Eduardo Sarabia: Visual Narratives of Mexican Border Culture

By Jelena Martinovic on December 14, 2018

Blurring fact and fiction, artist Eduardo Sarabia creates works inspired by the illicit economies and folk history of northern Mexico, at the same time exploring his Mexican-American identity. Using materials favored by local craftspeople, such as ceramics, handwoven textiles and glass, he creates intricate narratives about the complex zone that divides Mexico from the United States. Most particularly, these narratives include the drug trade and other illegal activities that plague the region, as well as the myths and cultural stereotypes that stem from it.

Eduardo, who was born in L.A. but lives in Guadalajara, is perhaps best known for his ceramic vessels that mimic the traditional blue and white Talavera ceramics popular with tourists visiting Mexico. What makes these works different is that are adorned with iconography of the Mexican drug culture that has percolated into many aspects of Mexican society. Imbued with humor and absurdity, his works make reference not just to a physical border, but also the imaginary one delineated by cultural stereotypes. 

PRØHBTD spoke with Eduardo about narco culture and its iconography, the search for Pancho Villa’s gold, ceramics as a narrative medium, traditional Mexican folklore and much more. 

How would you describe the relationship between your cultural roots and your American identity and the way it informs your practice?

I grew up in Los Angeles, but my family is from Mexico. As a kid, I traveled to Mexico every summer to visit my family and cousins, so I kind of grew up between these two cultures, and this has influenced my work greatly. I felt I knew both of these cultures from the inside, which I think gave me a specific language. In a way, this in-between position gave me an ability to relate and understand both of these realities more easily.

You moved to Guadalajara in 2003 and have lived and worked there since. Why did you decide to move, and how did this decision affect your practice?

In 2002, I was invited to work at the Noe Suro ceramics factory in Tlaquepaque, Guadalajara, famous for its large traditional craftsmanship, and it works with artists from all around the world. The experience of being there and working with the material opened up so many possibilities for me. As my work has always been narrative, the idea of telling stories through this material seemed very fitting. So eventually, instead of spending only one month there, I decided to stay.  

Living there gave me freedom to explore the issues I was deeply interested in, but it also gave me the opportunity to work with local craftsmen, who are some of the best in the region.  Now, I’m telling a narrative using these methods. Using the ceramics and the ability to tell these stories about the northern border through this material are a huge part of my work now.

Your work addresses the unique and complex zone that divides Mexico from the U.S. What drew you to explore the realities and fantasies of the border culture in the first place? 

My parents are from Sinaloa, considered by many to be the drug capital of Mexico, and it’s where El Chapo is from. So I grew up with that drug culture, the music and a little bit of that lifestyle. For a kid, it can seem like an easy way out, as there is easy money in drugs. I don’t know what the latest figures are, but around 53 percent of Mexico’s economy is based on drugs. There’s a lot of money and a lot of interest in that, especially on the border and the way things move. It just seems everywhere, so it almost seemed normal when I was growing up. 

I would be visiting my cousins, listening to the music, listening to these legends about characters who have fantastic lifestyles. Something like gangsta rap in the '80s and '90s—making money and living the lifestyle. (Laughs.) It was just part of my story, and I felt it was something I wanted to share and talk about. 

At the time, I didn’t realize how important it was, but I felt it was something nobody really talked about. Northern and Southern Mexico are just completely different countries. For me, it was obvious how money was flowing in Mexico, especially in those areas, but it wasn’t openly talked about. So I started putting it in my work and telling these stories as I felt it was an important thing to do. 

This was becoming an important part of popular culture. It was in all the newspapers, everybody was talking about these fantastical stories, but on the down low. I think this has all changed since Mexico declared full war on the drug cartels. This was the first acknowledgment that this was a serious problem, and it was followed by all these crazy things happenings over the years. Although things are dying out now, there are still TV shows now and other coverage that are still a part of that growing story, of that legend. So, I first started making work about it 15 years ago. 

My grandfather spent most of his life looking for a buried treasure in Mexico, and I grew up with this story of him going into the mountains and trying to find the gold. Everybody in my family was like, "Crazy grandpa, don’t listen to him," but I always liked these stories. When he passed away, my father called me to tell me that my grandmother had this box with his maps and notes about this treasure. She asked if I wanted it, and I said yes. 

