What if we could restore our rainforests? What if we could reveal the cosmos by peeling back a first layer of skin? Natalia Arbelaez recently shared her thinking and the intricacies of her artistic process as she worked towards her presentation for the UVNT Art Fair in Madrid this March and a simultaneous solo show opening at Greenwich House in New York. Despite her workload and the seriousness of the colonial histories she faces, she was playfully pushing her work in a net positive direction, searching for some hope for the Amazon, Colombia, the United States, herself, and the most vulnerable. On 7th March, you can see her work in Madrid or in person presenting a talk in New York.
Natalia, I wonder if we might start by discussing your cast of characters. For example, in your exhibition at Mindy Solomon Gallery in Miami, Florida, this past summer, you included the mythical jungle protector La Patasola and also La Malinche, an enslaved Indigenous woman who lived in the sixteenth century in what we now call Mexico. She was an interpreter for the brutal Spanish imperialist Hernan Cortés. That’s just a start, though. In the documentation of the show, I also see animals and mask-like heads. Can you introduce us to your cast of characters?
For the Mindy Solomon show, all those characters came from women’s stories—stories I heard as a child and others I had to seek out. I read a couple of books about La Malinche. While she is criticised for being part of the takedown of the Aztec empire, she was enslaved from the time she was a child. A Mayan tribe sold her off to some of the Aztecs who then gave her to the Spanish as a gift. The Aztecs thought the Spanish were gods. La Malinche realised that the Spanish weren’t gods because of how they looked at the women. She said that gods don’t look at women that way. She recognised that the Spanish were just men, and I think she did what she did to survive.
The Virgin Mary was big in my home growing up. My Great Grandmother was obsessed with her. I wanted to include her because of the connection within my family. There’s the Virgin de Guadalupe in Mexico who, as the story goes, appeared to some of the Indigenous people, and from there, they claimed the Catholic religion. But really, they were forced to claim that religion. I think the Virgin de Guadalupe was their way of saying, “If we’re going to be forced into this religion, we’re going to do it our way.” They replaced one of their Aztec gods with the Virgin, who looked very similar. That’s also how the Catholics got the Indigenous to conform. You see this in Christianity, the incorporated symbols from other cultures. Throughout Central and South America, the Virgin Mary connects to the earth and fertility. The Catholics put the Virgin in the place of separate deities for those things.
In the Miami show, I also included Queen Isabella, or Isabel la Católica, who sent Christopher Columbus to the Americas and instituted the Spanish Inquisition. I did all women’s stories—some straight from Latin America, some more religious or mythical, and some that refer to actual historical figures from Spain. I want to recognise the power of these women, although some did horrible things. They’re all part of my history.
Learning about your work, I’m discovering that the types of clay and glaze you use are significant, even symbolic, perhaps relating to skin, colourism, and forced assimilation. What determines your material choices in a piece like Noche Cosmica en Ella (2023) which looks to me like someone peeling off their skin and revealing a different layer underneath?
I look at pre-Colombian ceramics and the clay that they used, terra cotta. I want to show that red clay and also reference the land it came from. Some figures I make, only their hands and heads have the white Maiolica glaze that the Spanish brought to the Americas. I’m referencing mixed identity or being Mestizo, which everyone from Latin America is, whether they recognise it or not. People can be white-passing, with fair features from the Spanish. Their exposed parts might be white, but their body remains red. In the last year or so, I brought the black glaze in. It references the cosmos. These new figures pull back their skin to reveal their cosmic form.
The characters with hairy bodies look almost clownish like they’re wearing theatrical makeup.
The clown imagery comes from the United States. I used to watch The Ren & Stimpy Show. They’d zoom in on faces, and you’d see bright cheeks, crustiness, and boogers. As a kid, I loved looking at comic books—Mad magazine, Robert Crumb, Zap Comix. My great grandmother lived in Colombia, but when I was in Miami, I’d have the television on. When I’d go to Medellín for the summer, it was much more strict.
There’s something unusual but also strangely spot on about the collision of Spanish colonialism and comics. Is it because of that violence that’s so much there in comics and, in a very different way, in colonialism?
Yeah. I never thought of it that way. That’s interesting.
Natalia Arbelaez, En el Nombre del Madre, del Hijo y del Espíritu Santo, 2022, terra cotta, majolica, 18 x 9 x 9 inches, courtesy of the artist.
