30 Jan Interviewing Leyla Brashka | The Mexican heritage in a visual language
Leyla Brashka draws from her Mexican heritage and pre-Hispanic references in her visual language. Her practice spans sculpture, ceramics, etching, photography, and various other media. In this interview, she shares insights into her practice, her commitment to community-engaged environmental projects and the transformative power of art.
Your work has a strong relation to community participatory projects through large-scale sculptures. Could you tell us how you began this practice?
Large-scale sculptures, like the monumental Olmec heads, have always fascinated me. My first major sculpture was the “Ocean Universal Guardian” project in 2014, while I was at the Tasmai art residency in Pondicherry, India. For this project I designed the head of the Hindu figure “Drishti Mukham,” which means “to ward off the evil eye,” and collaborated with a local sculptor, Saravana D. to build a hollow metal structure measuring approximately 4-meter-tall and 2.5-meter-wide.
We engaged the community in clean-ups of the pier, collecting and reusing objects such as clothes, plastic, and glass bottles. We also created masks of the deity for participants to wear as a symbol that we are all guardians of the ocean. The positive impact on both the community and the environment during the 8-month installation solidified my interest in large sculpture and community participation.
Since then, I have led four other projects throughout different locations in Mexico, furthering my commitment to community centered art in public spaces. In 2017 I worked on “Marine Metamorphosis” with a community in Nayarit; and in 2018 I worked on 3 projects including “Chalchiuhtlicue” at the Xicome Festival in Puebla, “Marine Constellations” at the Expresión Maraika Festival in Jalisco, and “Marine Universes” in Puerto Vallarta.
How does your heritage contribute to the narrative in your most recent project, “Quetzalcoatl Reborn”?
“Quetzalcoatl Reborn” aims to reconnect us to our ancestral wisdom by bringing back Quetzalcóatl, the most significant pre-Hispanic god in Mesoamerica, considered the creator of humankind and the provider of corn. In the collective imagination, In the Náhuatl language “quetzal” means luminous bird and “cóatl” means serpent, therefore Quetzalcoatl is the feathered serpent in the Mexican collective imagination. I collaborated with American sculptor Lisa Regan to co-create an 8.8-meter-long and 3.3-meter-tall sculpture made from plasma-cut metal plates and stained glass. We segmented it into six parts to easily transport and assemble it. First, we installed it at Black Rock City, Nevada inviting the Burning Man community to interact with it, and it is currently installed at Torreon, Mexico.
Your emphasis on the collective and interactive elements in this piece are intriguing. Can you tell us more about this?
All the elements of “Quetzalcóatl Reborn,” stem from the collective imagination. The body of the snake has colorful stained glass embedded with pre-Hispanic symbols, and the tail is in the shape of corn, as a tribute to Quetzalcóatl’s important gift to humanity. Additionally, each of the corn kernels is a drum where people can play and collectively share music.
The interactive elements of the sculpture turn it into a kind of ceremonial portal, highlighting the importance of music in rituals and both in times of celebration and war. Music also relates to the god of wind, responsible for manifesting rain, and it has rained every time we have installed the piece! (Laughs) The sunlight through the stained glass then pours ancestral wisdom, nourishing the earth and passersby.
Ancestral traditions, environmental consciousness and indigenous relationality – the belief that everything is interconnected – are recurring in your work. How do you approach these themes?
Ancestral indigenous thinking, for me, establishes a connection to nature. I have also explored this in smaller artworks and other mediums like etchings and ceramics. In my ceramics series called “Natural Beings,” I imagined what it would be like if our faces resembled elements of nature, a fish, a flower, a leaf or a shell. Art has a transformative power to, among other things, help us remember our connection as natural beings. In my practice, I approach this through images, objects, and experiences. It is how we relate to our ancestors, our legacy, our land – and foster awareness for the environment and out interconnected existence.
Brashka is a multidisciplinary artist who has participated in numerous exhibitions both in Mexico and in other countries. Some of her individual exhibitions include “Calling of Earth” (2020) at Artifact Gallery in New York, “Nature Explorations” (2015) at Tasmai Gallery in Pondicherry, and “Ocean Universal Guard Project” (2014) at R.A.T. (Residencias Artísticas por Intercambio) in Mexico City. She has exhibited her work in group shows at Palazzo Albrizzi in Venice, Italy (2020), Sonora Fair in Jalisco (2020), and Art Space Xicotencatl in Oaxaca (2019).
She holds a BA in Psychology from Centro Eleia in Mexico City and an MA in Psychoanalysis and Culture. Her passion for art led her to a variety of specialized courses such as painting at the Slade School of Fine Arts in London; ceramics and serigraphy at the Manny Cantor Center in New York, and engraving the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas in Oaxaca, among others.