I went there to pick it up and convinced an uncle of mine and a neighbor who had gone with my grandfather on these searches to take me to that general area in the foothills between Culiacán and Mazatlán—the most dangerous part of Mexico. Eventually, we got picked up by local narcos because of the marijuana fields and opium. It was kind of intense and crazy, but the guys we met were kind of cool—they were young and just wanted to do their job and avoid trouble, telling us we couldn’t be there. 

One of these guys told me about a church of the patron saint of drug trafficking, Jesús Malverde. I went to check it out, and that was such a trip. I mean, there really is a church in Culiacán for the patron saint of drug trafficking! It was insane, and it opened a whole new avenue for me, and it started this fascination with what’s going on in the north. I started traveling more in these random areas, and I liked talking to people and hearing their stories first hand. There’s a lot going on that people don’t know about, and I felt the need to discover it and share it. 

Could you tell us more about this treasure hunt? What’s happening with it now? 

I’m completely obsessed with gold. I even have a tattoo reading “Mas Oro” ["More Gold"] on my arm. (Laughs.)

This was 15 years ago, and I always try to go back, even though there is a drug war, and my family tells me it is too dangerous to go there. The first business I created was a liability company that was focused on searching for the gold. I sold some shares, so if I ever find something, somebody might get something. There is a contract and other elaborate things. So it is investing in art, but… who knows! I have five investors, so every year I send them an email saying, “It’s still too dangerous, I can’t go,” but they like the project as an artwork. 

The show I just opened in Antwerp is about that. I hadn't visited the area for 15 years because it was dangerous, but we just had elections, so I thought that maybe I could get in somehow. And I really needed to find the gold because it’s been 15 years now. (Laughs.) I called my family and said I wanted to go to the mountains, and they told me I was crazy, but I decided to go see what would happen. I thought to myself, “It’s Mexico, and I always have good luck, and good things happen to me. It’s like my super power.” So I went to Mazatlán and talked to some people hoping somebody would take me, but they all said it was too dangerous—El Chapo’s in jail, his son is fighting with his uncle, there are people hiding in the mountains—it’s a mess. 

So I decided to go to the church since I haven’t been there in 15 years. I went with my brother, which was really nice since I never get to see him, and we had a little bonding [time] in the car. The church was exactly the same, with “thank you” plaques from drug kingpins and random people who go there and ask for favors. And the most common favors they ask are to get their drugs across the border, which is such a weird, illicit thing you could ask God. It’s kind of amazing! If you get your wish, you go back, you have a plaque made or you leave something, and then you hire a band for an hour to play a couple of songs at the main altar. I was just sitting there and tripping out… it was so crazy! 

As we were leaving, I was thinking I came here 15 years ago, asked the patron to find the treasure, that I never really found it, yet I felt I found so much from that first visit—my work and practice. I felt very thankful and generous, so I decided to go back and have a plaque made. A lady out front was selling candles and tchotchkes, and I asked her about a plaque. Her brother eventually came over, and I asked for a marble plaque. Inside the church, the main wall is covered with all the plaques from drug lords, and I noticed a small empty space in the corner. I asked if it was cool to put my plaque there, but he waved his hand and told me that place was reserved. 

Eventually, he asked me what I do in life. When I said I was an artist, he asked if he could see some of my work. I didn’t really want to get into it so I told him I left my phone in the car. Then he asked me what did I want my plaque to say, and I said to simply write “Gracias por todo [Thank you for everything], Eduardo Sarabia.” When he heard my name, he looked at me and said, “I know your work! You do narco ceramics!” I was totally tripping, I couldn’t believe he knew my ceramics! So everything kind of clicked and made sense. A couple of weeks later, he sent me a picture of my plaque. So cool! I have been telling these stories for the last 15 years so this felt like a nice way to close everything up, as there are so many new things I want to do. 

You work in various media, but you are most famous for your ceramics, which combine contemporary imagery with traditional designs. Could you tell us something about blue and white Talavera ceramics, the place it holds in Mexican culture and the way it relates to the themes you explore?

