Eduardo Sarabia’s art is saturated with a sense of his parent’s migration from Mexico to the US.
Los Angeles-born artist Eduardo Sarabia might have had a very different life had it not been for the support of others. Now he wants to give back.
The Mexican-US artist was born in East Los Angeles to parents who had migrated from Mexico in the 1970s. His father had been offered a job at Safeway and his mother crossed the Tijuana border to join him. Their neighbourhood was part of the Chicano Art Movement, a socio-political movement led by Mexican-US artists to establish a unique artistic identity in the US.
Sarabia was making art from a young age. “I’ve been painting and drawing since I can remember.” As marginalised children with not much money, having a dream was an important part of succeeding in the US. Artistic endeavour took him away from neighbourhood gangs.
A primary-school teacher noticed his prodigious drawing talent and encouraged Sarabia’s parents to get him into a Saturday art course at California State University. After he graduated from Otis College of Art and Design, his work caught the eye of New York art dealer Paul Judeson, who gave him his first solo exhibition in 2001.
Since then, Sarabia’s star has been ascending. His work has been exhibited in numerous museums such as Tamayo Museum, Mexico City; Centro Cultural Cabañas, Guadalajara; Museo de Arte Contemporaneo Oaxaca, Mexico; and ASU Art Museum, Arizona. Sarabia is currently preparing his installation for this year’s Desert X, a site-specific, international art exhibition in March-May 2021 at sites across the Coachella Valley, California. His installation is called ‘In the Passenger’: a large-scale winding structure made of handwoven palm-tree matts that nods to his parents’ journey across the border.
Sarabia says: “I use traditional artisan materials, such as ceramics and textile, for sculpture, painting, installation and performativity to tell my story. Through the maze, I share my personal history of migration from Mexico to the US.”
For Sarabia, the artistic language he has developed through the years, and his very personal aesthetic code, comes from his own life experience, but also from a type of fiction that is always accompanied by the construction of a story. Visit his studio in Guadalajara, Mexico, where he relocated in 2003, and you will find traditional Mexican Talavera-style ceramic vases. Look closely and you will see they are hand-painted with images of cannabis leaves, shotguns and pin-up girls, perched on fabricated fruit-packing boxes, made to mimic the style popular with tourists in Mexico. Sarabia’s work often explores the fraught US-Mexican border zone, Mexican cultural stereotypes, and his own identity as a Mexican-American. Dark humour and a sense of absurdity characterise his work.
For example, the theme of gold crops up constantly, inspired by the stories he remembers from his grandfather’s treasure hunts. “I love gold. It’s been a recurring theme in my life and work since I was about 10 years old. My grandfather [Felipe Sarabia] would tell me stories of a buried cache of gold in the mountains where he grew up.”
After his grandfather’s death, Sarabia inherited a box of maps and notes about the search his grandfather had been recruited for, and tried to complete it. He even organised an expedition with other family members to the site to find this lost treasure (which they never found) but it did become artistic inspiration. “Using this metaphor, I have created artworks and recently a project called Oro mas oro [Gold more gold] with Paulina Barragan. We publish books and make t-shirts, sweaters, socks and other limited-edition objects we consider valuable.”
Another source of inspiration includes a feather from the Quetzal bird. Sarabia had become “obsessed” with seeing a Quetzal bird in its natural habitat. “I flew to Chiapas, Mexico, and began my search. Many trips later, it was amazing to wander around the jungle to finally spot one in the wild.” From these travels, he was inspired to produce artwork for an exhibition at the Tamayo Museum called ‘Plumed serpent and other parties’.
“On one of my trips, I found a feather on the floor near the border of Guatemala. I was able to enjoy its colours and beauty up close. I quickly realised why it was praised in indigenous cultures, with its three-foot-long green-blue-gold tail feathers resembling a snake with wings in the air. And then I immediately wondered why our contemporary culture has forgotten this majestic bird. I frequently think about those trips for new inspiration.”
But what really inspires Sarabia is the ability to help others, just as he himself was given a helping hand in life. Last year he hired 10 new painters to help him with production: “I like the energy that’s being created. I’m also very happy I can help younger artists during these rough times. The studio has become a creative place to learn from each other.”
He also co-founded the PAOS GDL, a non-profit research and production centre focused on supporting different manifestations of contemporary art in Guadalajara, Mexico. The project was started in 2012 by Jose Davila, Lorena Peña and himself. Originally it was a platform to invite artists to open their studios in the city for a weekend. In 2015, with the help of the secretary of culture it turned into a residency and educational programme housed in the Museo Taller Jose Clemente. The programme encourages critical thinking and the encounter between creatives and a diverse audience.
One of Sarabia’s defining motifs throughout his work and support programmes is his gratitude for what the universe has given him, and he once designed a plaque inscribed ‘Gracias por todo’ at the foot of a shrine in Mexico, which had played a part in a video he made. He feels very fortunate. “When I was growing up, I had a lot of help and I am lucky to be at a point in my career where I can do the same.”
This article originally appeared in Billionaire's Hope Issue, Spring 2021. To subscribe contact
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