As a U.S. based immigrant artist, my art is bi-cultural and trans-cultural. Having grown up in Colombia as the child of a Colombian and a United States citizen, and migrating to the U.S. as an adult, I make art in two languages about the historical encounters of Europe and the Americas. I create art about the syncretism and hybridization of cultures and individuals influenced by dominant and subordinate cultural forms that have taken place since the conquest and colony of the Americas and that are re-enacted in the migration experience. This document presents my research on Barniz de Pasto, and my artistic recreation of the tradition through
the creation of large-scale collages using still -life as my subject matter to represent the historical palimpsest of
cultural memory. I aim to bring to the forefront Barniz de Pasto as a manifestation of visual culture that has
existed in the margins of art history & contemporary art, and that has been
relegated to the whims of kitsch commerce. My work centers on endangered and
marginalized material cultures and practices, to encourage people to see them
as the art form they really are.
Barniz de Pasto originates in the Andean region of Colombia and Peru; the art uses resin extracted from South American Mopa Mopa trees (Elaeagia pastoensis Mora) to create lacquered decorative objects. Historically, Mopa Mopa was utilized by pre-Hispanic peoples in Colombia to create beads as far back as 1,000 CE. From that time, two separate traditions developed. In Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia Mopa Mopa is associated with Inca quero cups, which were created in pairs and used for ritual consumption of maize beer (chicha). In 17th century Pasto (southwestern Colombia) and Quito (Ecuador), these lacquered objects were characterized by the use of European forms and motifs with a strong influence from Asia because of the commerce between Europe, Asia, and the Americas during the viceregal period. The later tradition evolved from intervention through colonization by Spain and trade from the Galeón de Manila. The expanded trade routes allowed for traditional Japanese lacquerware to appear in Europe and Latin America. With this increased interest in these exotic works, there was an interest in developing an alternative to these expensive objects to meet the demands in the European markets and European settlements in the Americas. With the influence of these Asian objects, the tastes of the Europeans acquiring them, and the use of ancient American materials and techniques, the resulting objects exhibit an enormous diversity co-mingling iconography and aesthetics with roots from around the globe.
The process of using Mopa Mopa to create lacquerware is a laborious manual effort. First the resin coated leaves need to be cleaned of impurities like bark and other unwanted organic matter, and then boiled down or, in the indigenous fashion, chewed into a more pliable form. This gummy resin is then stretched into sheets, and the steps are repeated until the resin is transparent and clean. A colorant is then added by kneading or chewing it into the resin. This is then boiled again and stretched into large thin sheets by hand, from which the designs and motifs are cut and then attached to a wooden surface with heat. Once it has cooled the resulting lacquer is durable, waterproof, and resistant to most organic solvents. This process and history dates to pre-Hispanic time and it is an endangered living tradition in the region of Pasto, Colombia.
For the past six years I have researched the art form of Barniz de Pasto as a part of my artistic practice. I have researched imagery in the Museo de las Americas, Madrid which contains various examples of colonial bargueños (portable desks originating from Renaissance Spain). I have photographed colonial pieces and pre-Colombian beads made with Barniz de Pasto from the collection of Maria Cecilia Alvarez-White, a well-known conservator and specialist in colonial Barniz de Pasto. Through the years, I have encountered and searched for works in museums, art books, and scholarship about the history and practice of Barniz de Pasto. As a result, I have amassed a visual archive that dictates how I construct an art piece. This research allows me to paint and recreate hybrid motifs where indigenous geometry can sit next to a Hapsburg double-headed eagle motif to represent narratives of cultural hybridization. I create large-scale collages using Tyvek and ink to tell stories of colonization, abundance, and extraction via imagery that is luscious and monumental. Each animal and flower are researched, painted, and collaged to create compositions that result in narratives where mythologies are
confronted: violent uniformed male figures that shoot at flowers and animals;
drones flying over canopies of flora and fauna; contemporary scenes depicting
the American political scene extending from indigenous vases; etc... This
process of cutting and pasting is intentionally very similar to the process of
making an artwork in Barniz de Pasto, treating
it as a contemporary recreation of this artform. Conceptually my intention is
layered: I aim to understand colonization, recover knowledge, and create art
that contains beauty, poetry, & that engages the viewer with a sense of
At the beginning of 2021 I was invited by Artesanías de Colombia to participate in their program Arte Vivo to create an art piece with Colombian professional artesana Mari Ortega. Mari Ortega is an expert in Mopa Mopa and Barniz de Pasto. The institution of Artesanías de Colombia recognized that I have been researching and reinterpreting the historical practice of Barniz de Pasto since 2016 and included me in this project because of our overlapping interests. This program intends to foster collaboration between artists and artisans working with traditional Colombian craft practices and to work to legitimize these traditions within contemporary art spheres. This is occurring at a moment in time where there is evidence of a growing interest in reclaiming craft and bringing ancestral knowledge into the art world in order to recuperate cultural memory. Together, Mari Ortega and I have begun the work of translating some of my collage works on Tyvek into Barniz de Pasto. With my interests in the meeting points between cultures and the past & present, this collaboration opens up an opportunity to bring my contemporary art and research of colonial and indigenous iconography into their medium of origin. Working with an artisan that has carried on the traditional Barniz de Pasto technique reflects the historical creation of the process: the meeting of cultures to produce a new entity.
This collaboration could help to convince art institutions in the U.S., Colombia, and abroad that the art form and practice of Barniz de Pasto is worth investigating and has value to our understanding of our American cultural selves. In 2020, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) placed Barniz de Pasto and Mopa Mopa on their list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding due to a variety of factors including the increasing scarcity of Mopa Mopa trees from deforestation and climate change, globalization processes creating more profitable work industries for younger would-be artisans, and the conditions of the home workshops where objects and materials are made. At present, there are only 10 harvesters, 9 wood masters, and 36 varnish masters working in the Andean region. Funding this artistic investigation would allow for the increased visibility and knowledge of this culturally significant art form, aiding in its preservation.
I plan to travel to Pasto, Colombia and work with Mari hands on as we collaborate, allowing me to learn directly from a master artisan. These travels and this continued work will deepen my research on the paths of conquest and colonization that have shaped the Americas. It is my intention to continue this project and that it will culminate in a series of increasingly collaborative pieces, generating a bridge between contemporary art & craft, and create a link between the past and present of the still living practice of Mopa Mopa and Barniz de Pasto.
I have been working with Mari Ortega on one collaborative piece, a biombo or screen with five panels that follows the tradition brought from Asia via the Galeón de Manila.