Talavera has a denomination of origin and can only be genuinely produced in Puebla with minerals from the dirt there. I produce my ceramics in Tlaquepaque, Guadalajara. I like mixing those motifs because blue and white ceramics have such a strong history in cultures all over the world. There is an easy way to relate to it, especially internationally. 

The contemporary images I use are based on my culture, my stories, my day-to-day life. When I exhibit them in Russia—where they also have problems with drugs and prostitution and a strong history with blue and white—it kind of connects to different cultures and places as well. I was amazed how global it can be, especially when it comes to drugs as there are problems everywhere, not just Mexico. Really, addiction and illicit economies are problems everywhere. 

Also, it was great being able to talk about these serious issues with a little bit of humor through the ceramics, which have a traditional element that I feel causes many people to do a double-take: “Oh, it’s blue and white ceramics. No, wait, there’s a lot of things going on there.” So, being able to tell these stories and recognize those issues without being too much in people’s faces or too aggressive, was an easy way for me to start a dialogue. As opposed to saying, “They found 15 dead bodies in a ditch,” it’s like, “Wow, it’s a cute gun, so decorative, and there are girls on the side.” 

It’s an easy way to start a narrative and start a discussion. For years, Greeks have been telling stories about Gods and myths on these vessels, so it has a lot of baggage. 

You use the iconography drawn from the drug culture that has infiltrated the daily life in Mexico. Could you discuss some of the motifs that you feature prominently, such as the naked girls, cannabis leaves, guns and various animals?

I do a lot of the drawings and work with the artisans on decorative stuff, but I paint most of the stuff myself since I have been doing it for a very long time. I try to create iconographic, popular images, like a marijuana leaf, which is such a classic. It started with stories I was reading about and hearing from people. There are a lot of fantastic stories, such as drug drop-offs gone bad, where people would hear a giant crash in their backyard and find a box of cocaine, or where people would run into buried guns.

For example, the images of sexy girls are everywhere in Mexico, especially in the newspapers. I draw them really sexy because it’s part of the humor behind all this. When you walk down the streets, you see huge headlines on newsstands such as, “Heads Found Next to a Tree” or something, and in the corner there would be a sexy girl with a message saying, “Meet Veronica on Page Six.”Just looking at these two things next to each other is crazy! The way people are interested in both of these random things put together... what does it say about our culture?

So I started pulling on these things. Lots of them have to do with humor, but a lot of them have to do with the juxtaposition of things we are viewing. For example, I like getting in a taxi and seeing this personalization with Jesus, saints of the dead and the saint of the narcos—all at once. All these contradictions are really interesting. That’s the thing that attracts my attention, and I try to include it in the ceramics. 

How do the logos of food companies and convenience stores fit into this unique visual language?

All of the objects have a narrative. I was thinking to myself, “If this was the real thing, how would this move across the border?” So I created these magical narratives that are part of the work and part of the project. I make up companies or use ones that already exist and hand paint logos on the boxes. It’s about smuggling, so these boxes become a part of the artwork. There are specific companies I read about or hear weird things, thinking, “I can’t believe this actually exists,” and they get included in the artwork as well. 

I do a lot of stuff on the side, not really hobbies, but things which are part of my life—I make mescal, I make tequila, I do weird collaborations, I have a bar, I have a nightclub—I think all the things that I like inform my practice as well. It’s just a part of me. I don’t think I work in a series because one project informs the other project, and I like adding on things. There’s a lot of information and things getting mixed with other things. It’s not like, “Hey, this is my blue series, and here is the red series.” Some things are blue, some things are red, some things are purple, but I also like the green. I like to mix everything in there, and all these ideas start accumulating. 

How do you think mainstream media in both Mexico and the U.S. contributes to the perpetuation of this culture and its dynamics?

It’s interesting how popular it is now with all these TV series. There is a fascination with it. For example, El Chapo has a myth behind him which is very interesting. I think things have changed so much. It used to be something people talked about in parties, or afterparties, and now it’s everywhere. The way I’ve experienced it, especially with all the politics in the U.S., people look at my work a little bit differently. They have more understanding. The read is different, which is nice. 

