Omar Lopez Chahoud in conversation with
Marela Zacarias (Mexico/US)
I first stepped into Marela’s studio in 2010 when she was still a student at Hunter College. At this point she was already transitioning from social art practice and community-based mural painting and developing a sculptural abstract practice. I maintained an interest in her practice since then and it is a pleasure to reconnect with Marela for the exhibition “A Street of Many Corners” at Sapar Contemporary.
Marela's work is informed by a constant investigation and research of historical moments that are revisited and re-contextualized to address current social and political issues.The history of abstraction is successfully integrated in her sculptures and murals to provide a new interpretation of symbols and geometric forms that are in many cases connected to Pre-Hispanic forms and patterns in Middle Eastern textiles, both intrinsic to her personal history. The subjective takes over the objective, and we start to see a set of codes and meanings that overlap to facilitate a visual structure providing a platform for a contemporary discourse. -- Omar Lopez Chahoud
Omar Lopez Chahoud: I wanted to start our conversation talking about your exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 2013, and how that particular experience opened up a good number of new possibilities in your work. What happened when you were doing that show that triggered this whole new investigation, this new body of work?
Marela Zacarias: It all came about when Paul Ramírez-Jonas nominated me to have a studio visit from Eugenie Tsai as part of the Raw/Cooked Series. She came to see my thesis show at Hunter College and invited me to have a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum, reacting to some of the work that was being shown there at the time. She gave me a tour of the museum, and immediately I was drawn by the Williamsburg murals. I'm always looking for stories of resilience in art and these murals were created at a time when most artwork was figurative and more concerned with social realism, and so they were going against the current; people didn't understand abstract art, or didn't like it very much at that time. So these artists––Albert Swinden, Ilya Bolotowsky, Paul Kelpe, Balcomb Greene––even though they were unpopular, created these murals with the idea that workers, at the end of the day, would go to the basement of the Williamsburg Houses and relax by looking at this abstract art. But after the murals were painted, years passed, and they were painted over, and at some point, they disappeared. It wasn’t until the 1980s that a researcher at Yale named Nancy Troy tracked them down, and found them, and got together the funding to uncover them, repair them and bring them to the Brooklyn Museum, on kind of a permanent loan. So, when I saw these murals I was very interested, one, in that in the 1930s the WPA was actually supporting artists to paint murals during the Depression and acknowledging that artists need to be supported and need to work, just like anybody else, but also how the works themselves had survived. So that was the initial idea. But I knew about Albers and Mondrian––I knew already something about the history of abstract art but this was the first time I was exposed directly to the American Abstract Artists, and really had to adopt a different perspective to understand what was happening and what they were working for at the time. These pioneers, Alice Trumbull and Ilya Bolotowsky and all of them were working to try and change the way people looked at abstraction, and that opened up a flood in American art. At the same time I was working with Emily Mason, who has had a huge influence on my life as a mentor and a friend, who had asked me to organize her mother's archives.
OLC: I understand that you were dealing with abstraction and you started out as a muralist, working very closely with certain communities. Were you already interested in developing a more abstract body of work before you encountered the murals at the Brooklyn Museum?
MZ: I painted murals until 2009, and that's when I moved to New York, and started developing these sculptures. At the time I was looking more at abstraction in textile and in pre-Columbian architecture and so by 2013 I had already been working on this for four years, developing a new, abstract language. I had done research on Albers and from years before I was studying El Lissitzky and all these other people from the Bauhaus, but I didn't know specifically about the American Artists and their story in New York. And I had started working with Emily before the show, way before the show at the Brooklyn Museum.
OLC: But you had no idea her mom...
MZ: …was close friends––I hadn’t put it all together and I didn’t know–
OLC: ...until you had visited the museum, and you started researching what you saw there.
MZ: Right. I actually chose these murals, and I went to see Emily, and I was like, "Emily, I'm doing this project,” and she was like, "How wonderful, they're my mother's best friends!" And then, a couple days later, I was going through some of Alice's letters, and I found letters from Ilya Bolotowsky and Josef Albers, and so all of it kind of happened at once, it kind of all came together. The story of the AAA appeared in my life from both sides.
OLC: Were you able to go to the original site of these murals and investigate? I believe you mentioned they were called the Williamsburg Houses.
MZ: Yes, I did. The houses, which were built by an architect named William Lesclave specifically for workers, are still there in Williamsburg; people still live there. Each piece I did for the Brooklyn Museum, the title relates to the addresses of one of these buildings, so one is on Bushwick, one is on Manhattan Avenue, one is on Graham, and the other is on Humboldt.
