5 Latinx Artists Using Abstraction to Address Precolonial Histories

In her article “Witnessing the In-visibility of Inca Architecture in Colonial Peru” (2007), Stella Nair describes how 16th-century Spanish colonists razed Incan art and architecture, replacing Indigenous culture with their own. Across the Americas and the Caribbean, the pattern persisted: Europeans destroyed artifacts of native creativity as they asserted their dominance over the people themselves. Nair writes about how contemporary Latinx artists are reclaiming their aesthetic past by embracing fragmentation and the partial histories they’ve received. The open-ended nature of abstraction appeals to many of them.

These painters, sculptors, photographers, and weavers are slowly reviving Indigenous forms of knowledge as they connect to their roots. Last year, Elizabeth Ferrer curated the revelatory exhibition “Latinx Abstract” at BRIC with the contemporary Latinx artists Candida Alvarez, Karlos Cárcamo, Maria Chávez, Alejandro Guzmán, Glendalys Medina, Freddy Rodríguez, Fanny Sanín, Mary Valverde, Vargas-Suarez Universal, and Sarah Zapata. The show featured paintings and sculptures that were outstanding in their own right—and reinvigorated the American canon of abstraction that has, for too long, been dominated by white Euro-American male artists.

Stand, 2020-2021
Candida Alvarez

Gavlak

Silkscreen No. 1, 2012
Fanny Sanin

Leon Tovar Gallery

In 2018, Marcela Guerrero curated “Pacha, Llaqta, Wasichay: Indigenous Space, Modern Architecture, New Art” at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The exhibition suggested that European colonial culture did not destroy Indigenous culture at all—that precolonial forms live on as vibrantly as ever, through the work of contemporary Latinx artists such as William Cordova, Livia Corona Benjamin, Jorge González, Guadalupe Maravilla, Claudia Peña Salinas, Clarissa Tossin, and Ronny Quevedo. A special interest in precolonial architecture pervaded the show, and the focus on “Latinx” artists (a descriptor that eliminates markers of gender) also embraced the complex nature of identity for those who feel fragmented by a colonial past.

Contemporary Latinx abstraction doesn’t just look towards repairing the past, though: It also helps envision Indigenous futures. Using oral histories and research as starting points, artists use shards of the past to reconfigure their cultures for future generations.

Artsy spoke with five contemporary Latinx artists working in abstraction—Sarah Zapata, Ronny Quevedo, Lisa Alvarado, Tanya Aguiñiga, and Blanka Amezkua—to understand how they use abstraction to keep precolonial indigeneity across the Americas and Caribbean alive.

Tanya Aguiñiga

B. 1978, San Diego. Lives and works in Los Angeles.

Tanya Aguiñiga’s impressive rope and textile-based installations view craft as a form of easily accessible, embodied knowledge. The artist/activist invites members of marginalized groups—women of Mesoamerican heritage in particular—to weave with her “off-loom.” In 2016, she founded the AMBOS (Art Made Between Opposite Sides) collaborative, for femme artists to make art documenting their relationship with the border.

Aguiñiga’s own work features distinctive interlocking knots of rope, hair, wool, terracotta clay, and other materials. Altogether, they form exquisite abstractions that resemble grids overlaid with organic plant or fungal life.

Aguiñiga’s practice was informed by her own childhood experience of crossing the border to attend K-12 schools in the United States; growing up, her family lived a few blocks from the border wall in Tijuana, Mexico. The artist draws craft-based practices from the region around her hometown, honoring the land politics and immigration issues that were so central to her youth.

Cromática, 2022
Tanya Aguiñiga

Volume Gallery

Axolotl Cosmico, 2022
Tanya Aguiñiga

Volume Gallery

Mezclilla Neón, 2022
Tanya Aguiñiga

Volume Gallery

Aguiñiga first encountered abstraction when, at age 19, she applied for a job at an art museum—the first time, too, that she’d ever entered that kind of institution. “I was hired two hours later,” she remembered, “and upon entering the museum’s galleries, I became obsessed with Josef Albers and Robert Irwin. Albers’s Homage to the Square: On Dry Ground (1963) inspired me to pursue the study of art.”

The grids and keen color studies of Josef and Anni Albers continue to undergird Aguiñiga’s practice. The artist merges these elements with rope and interlocking weaving, effectively uniting Indigenous culture with modernist abstraction. “I think abstraction is a universal language rooted in emotional alchemy,” she said. “I think that many of us are using abstraction as a way to reshape what is considered art, who art is for, and what art can do. As Latinx artists in the U.S., abstraction can act as a mirror for our often liminal experiences.”

Aguiñiga’s recent sculpture Matriarchal Womb (2022) features interlocking knots of hair and wool that form a womblike protuberance. Rendered in neutral tones of taupe, beige, copper, and brown, the sculpture is equally inviting and warm as it is alien in its textures and composition. The knots suggest a form of braiding weighed down by its materials, while the shape beckons individuals to come closer. Tensions between strangeness and familiarity extend across her practice, which she connects back to the cross-border experience.

