‘It Was About Meeting Myself in the Middle’: Watch Artist Marela Zacarías Meld Ancient Mexican Traditions With Contemporary Sculpture

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the Art21 "New York Close Up" film, "Marela Zacarías Goes Big & Goes Home." © Art21, Inc. 2014.

The Mexico City-born artist Marela Zacarías grew up visiting the colorful murals of Diego Rivera in the city’s National Palace, and then spent the early part of her career painting her own large-scale murals. While the artist has gone on to spend more than half her life in the US, much of her work remains inspired by her Mexican roots.

In 2014, the United States Consulate in Mexico commissioned Zacarías to create a permanent work as part of the Art in Embassies program. In an exclusive interview with Art21 as part of the New York Close Up series, the artist is shown working from her Brooklyn studio on the massive project—her largest sculpture to date—which required the help of eight assistants. 

Over a nine-month period, the artist hand-painted sections to comprise the 58-foot-tall, 11-foot wide work made from wood supports and window screens. The colorful, undulating form is covered in patterns that takes cues from Mayan textiles, particularly those from Chiapas and Oaxaca. Zacarías’s mother is an anthropologist who helped research the project, the artist explains. “These ancient cultures used their clothing as a way to show their relationship to their universe, to the earth, to their community,” Zacarías tells Art21. “The amazing thing is that a lot of these symbols from the Mayan era are still being used today.”

Production still from the Art21 "New York Close Up" film, "Marela Zacarías Goes Big & Goes Home." © Art21, Inc. 2014.

Production still from the Art21 “New York Close Up” film “Marela Zacarías Goes Big & Goes Home.” © Art21, Inc. 2014.

The work, titled Red Meander (2014), will welcome visitors to the consulate in the Mexican city of Monterrey, “not just because you’re getting a visa or a green card, but your life is changing,” she says. Although the artist is critical of problems with the immigration system, especially “the way that undocumented workers are treated, the way that people are being deported,” she acknowledges the importance of having a permanent work in her birthplace. “For me to do this piece, it was really meeting myself in the middle of it. I want to connect to the people that are going through this transition,” she says.

Currently, Zacarías’s work is on view at Seattle’s Mad Arts in a solo exhibition titled “Inside Out.” The artist’s sculptures and murals on view again nod to her Mexican heritage, and reflect her recent life living in her family’s home in Cuernavaca. As with Red Meander, her work bridges contemporary challenges with historic struggles, telling the stories of communities in striking visual form.

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s series New York Close Up, below. The brand new 10th season of the show is available now at Art21.org. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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