The Brooklyn-based artist treats Japanese print paper like paint to explore her Colombian childhood with New York eyes
To look at a María Berrío work is to engage in a staring contest. The Colombian-born, Brooklyn-based artist, known for her surreal large-scale collages made with Japanese print paper, typically has at least one of her figures, almost always a woman, looking straight at the viewer. In Oda a la Esperanza (Ode to Hope), a 2019 work inspired by the Trump administration’s separation of families at the US border, eight women arrest the viewer blankly, expressions inscrutable, each holding a bird. At her workshop, where she’s preparing works for her first solo UK exhibition, the gazes follow you across the room. As in a dream, the perspective in Berrío’s work flattens and warps; angles and proportions are skewed. But the female gaze has no such filter.
The impression is that of a woman cutting through time and the subconscious, fitting for an artist who refracts modern frustrations through childhood memories of a place far from her Brooklyn studio.
Berrío, 38, grew up in Bogotá with her two brothers, but spent the formative periods of her childhood on a family farm an hour outside the city, a tactile world of mountains, animals and flowers. She left when she was 18 for New York City and did not return for eight years; her work now draws from these early memories, a sea of childhood impressions and stories told by her parents and grandparents. “It becomes a little bit like magical realism,” she says, as Colombia is “filtered through my memory, it’s filtered through my childhood. I think if I lived there, I would see things as they are and maybe it would be a little bit more raw.”
Berrío knew she wanted to be an artist from an early age – she drew constantly as “it was like a relief, meditative,” she says. “It was the only thing that got me to sit still.” But in 90s Colombia, there were no prominent female visual artists. “It was such a manly art world that you don’t see the possibility of being an artist as a woman.” Convinced her fortunes lay in the US, she moved first with her family to Miami, and then to New York City for art school at Parsons School of Design, where she graduated in 2004.
If Colombia is the id for Berrío’s Klimt-inspired, meditative pieces, New York is “the energy that gets it out, the force, the spirit”. She arrived on a scholarship, too culture-shocked to speak for a year (“Even my teachers thought I didn’t speak English,” she says), and has since moved “like a hundred times” across the city. Asked about the impact of New York on her work, she sweeps a hand across the studio. The city’s “collision of cultures, the world opening” – chaotic moods and inspirations, musicians on the subway, human interaction – “has that very contagious energy, and it also brings you close to humanity in a weird way”.
Her training as an artist was primarily in charcoal sketches and painting, for which she says she was not naturally suited (“Painting always seemed messy to me – I hated mixing colours, I didn’t have the patience.”). It wasn’t until 2010, after she received a Master of Fine Arts from the New York School of Visual Arts, that she discovered her natural medium in Japanese print paper. “I started treating paper like paint,” she says. “Sometimes it can be very expressive, sometimes it can be very contained – I felt like I could express my voice.” This paper, ripped or cut into pieces and layered with glue, gave Berrío a consistency and gravity that painting did not. She has since worked exclusively with a family store in Japan, which fills her workshop with piles of variously coloured paper, some patterned, some constructed with animal hair. (She adds details to faces in her work with watercolours.)
Her work has also, in recent years, more directly addressed the politics of the division, particularly as a Latin American woman. “As artists, we can’t detach from what’s going on around us,” she says, whether that’s Washington politics or the dearth of representation of Latin American women in the art world. “We haven’t had a voice,” Berrío says. “People talk about Frida Kahlo – and I love Frida Kahlo – but it’s like, come on, there’s other Latina women. I feel like it’s my responsibility to shine the light on other Latina women who haven’t had this possibility.”
Fittingly, it’s the women who set the tone in her UK exhibition at Victoria Miro this summer, which will explore an imaginary Colombian fishing village in the wake of trauma, as loss resounds through nature and individual families. The account of grief and resilience, captured in different snapshots of the town, demonstrate how, whether it’s family separation, natural disaster or personal tragedy, “people continue to strive,” she says. “I hope these images give that message, that there’s hope and that, through art, you can see it.”