Three contemporary artists find identity, healing, and liberation with corn and agave.
by Kimi Eisele
The artist Jorge Rojas wants to read your future in a corn tortilla.
Well, not exactly. Mostly he wants to create an intimate space for you to reflect on your existence, and he believes that maize, one of the oldest domesticated crops in the Americas, might help you do that.
In Tortilla Oracle, a short personal ceremony or performance for one, Rojas invites participants to knead fresh corn flour masa, or dough, press it into a tortilla, and toast it on a comal. Borrowing from a ceremonial image of a fourth century funerary urn from Monte Alban, Mexico of a shaman using corn for healing, Rojas wears ritual paint on his face and hands and sits cross-legged before you. He then “reads” your tortilla, offering insight into your past, present, and future. And the end of the ritual, you eat the tortilla as a way to internalize the ritual.
Rojas’s Tortilla Oracle is just one example of how artists across the US Southwest are making art that helps us see two of the most significant plants and food sources in the region—maize and agave—in new ways. In the process, they’re also inviting us to see ourselves and each other.
“We Are the Corn”
The connection between humans and corn began some 10,000 years ago when early people in Mexico began to domesticate a wild grass called teosinte, creating the edible grain we now know as maize or corn, maíz in Spanish. Beyond just a food source, maize holds deep spiritual, healing, and artistic significance across the Americas and beyond.
Suzy González, an artist in San Antonio, Texas, who works in “mestizx media”—a wordplay on “mixed media”—and combines Indigenous and Mexican and European traditions, uses corn as both medium and message.
“There’s so much culture in corn,” González says. “Many Mesoamerican creation stories say, ‘We are the corn.’”
González sees her own identity as inextricably linked to corn. Though she grew up in “white suburbia” around Houston, her family comes from south Texas near the southern border of Mexico. But while attending graduate school at Rhode Island School of Design, she felt “minoritized,” which made her want “to decolonize, to undo and unlearn and relearn, and to remember to ground myself in ancestry and culture,” she says.
González says she reclaimed her own history by making zines and later, by bringing themes and materials from Mesoamerica into her work. Namely, corn.
In one public art project, Mujer de Maíz, González painted a mural of a modern-day Tonantzín or Virgin of Guadalupe. She credits “Chicana superheroes like Yolanda Lopez and Ester Hernandez,” artists who first used images of the Virgin in their artwork to empower women of color as inspiration.
Mujer de Maíz is also a portrait of Ale Tierra, a San Antonio food justice activist who often feeds the unsheltered community. “I wanted to uplift her as an individual and what she is doing for the community,” she says.
Maíz is also a form of media itself for González. She has used various parts of the plant to make paintings, illustrations, sculptures, and protest art.
In Plantcestors, González interviewed San Antonio artists and activists about plants with family or ancestral connections or strong childhood memories. She then foraged those plant materials, dried them, and embedded them in resin to create a layer of plant material behind painted portraits. One of the portraits, of Karla Aguilar, is embedded with corn kernels, stalks, and tassels. “El maíz es mi raíz,” Aguilar writes in an accompanying text.
As a child in Girl Scouts, González visited a theme park where she learned colonial crafts, such as candles and corn husk dolls. She never forgot that doll, and in graduate school, she began creating life-sized human sculptures with corn husks, some standing, some reclining.
In Xilonen, a corn husk “nude” reclines on the floor, elbow tucked under her head. “It’s a subversion of the nude, a representation of a different kind of Mesoamerican corn goddess,” she says.
Creating a female form in this pose out of corn husks flips the long-standing story of objectification, the perpetual male gaze, she says. The material itself also reflects a kind of strength, so using them to address issues of femininity or womanhood is significant.
“The husks at first seem fragile, but they’re actually very strong,” she says. “Years later, they’re all still locked in my storage unit, and they have held up just fine.”
In her paintings, corn husks serve as material to both cover surfaces and hold paint as well as to address issues of identity and history. But González sees them more as collaborators than materials. “I’m not using the corn husks; I work with them.”
The inherent texture and materiality of corn husks means she has to work differently than she might with other media. “Even if I tried to paint like the old European “masters,” very smooth the way certain art schools and textbooks teach painting, the texture of the husks makes it incredibly challenging, and I see this as the material interrupting that process with a decolonial resistance.”