I did a mural with a friend 10 years ago in a train station in Japan. It’s ceramic, 5 x 50 meters, depicting a Mexican jungle and little things hiding in it. I saw this friend recently. With the Trump situation during the elections, he noted that Japan is an island—there are no borders, and it was closed off for 200 years. For that reason, it was able to maintain a lot of its traditions. He said that he never really understood my work and what living between a border really meant—traveling between these cultures and being multicultural—until now. I was like, "Yeah, cool, thank you Donald Trump!" (Laughs.

As you said, the violent legacy of the Mexican drug war is rarely discussed publicly in Mexico. How do you think your work contributes to encouraging these conversations?

I have been showing most of my work outside of Mexico, especially ceramics. In the last four years, I started having a lot of exhibitions in Mexico, and I was really excited about having these conversations. I was wondering what Mexico is going to think about this work. Something people didn’t want to talk about is now in their face a little bit. 

I did a huge installation in a giant room with 80 ceramic works with boxes and everything. I was ready for this conversation. It was really good, everybody really liked it, and I was really surprised. I wasn’t really expecting it, but it was done in such a proper way that it kind of eased us into the conversation. Everybody already mostly understands it. It’s not something people talk about, but you automatically understand it if you lived in Mexico and you read the newspaper. I felt the conversation was really interesting because it was more about recognizing how it’s encrusted in the culture now. And the work is not anti-drug culture or pro-drug culture—it is what it is. People make up their own minds about how they want to view it, but the way I present it is just, “This is what we’re living, this is what it is.” 

But it was super well received. In the exhibitions I was invited to participate in, there is a willingness to talk about what’s going on in Mexico in a new way, hich is really cool. The other thing I noticed is, when I first started working on the ceramics, there was an automatic resistance to traditional artisan paintings. Everything was oh so conceptual—neons, minimalism, photographs—and now people are more interested in handmade and more traditional techniques.

Besides the realities of contemporary life in Mexico, you also deal with traditional Mexican folklore. Which stories inspire your work the most?

Mexico has a lot of history in magical realism—the dreams, Day of the Dead, talking to your ancestors. It’s such a magical country. Recently, I have been talking to some shamans. I don’t know what I’m doing yet, but I like that magic talk. Most of these conversations involve ecology and saving the trees and the planet, but it is such an important part of this mysticism that I’m really getting into. 

I have been taking a lot of trips to southern Mexico. I have the North, and now the southern border is really interesting… like Guatemala for example. I have been obsessing with the bird—the quetzal—and I have done a few projects about that as well. With the feathers and the extinction of animals, the way it connects to the narco culture, I feel I have these strange connections, but they’re part of what I’m working on. There’s such a strong history. That clash between the Aztecs and the Spanish 500 years ago left something really interesting. There is a struggle on both sides that I find really fascinating and have been reading on and talking to shamans and mystics about. And there are some really crazy stories. 

My projects really take forever. For example, the treasure project was 15 years ago, and I just made a show about it. So I maybe started all this five years ago, and there are so many other things happening that will eventually come out in strange ways.

Could you reveal some of your future plans and projects?

I’m doing a show in Madrid. It was supposed to be in May, but it might switch to February during ARCO. Through all these research projects, I take a lot of photographs to help me remember. When I go to the studio, I print them and place them all over. I also use them as pallets for drawings and other works, and I have been turning them into large-format oil paintings. I grew up painting, and I was trained as a photorealistic oil painter. I also studied painting in Leningrad in the Soviet Union for six months when I was 13. These works are personal photographs but with splashy kinds of images. So I have been wanting to do just a straight up paintings show, like dark, stale oil paintings. So I’m going to do that for Spain. 

I also have a lot trips planned to southern Mexico, so hopefully something will come out of this. For example, there are also some crazy extraterrestrial stories that I have been totally fascinated with, but it really sounds crazy, so I don’t want to talk about it just yet. And in between, there will be a lot of working and traveling back and forth, the Miami fair, and so on. It’s how my life has been for the past few months now. 

Artist photo by Maj Lindstrom.

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