OLC: But it is argued that people like Josef Albers, the abstract painters you're referring to, even though they weren't fashionable at the time, they were still socially committed to the idea of facilitating spaces for people to be able to engage and relax and have a moment of rest, to have peaceful moments. So there was a social conscience in the process of making abstraction, and in the case of Josef Albers, that was connected to pre-Hispanic pictures, textiles, ceramics. People tend to forget that pre-Hispanic art was a form of writing, of true symbols, that there was meaning behind every single form that appears in pre-Hispanic art, and it was very much connected to that particular society. So what you’re doing now is very interesting, even though it's abstract, because this particular abstraction is not just coming from nowhere. It has a very specific connection to society and to the structure of the cultures you’re investigating. You're going back and forth between a very deep process of research and practice to arrive at an abstract language that talks about many things at once.
MZ: In 2014 I made a large-scale work at the American consulate in Monterrey, Mexico, incorporating patterns based on Mayan textiles and stories. The Mayans, as you say, every single part of their textile has a meaning, and it tells you something about their belief system, their place in the universe and in nature, it tells you a story about their families, their origins, who they are, and it's all through an abstract language that is able to survive through generations and colonization and the passing of time and history. I’ve done research on different Native American tribes in the US, and textiles around the Mediterranean Sea, and I feel like for me it's about trying to create a language I can use to retell a narrative, to tell stories that are hidden or marginalized or forgotten. And I think it's also a reflection of my own story, you know, I grew up in Mexico but I'm here in the United States, but I’m partly Lebanese––I’m part of a lot of different cultures––and so it would only make sense that the language I'm building is a kind of conglomerate of many other languages, sort of this big language that is about today.
OLC: When you've referred to this group of Abstract artists, specifically I will say to America, to New York, I'm sure at the time there was a huge need to research and to try to understand other cultures. I mean in the case of Josef Albers it's very clear, but I'm sure that they were aware of this older, not only Native American, in general, how they created such a sophisticated language through art! And additionally your interest in showing how their work must have been informed by non-Western traditions in art, and how that gets revisited and reinterpreted to serve a particular moment in time, this is one of the things that you bring with you when you embark on a new work: all this information that you've researched and gathered, as well as serious consideration of the site, the community, where the project is going to be. You're even sensitive to the colors, to the history of the place, to where you are actually executing the work. All of that informs the works themselves, so in some ways I feel that you are very emotionally in touch with what’s happening now, with this contemporary moment, but at the same time, you have mastered a language that is totally informed by the history of a place, and by how other people have reinterpreted other times.
MZ: I think that in order to move into the future, we have to integrate our past, and I feel like part of what I try to do is to transform history into something new. Something that I've learned from the mural artists of the 30s is the desire to have a positive outcome, and I feel like that definitely reflects in the work. Are we building a better future that includes everyone, that takes us forward? And I think that that happens when you start really reintegrating the stories that haven't been heard, and doing it through a new language. I felt like when I was painting murals, there was a point where I couldn't move forward in terms of telling the story, and having more people listen to what I wanted to say, and I feel like it's because I needed to create this new, more inclusive language to retell this story. We’re at that time when we have to build a new narrative so that we can move forward together and not separated, and not leave women behind, and not leave people of color behind, and really include everyone in the conversation.
OLC: There are two things I would like you to tell me a little bit more about. One is the Tim Robbins film, Cradle Will Rock, which you're using as a reference in your work. What really strikes me is that the issues of censorship in the film, which takes place during the 1930s, are very similar to what we’re experiencing in 2018, and that by including this reference you highlight the sense we have sometimes that history has come full circle, and you remind us that things from our past can actually turn around and become issues again. You're addressing very serious social and political issues through your work. Is this something that you’re very aware of, and how did you decide to work with this particular film as a point of reference?
MZ: I feel like the meeting of this movie and the play and the issues they refer to, in conversation with the painting covering it, opens a lot of questions, and, you know, I don't want to say one thing or the other, but it does put us back into a moment of great tension between socially political artwork and censorship, when abstract work faced serious criticism from people saying that it wasn’t concerned with the working class’s problems, that it was a diversion from politically committed, socially realist work. Some of the abstract artists were very apolitical, and some of them were very political. There were some that were definitely looking at Native American art, and forming relationships with that history. But the murals were actually made for the workers, in a very specific moment of idealism about art giving a moment of rest to the workers, so I feel like this show opens these kinds of questions about art and politics. While the integration of the film represents a shift, it’s still an organic shift, I’m still dealing with color and paint and material. The works are still very craft-oriented, there's a lot of time that goes into making them, but at the same time there's a story behind them, and I think this piece shows as well who I am in some way, my own story.