Her interest in materials and the stories they carry extends to other media as well. She traces oil and acrylic paint to their origins in Europe, to their eventual arrival, by way of colonization and migration, to the Americas. Acrylic paint also holds significance for Mexican muralists, who were the first to use it on walls. “For me, these three things come together—the husks, the oil, the acrylic—and embody my identity in the paintings,” she says.
Rules or customs prescribed within these materials and how they were first used is also significant to González. “You’re not supposed to paint acrylic on oil, for example. It’s like mixing oil and water. Certain things are not intended to be mixed. To me that relates to the complexity of identity—how many of our identities came to be through histories of violence. And yet, here we are.”
For González, collaborating with corn represents part of a larger process of decolonization she is trying to carry out in her work. “The husk in a way is saying, ‘Hey, I’m here, I’m imposing, I’m resisting. I’m doing my thing.’ And that feels very real.”
Corn as community liberation
Rojas, a multidisciplinary artist, performer, curator, and educator based in Salt Lake City, Utah, says he feels a strong connection to maíz because of his Mexican roots. Born in Cuautla, Morelos, a small town south of Mexico City, Rojas has moved back and forth between the U.S. throughout his life.
“Maíz carries many meanings and for some has become a symbol of community, but also of justice and liberation. While it can certainly be viewed through a political lens, I tend to focus more on the cultural, historical, spiritual, and community-centered aspects,” he says.
Rojas’s Tortilla Oracle, for example, is inspired by ancient Mayan and Aztec forms of divination, which he has re-imagined in a contemporary form. “Many cultures use some kind of object or talisman to help them divine—from cards (tarot), tea leaves, coffee grounds, smoke, I Ching coins, or in my case, tortillas,” Rojas says.
By “reading” corn tortillas, Rojas hopes to help people uncover aspects of their subconscious. Sometimes during a reading, he simply keeps quiet, letting participants open up on their own after offering them “a safe, intimate space for sharing.”
“We have gotten away from making time and space for personal ritual and quietness in our lives, where we can just be with ourselves. I’ve learned through this project that people yearn to be seen for who they are,” he says.
Rojas also creates Corn Mandalas, ephemeral “paintings” made with colorful corn kernels on the floors of museums, galleries, or other public spaces. With Mesoamerican designs, the mandalas honor corn as a food source and celebrate its cultural and spiritual significance to Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas, he says.
Like mandalas from the Middle East and Asia, Rojas’s mandalas not only visually represent significant relationships and design, but also honor the importance of process—the making of the mandala is part of the work.
“I’m interested in the ritual involved in their production, the meditative process, slowing down, being present, and connecting either with other humans or to a power that exists beyond us,” Rojas says. “The impermanence of the artwork goes against capitalism and commerce in art and represents the transient nature of all things. At the end of the exhibition, seeds from my mandalas are gathered, reused, and donated, planted in the earth, or given to visitors to plant in their own gardens.”
This participatory element is central to Rojas’s Tortilla Oracle, first performed in 2009 and now an ongoing part of his repertoire. He has since expanded on that divinatory performance, finding even more ways to connect with community members.
Gente de Maíz/People of Corn, for example, features a central corn mandala and additional elements from audience members. It draws inspiration from the 1949 novel Hombres de Maíz by the Guatemalan writer, Miguel Ángel Asturias. The book retells legends from the Maya Kʼiche’ people and the sacred text, the Popol Vuh, involving the creation by the gods of four perfect humans of maíz and blood.
“I invite parents, children, and everyone in the community to create little people or any figure, made with corn masa that gets sun-baked and then forms part of an installation,” Rojas says. “The mandala at the center represents the source from which all life stems and infinitely returns to.”
The work underscores Rojas’s interest in creating more inclusivity within museums and galleries. “When there is reciprocity between the public and the artwork and artist, the work becomes less about who made it, and more about the shared experience,” he says.
Viviana Paredes, a mixed media artist who works in primarily in glass, also celebrates the long-time relationships between humans and corn. In We Were Once of…, she created glass containers shaped like kernels themselves to showcase varieties of heirloom corn. “It’s highlighting what our tradition was, and I made a totem of it,” she says.
In Ser y Comer, Paredes constructed a food cart made of glass that carries ears of corn for “esquites,” the popular street food or corn cut from the cob and flavored with mayonnaise, chile, and lime. The wheels of the cart are etched with names of other foods originating in the Americas, many of which are now seen as “superfoods” by the food industry.
Accompanying the cart, is an installation of sounds recorded in a market in Oaxaca. “People hawking, sounds of chickens and church bells. You walk in and you feel like you’re in the mercado,” Paredes says.
