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Arpilleras & Sculptural Weaving: An Interview with Sarah Zapata

Danni Shen, Curatorial Fellow in Visual Arts, organizes and interprets exhibitions at Wave Hill.

In her practice, Winter Workspace 2016 artist Sarah Zapata investigates her position in society as a Peruvian American woman, highlighting the dynamism of women in indigenous Peruvian communities and the limitations still prevalent in the 21st century. With material choices that range from yarn, fabric and paper, to common articles of clothing and ubiquitous objects, she utilizes imagery and forms that deal with the feminine and the fetishized. Zapata’s practice addresses the undervalued time and labor-intensive processes of traditional craft techniques, such as weaving, basketry and textile making. Through her work, she attempts to reclaim and preserve the relevance of traditions considered women’s work or craft. At Wave Hill, Zapata will make small works with plant dyes based on Peruvian arpilleras, wall hangings sewn and quilted by women in Peru and Chile to express savage human rights abuses during times of guerilla occupation.

Sign up for Sarah Zapata’s Winter Workspace Workshop, Basketry, Functional and Wearable Art, this Saturday, January 23. It meets from 10AM to 1PM. Using fibers and native grasses, participants will fabricate wearable or decorative baskets while exploring traditional, as well as modern, South American cultures.studio-shot

Danni Shen: What led you to work with weaving, fiber arts, textiles?

Sarah Zapata: My father is from Piura, Peru, where his father was a textile salesman. Peru has such a rich historical background of weaving, and the process became a way for me to understand that culture. I felt a strong connection to weaving not only as a Peruvian American, but as a woman. I am very attracted to the historical aspects of weaving, but also how accessible they are: every human civilization has their own connection with textiles. I think of my work having a similar sense of time and place, as laborious sculpture through fiber and textiles, which is the only language I have to achieve what I want.

DS: Have you been to Peru, and how did those travels inform your own understandings of those ideas your work addresses, e.g. the feminine, sexualized, traditional craft technique, etc.

SZ: Visiting Peru was a challenging but enriching experience. I spent two months there last year studying tapestry weaving and spending time with my family. My family lives in Piura, which is in the on the northern coast, closer to Ecuador. I was fortunate to travel throughout the country and saw how much exists within the country. In a machismo society, little autonomy exists for women. I felt powerless at times, but always visible.

DS: Is using the large loom is a relatively new process for you? How have you found working with large scale weaving?

SZ: So I’ve been weaving for about nine years now, and I started with pattern weaving on a floor loom. I have an eight-harness floor loom at my studio, but for the residency at Wave Hill, I wanted to continue that practice in an workable way. I bought an upright tapestry loom that produces different cloth than my floor loom. There are just two sheds to tapestry weaving, whereas, as I said, my floor loom has eight harnesses to enable many different weave structures. When I was in Peru for two months last year, I studied tapestry weaving from the Ayacucho region. Though this is a different loom than what I was working on, the set-up and function is very similar. Large-scale weaving is fun and not as daunting as you might think. It feels like painting. I’ve recently been cutting up my handwoven cloth and sewing it onto a different surface, which I plan on continuing at Wave Hill. There is something very gratifying about disrupting something that feels so fragile.

DS: You are specifically making arpilleras, right? Can you talk about this form of traditional craft and its relationship to your practice?

SZ: Arpilleras were made during a time of guerilla occupation in Peru and Chile. They were quilted pieces made by women speaking up about human rights abuses that were occurring within their towns. Today, the pieces are made to describe life in communities. Arpilleras are traditionally sewn onto burlap, thus the name arpillera, the Spanish word for burlap. When I was in Peru, I saw how arpilleras differed from other handmade objects that were being sold to tourists. I don’t normally work within the archetype of narratives, so the arpilleras in my mind became objects with a different sense of value. I just finished my first exploration into this arpillera work in a large installation at El Museo that opens on February 3rd. At Wave Hill, I am continuing to experiment with this work but am thinking in a more three-dimensional way.

DS: Are you planning to incorporate imagery into the arpilleras? Has anything at Wave Hill been a particular inspiration, or of interest?toe-piece

SZ: I’ve continued to use a simple drawing of a woman from a political campaign I saw when I was in Peru. It’s a line drawing reproduced in rhinestones that I’ve been transferring onto fingernails made from denim and handwoven fabric. While I’m at Wave Hill I want to continue using this drawing. Wave Hill has been a really positive experience, and has made me a lot more aware of quiet and beauty. Whenever I’m walking around the city, I try to find areas to look at that have no advertising. We’re constantly being advertised to and overly stimulated. While working up here so far, I feel a lot more at peace and able to have clarity. It feels so good to feel biological.

DS: You state that “my past is understanding these traditional techniques that were many times used as a means of control.” Was this control a means to control women, or a means that women themselves used to regain control of their lives? Or both?

SZ: Certainly both. Embroidery was employed in Victorian England as a way to control. It was thought that mindless activity would distract women from thinking. Sarah-Zapata-floor-pieceArpilleras were made in a time of political turmoil, explaining the dire conditions the people were in, expressing communities’ position when there was little understanding of what was going on. To me, it’s important to understand why I am performing these practices as a woman in a larger historical context.

DS: In a capitalist-corporate society, how does the creation of time-consuming, labor-intensive, and often engendered work change in such socio-cultural contexts?

SZ: There is inherent value in object-making connected to gender and racial performativity.  I think of how my work can function inside these tropes, to be overly feminine, overly gaudy or overly handmade. I often think about value systems, but try to maintain that time is the most important currency.

DS: Where do you see your practice heading?

SZ: I want to continue to study weaving and expanding its sculptural possibilities. I plan on continuing to work with arpilleras—they continue to inspire me.

Pictured above, from the top:
Sarah Zapata, Winter Workspace studio shot. January 2016. Courtesy of Wave Hill.
Sarah Zapata,
no nonsense in an older goddess tradition, 2014. Coiled cotton rope, synthetic yarn, prosthetic feet, purchased used sock, 18K Peruvian gold necklace, 9” x 8.5 ”x 10.5”. Image courtesy of the artist.
Sarah Zapata, reflecting the pagan divinity Aphrodite, 2014-2015. Natural and synthetic yarn, rope, sock, acrylic nails, foot, shower pole. Courtesy of the artist.

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