“I think that as a colonized people living within a majority white culture on stolen land, most of us Chicanx, Latinx, Mexican American folx in the U.S. look to Mesoamerican culture and history as a way to ground ourselves on this continent and find a sense of belonging in the face of systemic oppression,” the artist said. “Reconnecting to traditional ways of working with community, land, materials, form, and technique have helped me work through traumas and provided healing opportunities for collaborators as well. Objects our ancestors made still have lessons within them.”

Ronny Quevedo

B. 1981, Guayaquil, Ecuador. Lives and works in New York.

Ronny Quevedo transforms personal memory and celestial imagery into abstract, geometric sculptures. Through his practice, he aims to repair the harms of historical forced migration of Latinx cultures across the Americas and Caribbean—his own family was forced to move from Ecuador to New York. His palette of gold, deep blues, and blacks creates an ethereal sensibility that suggests ideas of universal, personal, and cultural belonging.

Inspired by his mother’s practice as a seamstress, Quevedo integrates sewing-related materials such as muslin and patterns into his work. “I also include linoleum tiles, copper, gold, and milk crates to represent a specific environment or an upbringing, as a type of imagined viewer or community that I have in mind,” the artist said. “So my process is often directed and influenced by those materials and the audience I want to engage with.”

The muslin scraps serve as a metaphor for an Andean culture that’s been shredded and discarded. One sculpture, el guarda meta de los cosmos (from the abyss) (2022), from his latest solo exhibition “entre aquí y allá” at Alexander Gray Associates in New York, on view through October 15th, is emblematic of his practice. The sparse sculpture resembles a minimal soccer field with two opposing sides. The piece uses copper tubing to evoke both exploitative labor mining in South America and the goal posts of soccer games his father played when he was young.

Quevedo first interacted with abstraction via precolonial South American culture. The Wari Feathered Panel (600–900) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art enchanted him as a teenager. He recalled its simple design with yellow and blue tapestries made of bird feathers. “That, for me, was always really striking because it was my first encounter of representing geography and place through an abstract form,” he said.

The Cubist paintings and sculptures of Uraguyan modern artist Joaquín Torres-García also left a mark on Quevedo’s practice. “There is a tussle between the two—between defined imagery and undefined imagery. He is also someone looking at mapping as a site of play and challenge,” Quevedo said. Torres-García’s practice has helped the artist think through his personal history and the larger colonial past, fusing personal iconography with that of precolonial indigenous cultures.

Abstraction allows Quevedo to explore Andean culture without trying to resolve its fragments. The artist honors his personal experiences along the way. He believes that abstraction offers a forum “for discussing liminal spaces, temporality, and opacity. This multiplicity posits a redefinition of abstract work and what geographies and histories get included in that reimagining.”

Lisa Alvarado

B. 1982, San Antonio, Texas. Lives and works in Chicago.

Lisa Alvarado’s colorful, free-hanging abstract paintings evoke both modernist canvases and handmade Tibetan and Mesoamerican textiles. Her piece Vibratory Cartography: Nepantla (2021–22), recently featured in this year’s Whitney Biennial, uses the Nahuatl term for “in between” to indicate the convergence of styles that define her work. As a free-hanging installation, the piece resembles a stage backdrop and features an abstract image that vaguely resembles a map of a mountainous region. Alvarado makes her abstractions pop with her rich backgrounds of royal blue, crimsons, and purples.

Alvarado began developing her now-signature style around 2010, bridging her painting and music practices with her perspective as a Mexican American artist. She now weaves photography, sand, and sound installation into her exhibitions. “As a child growing up in San Antonio, Texas, I absorbed mural paintings and textiles before I had the opportunity to visit art museums,” she said. “I later found that these visual traditions, as well as other art forms that relate to my culture, are often categorized within art institutions as ‘artifacts’ or ‘folk art’ rather than being recognized as fine art.”

Rejecting the conditions of the Western Euro-American painting canon, Alvarado began making work about the in-between place of Mestizjae, “the 500 years of mixtures within the Americas (in the regions that Spain and Portugal colonized).” She intertwined her love of abstraction with cultural history and life experiences. “My works communicate in an abstract language of vibration that connects to the rhythms of the body, like the heartbeat and breath,” she said.

Although she had a natural talent for painting realism, Alvarado realized over time that life’s smallest, ineffable feelings and details are more impressionable to audiences than fully realized figures. Alvarado cited diverse influences: “Chelo González Amézcua, Moki Cherry, Huichol yarn paintings, Aymara weavings, Gutai, Milford Graves, Pacita Abad, Howardena Pindell, [and] Al Loving.” She advocates for abstraction because, she said, it is “a powerful and poetic transmitter of the experience of multiplicity. Abstraction can build open forms for perspectives that exist within invisibility.”

