Reimagining the visual code of the Maya

(Courtesy of Frida Larios)

Frida Larios understands how to use art and design as tools to connect and educate. She is also a woman who inhabits many roles — she’s an artist, designer, salvadoreña, adjunct professor at the University of the District of Columbia, member of the INDIGO collective, experienced traveler and DC resident of many years. Tomás Deza of 730DC en español and Luciana Debenedetti of Knowledge Commons DC (KCDC) took advantage of the fact that Frida will teach a bilingual class on May 23, thanks to a new partnership between Hola Cultura and KCDC (don’t forget to register, it’s free!) to interview her and link something specific and concrete — her exhibit on Mayan pictograms at the American University Katzen Arts Center — to her experiences with local art and community more broadly.

Luciana Debenedetti, KCDC: Looking at your designs and books, it seems that your work has great potential to be used for education. Is that a correct interpretation?

Frida Larios: You know, it actually didn’t start out that way, but being abroad while working on my Master’s in England, in a place very far removed from Mesoamerican latin culture, I started to search for our visual roots, or my own at the very least. Being so far away, I had to look inward, which brought me closer to myself. In some ways, living abroad forces you to find an identity in order to introduce yourself. For me it came as a real shock. It was also while I was in London that I came up with the idea of making new pictographs, respectively drawing upon ancestral visual elements, and redesigning them to make them more understandable. It’s possible to create a closer personal connection to the contemporary pictographs, obviously. I didn’t introduce my work to young audiences until ten years later, but I always had that vision.

Tomás Deza, 730DC: You work a lot in DC with children of central american heritage. How do they react to your designs and stories?

FL: It’s very inspiring to see the kids explore these new connections, because there is a very defined visual style that they understand almost subconsciously. There are kids who, after participating in a couple of my workshops… for example, once the way a volcano was drawn changed from one class to the next, and a girl started crying because she wanted the volcano drawn the way it had been drawn before.

TD: What’s the role and the importance of art in the latinx community in DC?

FL: When I arrived here, I was really impacted by the fact that there was a Salvadoran community here that was so much a part of the fiber of the city. It was while I was living in DC that my children’s book was published by the Presidential Ministry of Culture of El Salvador. It was really special to accomplish the vision that I’d held onto and be able to teach the system that I had reinvented. Being here, and finding a community of Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans, it was almost as if the book had been published in order for me to use it to teach the kids in my neighborhood. However, when I arrived in DC, I discovered that it’s a place that lacks a certain cultural leadership. In addition, there’s a barrier between the museums and the community. The museums employ a certain language that isn’t accessible to the working class person, who works to survive. Part of my intention with this exhibition is to create linkages through my work.

Frida shows us a photo of an ancient Mayan vase.

LD: What are you planning to teach in the KCDC class on May 23?

FL: Normally I introduce the basics of Mayan writing, starting with the fact that Mayan artists were tasked with creating a visual record and communicating it through works commissioned by the governments of the various city-states that existed throughout Mesoamerica, which is the northern part of ancestral Central America. This hieroglyphic language existed for over 500 years, and the city-states, which were divided by jungles, rivers etc., communicated using this common code. I begin the class explaining this history, in order to take people back and make them understand what it meant to be an artist in that time period.

TD: When you give workshops, what do you want participants to learn from the experience?

FL: Normally with children and young people, we use their own stories. For example, I designed and facilitated a workshop with the University of Maryland, with the Department of Latin American Studies and Professor Ana Patricia Rodríguez. The students used “design thinking” to reappropriate the Mayan shapes and vocabulary. We designed a glossary and they created a narrative about what the concepts of “homeland” and “belonging” meant to them. The purpose was to reflect on what language and literature used to represent in our ancestral lifestyles, in contrast with what it means today to speak our languages and use the Roman alphabet, which isn’t part of our indigenous identity. That was our reflection.

The interview left us wanting to know more. What secondary and tertiary meanings hide behind the pictographs? Is it possible that at the same time that languages die, we can create new ones, or give them new life through creative action? As Frida explained, the field of design has as an explicit purpose to teach, provoke and inspire thought. We’ll continue the conversation during her class on May 23 in the gallery of the Katzen Art Center. Don’t miss out!

This interview was made possible in large part thanks to Hola Cultura. To learn more about the exhibit, read this article from El Tiempo Latino.