In this new age of American nationalism, Madrid-based artist Okuda San Miguel looks back at the Maya, a pre-Columbian civilization that lasted for thousands of years in Central America and southern Mexico. Using his signature style of vibrant colors and geometric lines, Okuda interwove modern American imagery and symbolism with the rich colors of Maya art and tapestries. These works, part of his Mayan Renaissance exhibit at Corey Helford Gallery in Los Angeles (April 1 to 29), are rich in multi-cultural symbolism and speak to issues like capitalism, race and freedom. PRØHBTD spoke with Okuda about his latest works, his use of symbolism and how he famously transformed an old church into a colorful skate park aptly renamed Kaos Temple.
How do you convey themes like capitalism, existentialism and freedom in your artwork?
Humans are gray bodies without heads like those lost in the war, lost in the universe, and things like that. That's why I always do human bodies with animal heads or without heads.
Your pieces have so much color, which you often contrast with imagery painted in gray. How do you see the contrast between life and death as seen through the color palette in your artwork?
In the past when I studied fine arts, I painted over gray paper, and it was funny for me because I learned a lot on how to do the lights and volume and other things. Maybe that's why I paint with colorful palettes now, and I love to mix with gray because it helps me get equilibrium, a very harmonic composition. All the color together for me is multi-cultural, like all races and skins are the same, which is why I paint the humans with multicultural color, and the gray could be the inner things.
In many cases, you paint the eyes in a way that recalls looking up at the night sky and seeing all the stars. If the eyes are the window to the soul, does your art suggest that the soul is as infinite as the universe?
Yeah. I don't like to do the eyes because it's like all people have an infinite and very special world inside themselves, but maybe not everyone can find too much inside themselves, and they have to do it. That's why I like the idea of the universe inside the eyes. Humans are infinite, too, like the universe.
What do birds symbolize in your work?
Birds for me are the freedom, you know? That's why I always put cages, and the universe is finally like a big cage—I think it is the same but in the opposite way—and the bird is like the freedom.
The new show is titled the Mayan Renaissance. What aspects of Maya faith, culture and art appeal to you, and how did you work them into the pieces?
In the last shows, I started to work in the same world but in a different way. When I do the sketches, I take pictures from my travels or from the internet about Italy, Greece and Rome… classical sculptures. After that, I translate them to my work, but in this case, I mixed with the ancestral cultures in the Indian fabrics and things like that because of the moment of the reality… because with Trump and these kind of things. That's why I put the freedom with Indian fabrics, too.
No Mask for the Wicked is very appropriate for what's happening in the U.S. What masks do you see Donald Trump trying to hide behind?
I did a mask—he's trying to cover his face with my mask—suggesting it's like a play. It's like a funny action. That's why I put bricks like his skin, like the icon of the modernity and artificial capitalism, you know? Trump is like the other icon that works together because he's a rich man that works with the bricks. I put "Viva Mexico" in the wall.
What were you implying with the use of the birds and the woman in his hair piece?
These elements are like a play, too. I think the borders of different countries are inside his head. That's why it works with the freedom idea, and the woman is sitting and looking at the border icon to try to jump or something like that.
Can you tell me how you helped transform the Santa Barbara church into a colorful skate park?
This one was really special for me. First, it was the opposite of how I normally work because I just saw the picture of the church on the internet and I fell in love with it. I decided to contact the owners because it was private, and they knew my work, so they said, "Yeah, you can do whatever you want." I talked with my team and did some things to get the money by ourselves with the help of Red Bull and other brands. Normally the products come to me with everything done, like the production and the team, but this one was the opposite way. That's why it was special to me.
You also painted a church in Morocco, correct?
Yes. I did the second one in Morocco. It was a very, very special thing that happened after I finished. It was an abandoned place because the people are Muslim, but after I finished, all the Muslim children and old people came to me to do selfies and to go into the place and use the outside like a cool place [to hang out]. The best thing is how the art changed the place to where people from other religions go there. Now it's like an exhibition gallery. The cool thing is that there are no borders between religions, between everything. It's like the art was the best religion over everyone's. The Muslim people feel the art and go there and that's all. They don't care about the other symbolism.
You were a graffiti artist when you were young. Any troubles with the law?
Sometimes but not too much. I started to work in the street in abandoned places, lost factories, lost railway walls. Normally in Spain you don't have too much problems. Maybe in USA you have problems with that, but in Spain, you can go to abandoned places, and maybe the police come, but they don't do anything because nobody is the owner.
Marijuana social clubs have become popular in Spain. Is there a cultural connection between marijuana and the arts in Spain?
Yeah. There are a lot of marijuana clubs in Spain, and the idea of some of them is to mix it with art and music. The people can go there to smoke and buy marijuana, but people can also be there in a cultural place, not only to smoke.
Did you ever paint at one of the social clubs?
No, I never worked with the clubs, but one time my DJ friend started to work in one of the social clubs, and I did five canvases for them but just for a short time. Some of them are doing gallery shows, but I only work big galleries.
David Jenison (email@example.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.