I’m trying to locate what your signature style might be. It might involve your frequent use of masks, rounded and stacked forms, coiled and marked surfaces, and flushed or rosy cheeks. I still might hesitate to call your work cartoonish. I fear some people might think of cartoons as less than. Would you like to talk about how your work ends up looking? Or, maybe when you have a show in another year, things will look totally different.
The facial features will still be pretty similar, especially the teeth. When I’m making a small figure, the teeth might not be as detailed, but you still see that mouth, that grimace. I think that will continue. In the video work, you see faces, and they have the grimace referencing cartoons and the pre-Colombian Muisca masks, the golden death masks. Who knows, though. Things could change completely, but I don’t think I change that fast. I slowly transition to a new body of work.
In terms of being worried about saying cartoonish, I embrace that as part of my culture. I grew up on American pop culture and feel it’s been important in my life and work. People can see it as low-brow, but it’s part of me. I can be making work about sacred masks, but I can pair it with my thinking about Ren and Stimpy. For my video, Culebra Portal (2022), I wore a snake to reference Britney Spears coming out with a python at the MTV Video Music Awards (in 2001). I was also thinking about altered state ceremonies from the Andes. All of these kinds of things are important to me. I made a book, a ridiculous little zine, about how to take a selfie.
Are all of your artworks selfies in a way?
Yeah. I think so. I feel like the work is very identity-driven. When I first started making work, it was all referencing very personal stories, my family stories. I’ve figured out how to be a researcher and how to look outside myself, but I’m still very much making self-portraits. I think the facial expressions are a direct extension of how I’m feeling at the time I make them.
As a researcher, you’ve spent a lot of time in archives. You were a 2018-19 resident artist at Harvard with access to the University’s Peabody Museum. While I’m sure your time in these kinds of spaces has been generative and inspiring, I also imagine, given the colonial histories associated with art museums and archives, you might have come across some things you found unnerving or strange. Are there any experiences that have stuck with you from your archival research?
The Peabody at that time was in the middle of returning pieces to Indigenous communities in the United States. It was uncomfortable - so many objects from South America are outside of South America. It’s unnerving that people from home don’t have access. The American Museum of Ceramic Art in California connected me with a private collector who developed the Maw Collection of pre-Colombian Art. He told me you can’t buy anything from before the 1980s because little was reliably ethical before then. It wasn’t until the 80s that systems became more fair, and theft decreased. He introduced me to an art historian and writer, Rebecca R. Stone whose view is that no one should be collecting. The view of the Maw Collection is that because of collectors and museums, objects have been preserved that wouldn’t have been otherwise. I’m in the middle and conflicted. A lot of objects were preserved because of people holding onto them. Stone also says we need to stop calling objects artefacts. They’re art, even if we don’t know who made them. When I’m talking at schools or writing, I say we need to stop calling objects artefacts. From the same period, if it’s Europe, you’ll know the painter’s name and their history. We look at the Americas or Africa in those same periods, and it’s like, “Oh, artefacts.”
Maybe now for a big question, I’m curious about your take on colonialism as it relates to the current moment. We live in a time where people and institutions express the desire to decolonise. What do you think is possible, especially as we face continued and rampant militarisation, pervasive corporatisation, and environmental devastation?
It is a big question. I’m hopeful, and I feel like if I try to manifest that in my work, maybe that can help. I’m doing this heavy, loaded, historical work, and I think that’s why the cartoonist comes out. It allows me to work with such heavy topics. It lets me be playful in the studio and think of other things besides this heavy history. My works about La Patasola suggest taking back the resources of the Amazon. I’m hopeful some of that will start happening, especially in Colombia. Indigenous women and children—some of the activists there—are murdered as they’re fighting for the Amazon. They’re murdered by paramilitary groups and maybe even government groups looking for gold and resources. I’m doing more research into this—not just the murders but also the activist work happening. I’m looking to push my work into a positive direction for myself and the country. Maybe if I can concentrate on the good, that will be good for all of us. I’m hoping for protection for the environment. With that, we’re going to be able to protect a lot of people who are vulnerable when resources are extracted. This relates to Africa as well, to all of the mining that’s happening there.
Natalia Arbelaez, Patasola La Madremonte, 2023, red clay, majolica, gold, 14 x 21 x 13 inches, courtesy of the artist.
