Born Cuernavaca Morelos, Mexico, 1976 / BFA, Universidad del Sol, Cuernavaca, Mexico / Lives in Ferndale, Michigan
For artist Kia Arriaga, there are ways in which existing is an act of resistance; Arriaga deeply identifies with her Aztek roots, and works in multiple media to, “rescue the traditional ways of the original people of Mexico.” Powerful and oppositional, Arriaga’s art has the rare capacity to offer resistance in a form so beautiful, so alluring, that it may be courted by the very institutions it seeks to disrupt.
These media include her primary work as a blacksmith, ceramics (her “new lover”), stained glass, and mural painting (her degree is in Graphic Design/Illustration)—but also extends through her practice as an Aztek Dancer and member of the Aztek group Kalpulli Tlahuikayotl. This practice, which Arriaga has pursued since the age of 13, involves not only dancing, but the transfer of knowledge about many aspects of Aztek culture, including Aztek calendar and the count of time, traditional food preparation, traditional healing, regalia-making, codex painting and interpretation, philosophy, and agriculture. “You learn to love learning, in general,” Arriaga says, and it seems to be a lesson she has learned well. Though she lacks a formal degree from either institution, she has pursued her fine art studies at both Wayne State University and College for Creative Studies since moving to the Detroit metro area in 1998. “I am probably going to be the oldest student ever,” she enthuses.
In fact, Arriaga’s bubbly manner is striking, when contrasted with the seriousness of her themes. Across all her various expressive media, Arriaga’s work is deeply personal and draws from a treasure trove of heritage that includes both Aztek and Latin American roots, Mexican culture—including Lucha Libre (Mexican professional wrestling), as with Santo, el Enmascarado de Plata, and Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead)—a familial affinity for multimedia arts, learning, and teaching, as well as her grandfather’s specialized trade as a blacksmith. All of these have synthesized within Arriaga’s work, and manifest in the form of ceramic and metal works that range from whimsical to gothic, and highly political installations, including elaborate ofrendas (traditional altars that are temporarily constructed to celebrate Mexican Dia de Muertes and Aztek rites of summer). Arriaga has been a fixture of local Dia de Muertes celebrations, as well as a two-time contributor to the Detroit Institute of Arts annual ofrenda exhibit. In 2013, Arriaga created “Ephemeral,” a seed mandala—”Tlalmanalli” in the Aztek language (Nahuatl), meaning “offering to earth”—combined with a video feed on static. In 2014, still reeling from the horrific news of the kidnapping and murder of a bus full of teachers-in-training near her hometown, Arriaga scrapped her original ofrenda plans, replacing them with Ayotzinapa, an arresting installation around a bed, the white sheets of which were marred with the rusty imprint of skeleton. Clustered around the foot of the bed, open-mouthed ceramic skulls stand like empty sets of slippers, with the faces of hungry spirits.
Arriaga’s installation work typically contains specific, personally crafted components of this nature, many of which are art objects in their own right—for example, the Milgro that formed a detail of Ayotzinapa. Her more recent focus on ceramics has seen the development of standalone ceramic and wire pieces, such as the Frida and Diego, Arbol de la vida, which incorporates ceramic and metal working, the traditional tree of life motif, and Arriaga’s interest in Mexican cultural icons, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, who she recently also commemorated in a wall-sized chalk mural, and collaboration with painter Sabrina Nelson, in the DIA’s Learning Annex— Frida y Diego; La vida es corta, pero el arte perdura. “La vida is corta, pero el arte perdura,” the mural’s inscription reads—“Life is short, but art endures.” With each craft learned, each tradition remembered and passed on, and each work of art—be it temporary or fired in clay or iron—Arriaga is forming an enduring cultural legacy, one which begins from the deeply personal, and moves out through her community to touch and offer teaching to all that encounter her work. Like the Azteks, who buried key monuments and artifacts in an effort to preserve their culture in the face of Spanish colonialism, Arriaga’s life and work stands as an act of resistance against any forces that would seek to wipe the slate of history, politics, or tradition clean.
Copyright 2015 Essay’d
Rosie Sharp, September 2015