Women’s Work, Reworked

Women’s Work, Reworked

Fiber artist Sarah Zapata rethinks gender and identity with coiled rope and shag carpet.
Sarah Zapata, If I Could

If I Could, 2017, natural and synthetic fiber, handwoven cloth, rope, cement, steel. To enter Zapata’s installation, visitors had to take off their shoes and socks. Her aim was to encourage a sense of vulnerability to help them look at the world through new eyes.

Courtesy of Deli Gallery

“I love that song. I remember it from my childhood,” Sarah Zapata says of “El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could),” Simon and Garfunkel’s 1970 hit version of a 1913 orchestral piece by Peruvian composer Daniel Alomía Robles. Because her father is from Peru, the haunting melody, played by Andean band Las Incas with traditional quena flutes and charango lutes, strikes a chord, feels familial.

But there’s something else that moves her in the lyrics Paul Simon wrote for the tune, about dreams, aspirations, and the choices we create for ourselves.

“ ‘If I could’ – it’s such a beautiful way to talk about humility and ability,” says the 29-year old artist, who weaves, sews, coils, tufts, and latch-hooks fiber and other materials into vivid, seductively tactile sculptures, wall hangings, and environments. The phrase holds so much meaning for her that she chose it for the title of her solo show at the Deli Gallery in New York last spring. “If I Could” was a room with no art on its white walls, but a dazzling spectacle on the floor.

Let’s walk through it.

Picture a patchwork of plush shag carpets, sewn by Zapata in a riot of bright colors. Here and there in coiled baskets stand child-size anthropomorphic forms, seven in all, wrapped in fabric and shag. These, she explains, are a nod to the “mummy bundles” of the ancient Paracas people of southern Peru, who placed their dead in the natal position (to leave life as they came), swaddling the bodies in layers of beautifully handwoven and embroidered burial cloths.

To enter the space and encounter the figures, visitors must remove their shoes and walk barefoot through the plush lawn of yarn – a ritual of humility. It might feel pleasant, even mildly erotic, but for many, it’s also an unsettling act of vulnerability. Through this experience, Zapata invites us to practice an altered state of mind and sense of place, a new idea of how we might engage with the world, if we could.

She makes art to investigate her own identity and path – what it means to be a Texan living in Brooklyn, a lesbian raised as an evangelical Christian, a US citizen of Latin American descent, a contemporary artist inspired by ancient civilizations, a textile crafter who takes “women’s work” to the realm of fine art. In the bigger picture, her work speaks to accepting and celebrating our circumstances – whatever they are or however society perceives them to be – to reclaim and maybe transcend them.

A few years ago, she read “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down,” by Latinx and queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz. “That was a formative essay for me. He used ‘performativity’ to talk about Latinidad [a collective Latin American identity and culture] and how one is supposed to perform. I ran with it as soon as I heard that word,” Zapata recalls. “I wanted to be making work that’s overtly female and overtly handmade. Like I’m performing how I’m theoretically supposed to, but working within those confines to break down that means of control.”

Her work resists neat categorization. “Appearing at a time when the so-called queer craft aesthetic in contemporary art production is being celebrated and well documented, Sarah and her art represent a truly forward-looking approach to the genre,” observes Danny Orendorff, curator of public programs at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, where Zapata was artist-in-residence in 2016 and last fall participated in the experimental exhibition “Studio Views,” turning a gallery into her workspace. She “complicates conventions,” Orendorff says, “by intersecting theories of gender and ethnicity with pre-colonial histories and techniques, and producing textiles, sculptures, and installations that have as much to do with visual art as with emergent ideas in fashion and design.”

While complex and personal, her themes are also universal. “There’s so much about our lives that we can’t control. Yet our perception, and what that means moving forward, is something that to some extent we can,” she reflects. “What has helped me find my place and move forward is figuring out where I’ve been.”

Born in Corpus Christi and raised outside Dallas, she asserted her individuality as a child by decorating her clothes with hot-glued appliqué and paint. “I didn’t fit in in Texas. I think that was my way of trying to escape and relate to my body.” At the University of North Texas, she majored in studio art with a concentration in fiber and fell in love with weaving. “Weaving is such a beautiful human tradition, but more importantly, it’s such a woman’s tradition.” Zapata, whose father is an engineer, is intrigued by the notion that the female weavers of yore might be engineers today, as some have suggested, because the craft demonstrates a “wonderful use of mechanics,” she says.

After earning her BFA in 2011, she headed to New York and set up her little loom in her Brooklyn apartment, determined “to get my foot in somewhere and work as hard as I could.”

From there, Zapata says, “the stars aligned.” She built a circle of friends in the arts, cultivated her techniques and narratives, and started exhibiting in group shows. Through a travel grant, she was able to research some of Latin America’s rich textile traditions firsthand. In 2014, she spent two months in Peru, studying tapestry techniques. “It was wonderful to see how this tradition exists now. Just walking around Lima, which is such a metropolitan space, you could see women carrying around drop spindles in their pockets.” An election was in progress there, and campaign posters used cartoon characters to illustrate voting procedures; women, Zapata noticed, were represented by a particularly goofy, childlike face. “It attracted and appalled me at the same time. I wanted to take the image and make it more powerful.” Back in New York, she incorporated it into Siempre X, a wall hanging commission for the cafe at El Museo del Barrio. It was loosely styled after arpilleras, the quilts made in the 1970s by Chilean women, later adopted in other Latin American countries.

Since then, she’s been happily juggling a busy schedule of residencies, projects, and public performances. For New York Textile Month in September 2016, she created a window display at the Fifth Avenue flagship store of Marimekko, the iconic design company. Lately she’s been elaborating on an installation she started at MAD. Its title, To Teach or to Assume Authority, refers to a line in the Bible about things women should not be permitted to do.

“New York has been somewhere I’m able to be myself, to meet people I admire and care for deeply, to do so many things,” says Zapata. “I love going to the opera. I just started taking a ballet class.” Life as an up-and-coming artist in the big city, she has found, is expensive and at times stressful, but also full of possibility. “I just keep working to make it happen.”

Zapata has work on view in “Monarchs: Brown and Native Contemporary Artists in the Path of the Butterfly,” at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha, Nebraska, through February 24; “Forms and Alterations” at 808 Gallery, Boston University, through March 25; and “Haptic Tactics” at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York City, February 18 – May 20.