By J. SCOTT ORR, August 2023
There’s a piece in the latest show by Colombian-American sculptor Natalia Arbelaez that kind of sums up the artist’s halting, four-decades-long drive toward reclamation of her ancestral identity and reconciliation with her cultural heritage. In the piece, called Noche Cosmica en Ella (Cosmic Night of It), a female figure cast in red clay is removing her outer skin to reveal a shimmering cosmos in glaze and gold luster. That this transmogrification is incomplete signals a continuation of the artist's essential, public journey as well as her continued fealty to her South American ancestry.
Open now at Mindy Solomon Gallery on the outskirts of Miami’s Wynwood art district, Arbelaez’s show is aptly titled La Mujer, La Warmi, y La Lady, “The Woman” is Spanish, the indigenous Latin American language Quechua, and English. The sculptures that make up the installation speak of subjugation, conquest, degradation and want. At the same time, though, they confirm a robust and immortal Latin American spirit that inhabits the conspicuous vein of red clay that runs through the work.
It has not been an easy path for the Brewster, NY, based sculptor, who seems to finally be coming of age as both an artist and a woman. Arbelaez’s work is inseparable from her personal story of yearning and uncertainty and her ongoing search for a sense of belonging in her familial roots in Colombia and in the region’s rich history.
Born in 1983 in Miami, Arbelaez moved back to Colombia at the age of two-months until and stayed until she was 4-years-old. Much of her early South Americaness, including her facility with the Spanish language, was sacrificed to assimilation pressure during the 1980s when she and her mom lived in Bristol, Conn. It wasn’t until she moved back to Miami at age 10 that she began trying to reclaim her culture and heritage in earnest.
“I started to reclaim the language and culture almost immediately when we moved back to Miami. For the first time I was around other children of immigrants and that really enhanced my interest in reclaiming my heritage,” she told Whitehot Magazine in an interview. Soon, Arbelaez began traveling to her ancestral home in Medellín, Colombia, each summer where she learned more and more about the region’s history, and about herself.
Arbelaez continued seeking her South American roots as honed her art practice, gaining fine arts degrees from Florida International University and The Ohio State University, a Rittenberg Fellowship at Clay Art Center in Port Chester, New York and an Artaxis Fellowship and residency to Watershed in Newcastle, Maine.
“I was not feeling valued for so long,” she said. “I felt that I had to claim the authority and the valuation to express myself and to tell these stories. I decided I’m going to create tangible objects that will tell these stories because American history is not inclusive of stories like mine,” she said.
“The work that I’m doing is telling stories. But I’m also just figuring out that I am a researcher,” she said, noting that her work has expanded beyond her personal quest for identity to focus on broader historical questions: hence her desire to focus her research, and her art practice, on the pre-Columbian era.
It was during a 2018-19 residency at the Ceramics Program at Harvard University that Arbelaez gained new insights into pre-Columbian art via the affiliated Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology which gave her access to vast troves of research on the topic and actual works from the period. Soon after, she found what is today her signature style.
“I switched to red clay, referencing pre-Columbian history and to reference the South American land as a symbol for indigenous people and my own ancestry,” she said. Add to that a bit of the Renaissance in the majolica glaze she uses and a dose of American comic books and cartoons, Zapp Comics and Ren & Stimpy cartoons are favorites, and you have a serviceable approximation of Arbelaez’s latter day artistic style.
One perfect example of this is PataSola, a 2023 piece that is a clear standout of the lot on display at Mindy Solomon. PataSola, or "single leg," is a female temptress of South American legend who lures male hunters or loggers to their doom in the middle of the jungle.
In Arbelaez’s version, PataSola kills to combat men’s assault on nature in the destruction of jungle forest. Her piece depicts PataSola perched atop the corpse of a man, while hugging a small animal to her breast and supporting three generations of young ones on her back. The whole piece rests on a giant head, with nose, teeth and eyes made of golden luster, signifying the enduring South American culture and its natural resources.
Then there are the two pieces depicting the 15th Century Spanish Queens Isabella and her daughter Juana, two women who schemed, or at least remained supine, as they and their country benefited mightily from the wealth plundered from the Americas. Both also took active roles in championing draconian Catholic evangelism in the New World.
Isabella I de Castile is a 2023 work in red clay, majolica, and gold luster that depicts the monarch wearing red clay vestments, a gold crown and medallion and clutching a golden rosary in her right hand. But it is her face that is both arresting and distracting: Isabella is looking toward the heavens, aghast, perhaps seeking recognition from on high of her struggles on behalf of the Catholic Church. Or is her anguished look one of guilt?
Juana la Loca, is of the same vintage and method, and depicts Juana in grief-stricken embrace of the dead body of her husband Philip. Like the depiction of her mother Isabella, Juana wears vestments rendered in red clay, her face and arms glazed. Her expression is a mix of grief and madness, conditions the one-time queen was said to have experienced regularly over the course of her life.
“These are two women who accumulated great wealth through the Spanish conquests of the Americas and these wars that they continued. Isabella thought she was a martyr fighting to spread the influence of the Catholic Church. Juana was crazy, when Philip died she didn’t allow them to take his body away for a week,” Arbelaez said.
Another stand out piece is La Virgin de Tierra, a depiction of the Virgin Mary who offers her breast to a young Jesus. This one too takes place atop a head with gold touches representing South America. The piece nods to the similarities between the Virgin Mary and the Aztec deity Tonantzin, considered the Mother of God. So, like all the pieces, it melds comment on western influences with themes from South American history.
“The stories of La Mujer, La Warmi, y La Lady are a compilation of folkloric histories that I have researched from my ancestry and culture. These are stories from the good, the bad, and the ugly. Stories that have been white-washed and syncretized that are finally getting the recognition that they deserve,” Arbelaez said.
La Mujer, La Warmi, y La Lady runs through Sept. 9 at Mindy Solomon Gallery, 848 NW 22 St, Miami. Other current or recent venues showing Arbelaez’s work include Funk Your Too at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York; the 2023 Expo Chicago; Disruption, A Space Gallery, Toronto; Richard and Carole Cocks Museum, Miami University of Ohio; and Collective Inception, HAGD Gallery, Aalborg, Denmark. WM