I first glimpsed Zamara Cuyún’s work while leafing through a community newspaper on the Southside of Minneapolis. Her painting, “Visitation, Transformation, and Regeneration” [above], had been published as part of an advertisement by American Indian Community Housing Organization. In it, a young woman rests in the arms of a figure depicted with grey wisps. It is unclear whether the woman is aware of her companion, but after talking with Cuyún, I believe the answer lies somewhere between yes and no.
Cuyún uses elements of Maya history and iconography, and aesthetics inspired by Guatemalan textiles, to depict resistance to colonization, explore Indigenous identity, and reclaim female power from colonialist narratives.
Born and raised in Minneapolis, she began artmaking in high school and attended college to become an anthropologist because “this idea of who owns history is powerful.” I spoke with Cuyún about her process, striving to be a good ancestor, and the sacred grandmothers in her art.
Seed, corn, dragonflies, and representations of birth and death. What role does nature play in the stories your work represents?
I am half Guatemalan and grew up with the culture. As a young person, you are never fully aware of how much that influences who you are and who you become. My dad’s family is involved in the Indigenous textile industry of Salcajá. My great-grandparents sold traditional clothing in the markets. A lot of the textiles have these motifs running through them. It takes generations of knowledge and mathematical skills to create designs of trees, corn, humans, flowers, birds, and all kinds of natural elements.
The central world tree is important in Maya worldview. Corn is also a tree of life and the central axis of the world. All of these symbols, they interrelate, they speak to one another. An image is never just an image, it means so many things all at the same time.
When I am creating something, it will percolate for a long time, and sometimes I don’t understand exactly what I am creating — sometimes it is inside of us without us knowing.
How does your work draw on Maya history and cosmology?
It is important to note that my dad’s family are de-indigenized. Like the processes of colonization that have occurred here in Minnesota, Indigenous cultures [throughout the Americas] have been through 500 years of physical and cultural genocide. Many families, to survive, have chosen to cross over, [which entails] not speaking their language, not wearing traditional clothing, leaving community. I cannot go around saying I am Maya because I am not. I don’t have those connections to community. I have light skin, I have privilege.
I was raised to be proud of my Indigenous identity by the people around me here in the U.S., but in Guatemala there is so much shame about being Indigenous. Where did this shame come from? When the Spanish came over, there was violent punishment for speaking your language or practicing your spiritual traditions. The Maya, we had books, we had writing systems, and those cultural materials were destroyed. Despite colonization efforts, many Maya people today continue to resist and have been able to retain some memory and practices from what those books and writings contained.
Our female holy spiritual beings were stripped of history, defiled, and turned into witches, monsters, and demons by the Spanish missionaries. In Guatemala, the female plays such an important role; there is power in the female identity, which needed to be destroyed by the patriarchal Spaniards. I wanted to learn who these female spiritual beings are, [but] colonizers burned books and white scholars often don’t pay attention to women — they will talk about kings and male deities.
Sacred Tlazolteotl of Nahuatl origin (in what people now refer to as Mexico) was called a witch and a shit-eater by the Spaniards, a lustful spirit. If you strip back white interpretations of who she is, you find out that she is actually someone who takes what is used up and regenerates something new.
Who are the grandmothers?
I have a hard time with the way we talk about spirituality here in the Western world in terms of gods and goddesses. These spiritual beings are not something that is up in the sky, they are all around us. They are active participants in our daily lives and in our dreams. So I prefer to call these sacred female beings grandmothers because that is who they are.
I was part of a program at the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota where I learned about the young people, especially the young girls, who are committing suicide in Indigenous communities throughout the U.S. We need to talk about this. The young woman in “Grandmothers” [right] is based on a young woman who took her life. She represents the young people who are hurting. In that [painting] is the calling up of grandmothers that are always there, providing that circle. If only these young people could feel that.
When I was working as an archaeologist, I saw images in the few books that still exist and in the stone stele, carvings from thousands of years ago, [representing how people provided] an offering with incense to create an opening. This is how the grandmothers, our spiritual guides, visit us.
We all need to know that we are not alone. We all need those moments of comfort, and who better to provide that than those grandmothers? We are the products of their wildest dreams. We live because they survived. And hopefully we can do that for those who are coming next.
Many of your pieces layer color onto a dark background. Why is it important to have intensity of light and color?
I am self-trained and I work in acrylics, predominantly on canvas. I work dark to light. I hate starting with a white canvas. I take a deep, dark purple and paint the canvas before building with bright colors.
Philosophically, we all come from this dark place and we all go back to it. Darkness is not to be feared. We are so preconditioned in this culture to fear darkness. This is also something that comes up in anti-racism work.
In Guatemalan textiles, black thread is used as a way to contrast and bring out brilliance. The universe is dark, [and that is] where stars form. The coming together of light and color creates the most beautiful things. You need the balance of both to create the world.
What themes are at play in “Midwife I”?
The midwives, historically, are the healers. They are the ones that go in and battle forces of death and life and bring new life into the world. [Giving birth] is one of the most dangerous and powerful times in a person’s life, so these midwives, they are the heroes. Often these midwives are also the ones who get called witches and the ones who are killed, so those grandmothers who are the healers — that bring life and keep us healthy or help us heal when we are sick — [they are] really powerful figures for me.
That’s why Q’uq’umatz and their serpent feathers are in the sky as well as in the waters. The child is being pulled from those birth waters into the world that we exist in by the midwife. The canoe is a safe place, but she could fall in. Or she might not get the baby.
In “Midwife” the water is feathered water. It is the plumed serpent. In Guatemala, that feathered serpent is the storms and the water and the rain that brings life. And the waters also reflect the skies. This is where a lot of the belief systems here in Mni Sota Makoce and in Maya worldview cosmology start to coalesce. The sky is a reflection of earth; everything that is happening on earth is happening in the skies, and they are not separate. What is under the earth is also part of that sky, where life comes from — primordial waters.
I [depict] Lake Atitlán, which has three volcanoes. Lake Atitlán is the bellybutton of the world, the place of origin. Those three volcanoes are the hearthstones, and they are reflected in the skies in part of the Belt of Orion. The midwife is in that place of origin.
You will see a lot of groupings of threes in my paintings, [which is] a kind of homing pattern. I will put the three seeds that are used in divination, the three volcanoes, or the three stars. The water is creation. It has so much meaning for women and women’s power, all of the liquids of life.
The midwife is blindfolded because she is going in without her eyes’ vision. She is having to use all of her other senses and knowledge in order to go into that dangerous place and try to bring life into the world. I think that happens in birth, but we can also talk about that in so many other contexts. It could be dangerous, but it is worth the risk — what you bring into the world is what matters. It takes great courage to do that.
When you were talking about water, I was thinking about how a common line of thought in the ancient world of Greeks and Romans was that women were not as intellectual as men because of an excess of liquid in their bodies, which supposedly made them incapable of separating the material from the metaphysical.
That is the general sentiment here in the West. We are the weaker sex, we can’t think, we are just all emotion, it is the waters. [Yet] it is so much the opposite, right? Water is powerful. Water brings life, but it is also dangerous.
How do you want your work to touch people?
I create because these are things that move me, that I feel deeply, and that I want to communicate. When I first started showing my work, I did not realize the impact it had on people. It was a big surprise to me that it affected people, especially Indigenous women, in the way that it does. Somebody will talk to me after seeing my work and I feel a really deep connection with them based on their feelings that are provoked by looking at one of my paintings. And so I keep creating with others in mind, especially our young women.