But hopefully it also raises questions of what we can learn from studying history, especially histories that have been excluded from the mainstream, and what the best route is for us as artists to take when our government is again trying to silence journalists and strip citizens of rights that so many people have fought and sacrificed [for] during our country’s history to achieve.
OLC: That's why for me as the curator of this show, it's important to bring a little bit more information into the exhibition, just enough so people don't misread the work. Because there are a lot of layers to the final object. I mean, yes, you do produce a beautiful object at the end, but it's not just about that beautiful object, it's about all of the things that inform that work. And I disagree with people [who] think that abstraction is not sociopolitical. Many artists [who] work with pure abstractions are addressing very pressing issues, be they post-colonial issues or class ones or whatever they may be. Using an abstract language to reflect, that at the end awakes a particular emotion in people… even color can be political!
But besides that, the fact that you are using an artist as a point of reference, you're using a painting by Alice Trumbull Mason, a woman artist, simply because she was a woman, that's a political act. You're bringing a painting, an abstract painting, a highly sophisticated work from 1954 into the exhibition, and you're presenting that work in conversation with a new mural of your own, along with a whole set of information based on your research, and the book that you're working on, on Alice's work––your connection to her daughter, who is also an artist, and your access to her mother’s archives, the fact that you're bringing that into your own exhibition is extremely important, because you're also talking about issues of exclusion. I mean if you go to the Metropolitan Museum, what’s exhibited there is mostly abstract male painters, but that's not necessarily the entire story. I mean, this woman was a major figure, not only highly respected by her colleagues, but also clearly influential to this entire group of artists, and you're taking the position of saying, "I'm bringing attention to her work, through reinterpreting her work, I’m conversing with her as a contemporary artist.” I don't think the fight is over yet, I mean I believe things are getting better, but women artists are still subject to this process of exclusion [that] you are bringing into the conversation by integrating Alice’s work and life into your own exhibition. I think this is a collaboration between two artists; you're collaborating with her. She's still alive.
MZ: I feel like I've been studying under her for a long time because I've been reading what she writes and looking closely at her works, and I think it's had a huge impact on me. She's an amazing artist, and I can't wait for other people to get to know her work and her story.
OLC: Also I think it is extremely interesting that you have this personal connection through her daughter Emily, who’s been a mentor to you, somebody you work closely with, because when you started relating to Emily, you weren’t aware aware of the connection... or were you?
MZ: No, I wasn't. It was Sandy Wurmfeld, my color theory professor at Hunter, who introduced me to Josef Albers in real detail, and together we went to the Albers Foundation in Connecticut. He was also the person who suggested that I work with Emily. She and I immediately became really close. I was her teaching assistant first, and then she asked me to come work for her. Emily is a master in color and abstract expressionism. She has very different work from her mother, wonderful paintings, and she’s a master in color.
OLC: To me your work talks about a lot of things, which is why I said yes to this show, which I normally wouldn’t for a one-person show, simply because I don't know if curation means selecting some works from a studio and putting them on a wall. I think curation is about a learning process, and when I came to your studio, I thought, "Yes, this to me is an artist who is curating her own work, who is researching, who is also a historian, who is also an artist making objects that are charged by all of this." If I had seen your work by itself, a piece here or there, I don’t think I would have responded the same way, but seeing many works, and seeing how you work, and how it all integrates from many sources, is very exciting for a curator. I feel very lucky that I had a chance to meet you when you were a student at Hunter, and I was very much interested in these interactive works that you were doing that were more sculptural, more about the space, more installation-based. What year did I meet you, what year was that, 2011?
MZ: We met in 2011, and then you came back and saw my thesis show.
OLC: I did come to your thesis show, but to see what has happened since then, it's amazing to see how the work has really shifted and grown; it's really charged. I'm very lucky to come back now and be able to be part of this particular show.
MZ: I feel the same way. It's very exciting, I'm so excited, I'm so glad that it's coming together. I think there's a lot of interesting points, and that's why I like the title, "A Street of Many Corners". I feel like there are so many different things that are meeting in it, and you can take many different routes to get there.
OLC: The fact that this is the title of the painting of Alice’s from 1954, I think it's great. In our last conversation, before I knew that she was connected to Mondrian, I brought him up in the conversation, and even though her work is completely different to Mondrian, I think about the urban environment, you know, planned structure, architecture, convergence, all of that, the urban element, the feeling, is there in her work.
MZ: She really admired him and they were friends. She helped him to become part of the American Abstract Artists, and he gave a talk there that Alice organized, and Emily remembers meeting Mondrian. She says that's the only time that her mom told her that she had to be quiet and not run around. He's the only person that Alice would say that about, because her kids had as much of a presence in that group as anyone else, but when Mondrian came, she told Emily, "You have to be quiet, you have to behave."