I’m hoping to talk more about your work in video and the relationship for you between ceramics and video. Often, your videos are somewhat psychedelic and include dance music. I’m curious about, for example, Passages of Absence, 2019, your resident show at Harvard that involved a video evoking El Dorado, the legendary ruler who covered himself in gold dust to dance. In your work, we watch a masked, gold-clad figure groove in what might be the stratosphere. She holds what look like jugs with grimacing faces on them. Or, there’s Paccha, 2022, where you use a tall ceramic pipe to ceremonially irrigate the earth outside your house with a corn-based beer. What would you like us to know about your videos? Do you have a certain mindset when you’re making them?
The videos start with a character as the ceramics do. With the videos, I’m thinking about visually what it’s going to look like and the things that will influence it, like a golden mask, bringing in a snake, or costuming. It starts there, but it’s a collaboration. I don’t do the editing or the animation. I’m working with another artist, Chris Noel Stone, who does that. And, the music is a collaboration too. I’ve had two different friends do music for me, Victor Barrenechea and Joshua Sigman.
The videos are about ceramic objects and their function, history, and associated rituals. I do a lot of work with the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, NCECA, and they have parameters for the shows they have for their annual conference. They have rules. A certain percentage of the works in the show need to be clay. I juried a show for them last year. There were videos and photographs. In my statement, I wrote about how we need to expand the field of ceramics and not think that it only encompasses physical clay forms. Ceramics can mean different things.
I made For My Grandmother and Ceremonies for González (both 2020). My grandmother passed away, and I wasn’t able to participate in her funeral. I used the work to mourn. I looked at burial objects from Latin America from pre-Colombian times and then called on my memories of my grandmother. I think of ceramic objects as tangible things that will still be here and hopefully story tell for me after I’m gone. I don’t have much ritual in my life. I’m making up ceremonies for myself. I think we all do that. We pick up on things left behind by others and try to make sense of them. If I can tell part of my grandmother’s story that way, it helps.
What’s your working process when you’re in the studio?
I come in and try to listen to music or audiobooks to feel good and inspired. Then I watch a lot of television as the day goes on. Sometimes it’s reality television I have on in the background. I won’t get stuck watching it, but it’s there as company. I try to be good in the mornings, but by midday or evenings, I’m like, “OK, I’m going to put this trash on.”
How do you challenge yourself in your work?
My horses became so popular, and I had to keep making them because people wanted to keep buying them. I had to think about what I was making and what people were seeing and thinking about how I was showing this violent history. There’s a lot of violence done to brown bodies within these pieces, and I was like, “I think I need to flip that. How can I flip the narrative and make something more positive?” That thinking allowed me to change. I think how people react to things makes me rethink and challenges me.
I’m also interested in the parameters I have to live within. My kiln is only so large. I have created a bolting system to put pieces together that I fire separately. I can make even larger pieces when I go to a residency. There, I let my environment challenge me. I try not to take too much with me other than basic tools. I’m open to being influenced. In 2021, I had a residency at Pittsburgh Glass Center. I worked with glassblowers to make glass heads to stack with my clay work. I also did glass casting. I want to stack ceramic figures, then golden figures, then glass ones on top to talk about earth, body, and spirit.
You’ve done a lot of great interviews. Is there a question you wish interviewers would ask you, but they don’t?
I’m interested in talking about how I make bodies. People don’t ask about that. As I work, I’m not looking at references. I’m technically trained. I’ve taken figure drawing and figure sculpture classes. I try to undo a lot of that. I like making like a child. I build quickly. Making for me is playful. Sometimes, my horses will have hands and feet. No figure’s proportions are exact. I might sketch to understand how a leg or something is moving, but most of the time, I just go for it, and it’s a lot of fun in the studio. I encourage people not to get hung up on what they think something should look like. I don’t like work that is just referencing pre-existing objects. I want character. Maybe that’s my style: letting character come out and just going with it.
Natalia Arbelaez holding En el Nombre del Cuerpo, la Madre, la Hija, el Espíritu Santo y el Becerro de Oro, 2024, courtesy of the artist.
Natalia Arbelaez, Anchaykuq, 2023, red clay, majolica, 10 x 4 x 9 inches, courtesy of the artist.
Natalia Arbelaez, La Malinche, 2023, red clay, majolica, gold luster, 34 x 16 x 12 inches, courtesy of the artist.
Natalia Arbelaez, Isabella I de Castile, 2023, red clay, majolica, gold luster, 18 x 9 x 7 inches, courtesy of the artist.
Natalia Arbelaez’s Studio, 2024, courtesy of the artist.
Natalia Arbelaez Portrait, 2024, courtesy of the artist.