The artwork of Bethesda-based Nebiur Arellano evokes the transcendent blues of the stained-glass windows at Chartres, the burnished golds of the Byzantines and the earthy ochres of India. These are a few of the associations that may come to mind if an observer tries to put into context the radiance achieved by this artist’s techniques that are particular to her work.
In her visually rich and lavish silk canvases, Peruvian-born Arellano has adapted the traditional tools and materials of the silk painter. Capitalizing on the inherent iridescence of this ancient textile, she creates intricate, layered tapestries inspired by the indigenous cultures of her homeland. The dazzling jewels of Sipán, the mud city of Chan Chan and the rhythms of Huari textiles all find their way into Arellano’s work.
“I am from Lima, a huge city,” says Arellano. “But traveling inland, I discovered another Peru, a landscape and culture that reconnected me with my heritage. I saw immense deserts; high mountain ranges; huge, finely carved stones. Even the mud, the dust, the wind of these places affected me. The weavings, jewels and sculpture I saw were primitive and ancient, but the colors were vibrant, the lines were strong and there was also something incredibly modern about them. The paintings I make grow from my need to decipher this enigmatic alphabet of a living culture that I recognize as mine and that gives me my identity.”
Arellano began her career as a sociologist in Lima, but loved painting since childhood. She began taking art courses while working full-time, but when her second child was born, she began focused art studies in Lima. “It was an incredibly violent time in Peru. There was terrorism, guerrilla activity,” recalls Arellano. “We found ourselves near a car explosion with the retaking of the Japanese embassy. My eight-year-old said, ‘Mommy, I’m too young to die.’” When Arellano’s husband, a British journalist who now works as a translator, brought the family to Washington in 1992, she continued her studies at the Corcoran School of Art.
After originally working in oil on wood panels, Arellano began experimenting with silk in 1995. Inspired by traditional Peruvian weavers who worked the fibers of alpaca and a similar animal, vicuña, to create textiles, she approached silk as a modern substitute for these materials. She works with white Crepe de Chine, a thick, strong silk that she stretches on bars, then begins by drawing the design
directly on the silk. She uses silk paints that offer saturated color that is at once vibrant and translucent. She also works with gutta, a metallic acrylic paint used traditionally in silk painting as a resist to keep colors from bleeding into one another. However, Arellano uses gutta as paint to build depth and texture. The additional application of several layers of metallic paint creates extra dimension. An average work contains six to seven layers of paint. “When I remove a work from the stretch bars, the work is very rigid,” says Arellano. “People mistake my works for weavings, for glass, enamel or paper. They’re really not sure what they’re looking at, and I love that.”
Arellano developed her unique technique through trial and error. In 2000, working on very thick silk, she found the resist didn’t work and the colors began spreading. Trying to cover her mistake, she applied metallic paint and discovered that she liked the effect and began layering the paint to build up the surface. She now integrates delicate gold and silver leaf in some of her works to create further dimensionality on the surface, marrying it with the layered metallic paints.
Arellano’s work has received international attention. She has exhibited her silk paintings at the United Nations in Geneva, at the Organization of American States in Washington and in galleries, shows and exhibits in DC, Baltimore, West Palm Beach, Cologne and her native Lima. She has participated in four Smithsonian Craft Shows (including 2007’s in April) and will travel to Paris for a two-artist show in November. Her beautiful self-published book, Nebiur, depicts the artist’s work in its full color.
“People mistake my works for weavings, for glass, enamel or paper. They’re really not sure what they’re looking at, and I love that.” —Nebiur Arellano
Motifs taken directly from petroglyphs and from ancient weavings and carvings surface in Arellano’s canvases. In Chan-Chan in Red and Gold, 2004, these repeated elements energize the canvas with their graphic clarity, generating movement as the layered patterns and tonalities of burnished gold and cinnabar build depth and push beyond the surface of the silk. Homage to the Lord of Sipán captures the overwhelming brilliance of the cache of jewels discovered in 1987 in a royal tomb that dated back to approximately 200 AD. Sipán is located in the northern part of Peru, close to the coast, where the Moche culture ruled
from the time of Christ to 700 AD, centuries prior to the Incas.
“My work is a visual expression that comes from within, from my Peruvian roots. I marry these impulses with contemporary expression and strive to revive this Peruvian heritage through my work,” say the artist.
“Life is extremely fragile, as I learned firsthand watching my country be torn apart. I want to celebrate life in my work and bring joy while I restore in part some dignity to these cultures that were destroyed centuries ago.”
Judith Turner-Yamamoto is an art historian, features and fiction writer in Washington, DC. Stacy Zarin Goldberg is a photographer based in Olney, Maryland. For more information on Nebiur Arellano, visit www.nebiurart.com.