Sarah Zapata

B. 1988, Corpus Christi, Texas. Lives and works in New York.

Rug 1, 2019
Sarah Zapata

Crisis Galeria

Drawing inspiration from her Peruvian ancestry, Sarah Zapata makes vibrant and arresting abstract textiles that document daily life. Her work is informed by the Paracas and Nazca cultures in Peru, which produced textiles for every stage of life, then buried the dead in their accumulated textiles.

“How could something be for the body and about the body that is not a garment?” Zapata said. That question is at the center of her work, which honors these traditions with abstract references. Like Guadalupe Maravilla and Cecilia Vicuña, whom Zapata cites as models for her work, the artist weaves communal care and accountability into her textiles.

In times of mourning or social protest (2 gargoyles), 2021
Sarah Zapata

Ochi Projects

Character of Color Phenomena (Vessel), 2017
Sarah Zapata

Ochi Projects

Zapata’s queer identity and her experience as a first-generation American living in a Christian household are integral to her practice. Using a large loom, she weaves together Peruvian textiles that honor her fragmented and mixed heritage. She finds liberation in her position as a first-generation American in the 21st century: She need not speak for any community as a whole, but may instead reference her heritage, the fractured nature of her upbringing, and postcolonial American culture at large.

Zapata—whose latest solo exhibition, “Existing with the Moon Under our Feet,” opens at Deli Gallery on October 6th—specifically draws inspiration from precolonial Peru. She noted how textiles of that era rejected the singularity of the hero. Often woven by groups of women, these pieces stitched together mundane life stories.

“Rather than being diminutive, [my work] takes up space,” Zapata said, noting how institutions have historically undermined women’s textile work. “Lately, I’ve been thinking about architecture and how it shapes homogenization and how we think about ourselves. I’m always thinking about these invisible histories of [our] ancestors and how we can honor them and move forward with those ideas.” She makes work at a grand scale, boldly taking space for herself and redefining the architecture in which she places it.

Zapata’s first brush with abstraction occurred when, as a child, she saw Dorothea Tanning’s large-scale sculpture Pincushion to Serve as Fetish (1979) at the Dallas Museum of Art. She loved how the fabric piece exuded softness and sensuality, challenging the building’s rigid concrete walls. In her own practice, Zapata considers the assortment of handmade dolls from Peru and Mexico that occupied her childhood home. She viewed these fabric objects as “figurative, open-ended, and yet deeply precious.”

She’s preserved this preciousness in her abstraction. “There’s this misconception that abstraction is easy but it is not. There’s this delicate balance [between] this beautiful work that is evocative and yet to be sensitive [for others],” she concluded.

Blanka Amezkua

B. 1971, Mexico City. Lives and works in New York.

Blanka Amezkua’s bright, abstract tissue-paper works take inspiration from her identity as a Mexico-born, Latinx American immigrant living in New York City. Amezkua has a formal background in painting, with a degree from Fresno State University. Over the past decade, her work has foregrounded elements of folk art, botany, and popular culture. She cites her encounters at Fresno State with abstract artists Mary Maughelli and Ara Dolarian as key influences on her practice. Amezkua’s theoretical collaboration with conceptual abstract artist Charles Gaines pushed her to integrate sociopolitical commentary in her work via abstraction.

“My creative work is driven by my profound interest in traditional techniques and personal, cultural concerns,” Amezkua said. Her current project takes as a starting point the research and illustrations from Codex de la Cruz-Badiano (1552), the first medical book created in the Americas to honor Indigenous forms of healing. Produced by colonialists, the volume features the healing ideas of the 16th-century Nahua knowledge keepers. The text is both an emblem of knowledge theft and an instruction manual for wellness. Today, Latinx people can use the centuries-old document to become reacquainted with their past.

Amezkua encountered the Codex de la Cruz-Badiano at the Hispanic Society in 2021, after a tough year battling long COVID-19. The book exposed her to herbal remedies that helped alleviate her own symptoms. Since then, Amezkua has been reillustrating the book. Her latest drawings and tissue-paper abstractions feature plants from the book. They resemble papel picado: colorful, perforated paper decorations that derive from Mexican craft practices.

By creating her own papel picado, Amezkua reminds us of the flora of the past, now extinct due to colonial mining. The work reintroduces us to forgotten knowledge and nature of the Americas. Amezkua is helping Mesoamerican culture survive as she shares it with others. “I am currently unearthing new ways to deepen this fascinating work,” she said.

Amezkua cites Carmen Herrera, Beatriz Milhazes, and Xenobia Bailey as artists who inspired her work. She’s also excited by the new generation of artists keeping their Indigenous heritage alive through abstraction. She concluded, “I believe that we are simply revealing what has always been there: ancestral knowledge and forms. And we are using new technologies and contemporary approaches to represent these ideas.”

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