunning black-and-white character portraits from the subcultures of burlesque, drag and circus life.
The selections were curated with O.C. on Aja’s mind; several of the photos were shot from Circus Vargas or other performers when in town.
For travelers at the airport, the exhibit adds a little depth to popular imaginations about O.C. while on their way to pick up luggage.
“It gives a little bit of twist on and a different look at Orange County,” Aja said. “Some people may just think it’s just about the beaches here. This shows that there’s other forms of entertainment and nightlife — and a little more diversity.”
What: “Troupes + Tribes” photography exhibit
Where: John Wayne Airport, 18601 Airport Way, Santa Ana at the Riley Terminal next to baggage carousels in Terminal A and Terminal B
When: Dec. 16 through Jan. 20