Miguel Arzabe, Tampa (detail), 2019, woven archival inkjet prints on canvas. 50 x 30 in. Courtesy the artist

Miguel Arzabe, Tampa (detail), 2019, woven archival inkjet prints on canvas. 50 x 30 in. Courtesy the artist

Artist Interviews

Miguel Arzabe Talks Recuperation as a Form of Resilience

Artist Miguel Arzabe discusses his works on view in In This Light and how his creative practice has endured and responded to this time of great uncertainty.

Over the next several weeks, McEvoy Arts interviews each of the four artists from The Minnesota Street Project Studio Program whose work is on display in In This Light, a virtual and offsite exhibition presented in conjunction with the Minnesota Street Project’s group exhibition Invincible Summer.

The series kicks off with Miguel Arzabe. Make a reservation to visit the exhibition in person here.

McEvoy Arts: Can you share a bit about your practice and background?

Miguel Arzabe: My work spans across the mediums of painting, video, and paper weaving. I was born and raised in the US by my parents who immigrated from Bolivia, and I trained and worked as an engineer before pivoting to visual art. Holding all these distinct cultural identities simultaneously informs my practice. I am inspired by the textile tradition of my Andean heritage and have developed a weaving technique that I apply to reproductions of artworks as well as my own paintings. Currently, I am working on a large triptych, woven acrylic paintings on yupo paper.

McEvoy Arts: As an artist in The Minnesota Street Project Studio Program at 1240 Minnesota Street, the building’s temporary closure has forced you to embrace new working accommodations. How have you coped with the isolation of social distancing and uncertainty?

MA: A painter’s studio practice is already isolating by the privilege of choice. Now that my partner Rachelle and I are without child care, we are sharing the responsibilities of taking care of our little daughter Inti. It is a blessing to have them in my life. Day-to-day life can be overwhelming so we make time every week to give thanks to Pachamama. Every Friday we take a family hike (on Ohlone land) and find a spot to have an afternoon picnic together under a tree.

Works by Miguel Arzabe and Richard T. Walker. Installation view, In This Light, Minnesota Street Project, San Francisco. Courtesy the artists and McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, San Francisco.

McEvoy Arts: Has the onset of the pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement offered you new insights into preexisting bodies of work or motivation for new projects?

MA: Last November I was asked by Amy Kisch of Art + Action to make new work for the 2020 Come To Your Census campaign. My work, Here, 2020, recontextualizes a nineteenth-century colonial engraving of a California Native American by weaving in the 1960’s raised fist symbol for black power. We have such rich cultures of resistance in the Bay Area. The intersection and solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement is something we must cultivate. Although my work is not always overtly activist, there has always been space in my practice for work that addresses social justice issues more directly.

McEvoy Arts: How does your work on view in In This Light engage with the notion of resilience? When, where, and how was your work produced?

MA: The paintings were made in residency at the Lucid Art Foundation in the summer of 2018. Recuperation is a form of resilience, and I think that is what I was attempting to do with my paintings, which are based on reproductions of artworks in auction catalogs. They’re not really copies, to me it’s like making a cover of a familiar song in a different language. Tampa, 2020, was made right before the lockdown at MSP. This one’s more like a remix. I used a scanner and printer to “sample” from reproductions and then by slicing and using my weaving technique I reassembled them into a unique composition.

Miguel Arzabe’s studio. Courtesy of the artist

McEvoy Arts: Do you have any suggestions for artists wrestling with making work amidst collective anxiety and uncertainty?

MA: Anxiety and uncertainty are not new for a lot of people. Find a way to help each other out. Get off the screen and make something by hand. Establish a relationship with non-human life. Learn a useful skill that you can teach others and make time for self-reflection. 

McEvoy Arts: What’s been most striking to you about the impact this moment is having on the making, presentation, and consumption of culture? What are your hopes for the future?

MA: Personally, this moment is motivating me to take stock of ten years worth of digital documentation and make a kind of retrospective-in-a-book. Like many other artists I make videos of my studio process and post them on social media. I tend to be pretty private with my personal life online, but I hope it gives others joy to witness these moments of creation. With most of culture forced online, my hope is that there will be a real hunger to gather and see art in person again. 

McEvoy Arts: What is the responsibility of the artist in times like these? Has your sense of the role of art in society shifted?

MA: I don’t think it’s possible anymore for art or artists to claim to be apolitical. We all need to question whether what we do supports systems of oppression and take action. Artists have a particular sensitivity that makes us kind of like ambassadors for empathy. The climate crisis is only increasing the need for this.

McEvoy Arts: Lastly, is there a piece of art, literature, film, or music that has been a comforting touchstone for you through the pandemic?

MA: One of the last live performances I saw was Helado Negro in an outdoor concert at Jerry Garcia Amphitheater at McLaren Park. He performed his entire album, This is How You Smile. Every time I listen to that I remember laying in the grass with friends and watching the trees sway against a blue sky.

Miguel Arzabe makes colorful and dynamic abstractions to recover moments of human interconnectedness. Drawing from the cultural techniques and motifs of his Andean heritage, Arzabe produces unlikely intersections between form and content, the nostalgic and the hard-edged, appropriation and authorship, failure and redemption. His work has been featured in such festivals as Hors Pistes, Paris, and in museums and galleries including the Albuquerque Museum of Art; the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive; MAC Lyon, France; MARS Milan, Italy; RM Projects, Auckland; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He has held residencies at Facebook, the Headlands Center for the Arts, Montalvo Arts Center, and Santa Fe Art Institute. Arzabe holds a BS from Carnegie Mellon University, an MS from Arizona State University, and an MFA from UC Berkeley.