Paredes grew up in San Jose, California after her parents moved there from Del Rio, Texas to work in the fields then stayed. Like Gonzalez and Rojas, Paredes’s work shines a light on plants, food, and associated objects that hold particular significance to Mexican, Chicano, and Indigenous cultures that have been historically marginalized, especially in the art world.
“When I was in school, I remember them showing us all these blue-chip artists,” she says. “Here’s this guy bronzing a beer can, and it’s ‘fine art.’ But when we do stuff, it’s ‘ethnic.’ So, I thought, Oh screw that, and I started doing our stuff.”
Her senior project created an installation of 27 bronze molcajetes, a traditional Mexican mortar and pestle, usually made of volcanic stone. More recently, she made a one of glass, one of her favorite mediums.
“The molcajete is something that’s so ancient. It’s a very cultural, iconic tool that we use, and it’s about healing and feeding,” Paredes says. “It’s about highlighting and showing people that these are our things, and they are beautiful, and they have all this history and healing and spiritual meaning.”
The House that Tequila Built
Paredes’s deep interest in ethnobotany has fed much of her work in the past two decades. After noticing the prevalence of maguey, or agave, in Mexican artwork from the early 1800s up to the work of contemporary youth artists, Paredes began a deep study of the plant, learning everything she could about it. “I realized that every single part of that plant has a use. So, I thought, I’m going to start making work out of all it.”
People have used agave fiber for rope, leaves as shingles, sap as shampoo, and the sharp leaf tips as sewing needles. “And, of course, they cook the heart, making pulque, tequila, and mezcal,” she says.
Working in glass, Paredes connects with an ancient form that uses natural materials: sand and silica. “Windows, offices, homes, glasses. We see the world through glass. I use glass as a way to highlight what’s inside. It’s a way of putting a lens on an idea.”
One idea she wanted to put a lens on was a particular kind of U.S. corporate intervention into Mexican foodways. In residency at San Francisco’s DeYoung Museum, she created House that Tequila Built using deconstructed tequila bottles to mimic the leaves of maguey, layered like shingles to build structures.
“At the time, a lot of American companies were buying tequila companies. Americans’ tastes can be a bit trendy—it’s always as if they discovered something,” she says. “I made this structure out of tequila bottles to address that.” (Patrón Tequila was owned for a time by John Paul DeJoria, who was also co-owner the hair care company, John Paul Mitchell Systems.)
Paredes has also used agave fibers and leaves to create work. Currently, she’s experimenting with the plant’s cuticle, or outer layer of “skin.” “It looks like parchment paper,” she says. “It’s super delicate but it’s so intriguing. I’ve been collecting those and I’m trying to make a structure out of them.”
Like Gonzalez, Paredes finds the flexibility and stamina in what might be considered a delicate medium. “Glass is intriguing and seductive. It’s hot, it looks like the sun, and you can mold it and shape it. It’s also very fragile. It breaks and can cut, like culture. But it can also be brought back together again.”
Reconnecting with plants
Bringing culture back together through artmaking and shared experiences is an apt way to describe the larger project of all three of these artists. In making work with and about maíz and agave, they are reconnecting audiences to plants and processes that have nurtured humans for centuries.
Paredes believes celebrating ancient food and foodways in the Americas and returning to a more traditional diet can bring health to today’s communities. “A lot of the foods that came from Mexico through Central America and South America are healthy ‘superfoods’.” They are gifts to the world,” she says.
Rojas acknowledges the systems and structures that have caused the rifts between people and these food traditions.
“Capitalism is central to all of these conversations,” he says. “Our modern agricultural industry has separated us from the really important connections that exist between the plants, the crops, the harvesters and the consumers.”
But the answers for how to reconnect already exist, Rojas says. “The people that best understand our connection to the Earth and that the Earth is sacred are usually Indigenous women and elders, and it’s imperative that we seek out and invest in their knowledge.”
For Gonzalez, the answers might lie within the plants themselves.
In her painting, Mutual Aid of the Earth, two human-like figures made of corn husks seem to communicate through squash seeds, corn kernels, and beans. Corn, beans, and squash are the “three sisters,” she says, plants that mutually support one another in farming and gardening.
This notion of care or mutual aid, Gonzalez says, is one of the lessons we can learn from plants. “These are really old lessons that we’ve always known; we just need to remember them and live by them.”