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Dual nationality, according to the US State Department means “a person is a national of two countries, having legal rights and obligations in connection with both countries.” Pretty straight forward. The emotional obligations and connections dual nationals have with these two nations, however, may be harder to pin down. And that’s exactly what artist Natalia Arbelaez set out to do. And we were there to listen.
Born and raised in Miami, Florida to Colombian parents, Arbelaez told us recently at a talk she gave at Mindy Solomon Gallery, part of her exhibition La Mujer, La Warmi, y La Lady, the story of slowly understanding what it meant to be Colombian-American, or hyphenated as she put it, and how it has reflected in her artistic practice. A residency at the Ceramics Program at Harvard University (2018-19) where she researched pre-Columbian art and histories was central because it gave her access to actual historic pieces in the flesh (Peabody Museum) and a face to her stories and family narratives.
From there she went on “to explore themes of colonization and the historic exploitation of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Specifically, narratives about women.”
An excellent storyteller, she spoke of how her upbringing along with her research and practice are an integral part of her work and “illustrate a portrait of what it is like to be a mestizo”, including high and low cultures that formed her artist self now. To illustrate that she shared some of her fun works on video that reference her younger cartoon-watching self.
As part of the exhibition text, Arbelaez writes: “The stories 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. The tale of PataSola, a monstrous female figure who attempts to take back the forest by killing men who are destroying the land. Additionally, there are historic religious figures such as the figure of the Virgin Mary/Virgin of Guadalupe which could be argued were appropriated from the Aztec Deity Tonantzin considered the Mother of Gods. There is also the story of Malinche, an indigenous slave, interpreter, advisor, and intermediary to Hernań Cortez who enabled him to defeat the Aztecs. Her conflicted place in history as a traitor does not give credit to her adaptability and intelligence.”
In La Mujer, La Warmi, y La Lady, a collection of extraordinary sculptures, the material is also part of the narrative: the clay is glazed and left bare within a same piece and eyes, teeth and nipples take a gold luster. She explains: “Artistically I am incorporating influences of the Renaissance. I still use the majolica to reference Spanish descent but leave the bare clay for all the material objects. This is meant as a reminder of where all the Spaniard’s material wealth came from-the rape and pillage of South and Central America”.
So many of us, yours truly included, are hybrids going about our daily lives conciliating geographies, ancestry, and self. Arbelaez, a soft spoken and fierce artist, whose research and practice reminds me of how the personal is political.
La Mujer, La Warmi, y La Lady is on show at Mindy Solomon Gallery till Sep. 8, 2023.