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Marela Zacarías: the Mexican Muralist of the Twenty-First Century

Marela Zacarías working on a mural for her exhibition at MadArt Seattle, Inside Out.

Lifted: New Works by Marela Zacarías (Mexico/US)

SAPAR Contemporary

December 8, 2020 through January 11, 2021

By ISABEL JOY GILMOUR, December 2020

Using wooden frames and wire mesh, the Mexican artist Marela Zacarías’s sculptural murals forge a new path in contemporary art practice. She draws upon Mexican cultural traditions, drawing upon the coloration and patterning of indigenous Mexican materials, and yet defies the established iconography of canonical Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros whose works were commissioned by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. In this way, Zacarías continues to employ the tactics and traditions of European and American art while simultaneously introducing a new manner of representing Mexican culture. 

Zacarías has had a prolific career since she began her artistic practice. With a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College and a Masters of Fine Arts from Hunter College, she operates with a rich understanding of European and American art practice, and translates the Modernist values of abstraction into the Mexican artistic tradition. She has previously held solo exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum, Sapar Contemporary, Praxis Gallery, the National Arts Club, and Art at Viacom in New York; at Wasserman Projects, Detroit, the Brattleboro Museum, Vermont and Galería Alterna in Mexico City. she has also been commissioned to create site-specific installations around the world, with works currently on display at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, CA, and the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey, Mexico, among others. Her murals can be found in Washington, D.C., Virginia, Connecticut, Ohio, Mexico, and Guatemala.

Marela Zacarías, The Spiral, FB AIR Commission, wire screen, wood, plaster, acrylic paint (2018).

Zacarías’s murals emerge off of SAPAR Contemporary’s gallery walls in her current exhibition, Lifted, on view until January 10th. Her artistic process is fascinating; working with a team of artists, Zacarías creates wooden frames upon which window screen and layers of a sanded joint compound are affixed. Rippling, her murals appear like indigenous textiles and at the same time the Baroque drapery found in the sculpture of Bernini. And like the happenings of Allan Kaprow, her works challenge the traditional boundaries between pictorial and real space. Her murals are animated, living organisms that mingle with gallery-goers.

Mexican murals in the American cultural landscape are most commonly affiliated with artists like Diego Rivera, whose expansive murals in the United States communicated the socialist ethos of Mexico in the 1930s. His murals were critical of class inequality and the subjugation of indigenous Meso-Americans by Spanish conquistadors; the lasting impacts and cruelty of colonization are omnipresent in his murals. Despite his focus on his Mexican heritage, Rivera was also commissioned to create public murals as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s socialist welfare programs in the United States, designed to stimulate domestic economic growth during the Great Depression. Rivera’s Works Progress Administration murals are notable for this very reason, as he celebrated the technological advancement that made cities like Detroit global manufacturing centers while also rooting such advancements in a mythologized interpretation of indigenous Mexican cultures like the Aztecs.

Marela Zacarías’s Temple of the Feathered Serpent as seen in MadArt Seattle’s Inside Out.

Rivera’s large-scale murals reflect the machismo spirit of Mexican culture. His works celebrate the physical capacity of men through literal representations of burly factory workers and through the sheer scale of his murals, which command the viewer’s attention. Enveloped in the accomplishments of men, the viewer can witness Rivera’s relative disinterest in the ways women, too, contribute to the culture and survival of Mexico, save for his murals that depict women primarily as agricultural workers. While women are relegated to the natural realm, destined to cultivate the earth as they have for millennia, Rivera finds beauty in technological advancement and the fraught notion of progress. Reaffirming traditional gender roles, Rivera’s works consistently foreground men and their accomplishments.

Zacarías’s murals challenge this celebration of men as she focuses on the weaving traditions of indigenous Meso-American women. Her mother, an anthropologist, brought her along on fieldwork expeditions and introduced her to the rich tradition of handmade textiles. For this reason, Zacarías’s works affirm the beauty of indigenous culture that Rivera similarly champions but instead foregrounds the contributions of women to the Mexican cultural landscape.

Marela Zacarías, Espalda de tierra, wood, window screen, plaster, joint compound, polymer and acrylic paint (2020).

Her recent exhibition at MadArt Seattle, Inside Out, claims the machismo of Mexican male artists for herself, as she inserts into the art historical canon a woman’s interpretation of Mexican murals created by great Mexican muralists of the twentieth century. Recreating the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in Xochicalo, Mexico, Zacarías’s site-specific installation represents the indigenous spiritual traditions of Meso-America. She seems to create her own mythology as Rivera does, focusing not on the Spanish introduction of Catholicism to the region but the native peoples’ own understanding of the universe and existence. Rather than placing an idol in the center of the wooden pyramidal structure, Zacarías hangs one of her own murals, suggesting that the viewer worship an abstract spiritual concept rather than a recognizable divinity. The Modernist zeitgeist of the twentieth century, however, is still expressed through abstraction. 

Her intimate works in Lifted reflect a shift in focus to the small-scale production of indigenous textiles and ceramics by craftswomen. As Zacarías works between Mexico City and Brooklyn, she regularly ventures into relatively rural locales to learn from indigenous modes of production and brings this knowledge into her practice. These intimate portraits of indigenous life are stunning in their vibrant coloration and patterning, and once more interpret European and American Modernism through the lens of her Mexican heritage. WM


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