The Mayanist: The Art of Priscilla Dobler Dzul by Marina Garcia-Vasquez

Much of what we imagine of the Mayan civilization is based on glyphs, abandoned pyramids in Mesoamerica, and fresco paintings of plummed and godly personas. We imagine a colorful world thriving centuries ago before colonization. Much of what we learn from this Mayan culture is through stagnant mediums: historical books written by white authors, museum collections curated by Western curators, academic courses taught in lecture settings. We peer from a distance and back into time. But Mayan civilization is still alive and still thriving. What is missed is that although huge empires have been replaced by modern cities, the Mayan people are bound by their culture and customs, many of which had to endure violence, oppression, and erasure at the hands of European colonizers, Catholic and Christian conversion in Mexico, and through time—migration, displacement, poverty, and the struggle to maintain their indigenous practices.

When you enter Nome Gallery and the exhibit of artist Priscilla Dobler Dzul, you are confronting an ancient culture that is still very much alive, active, evolving, grounded in their traditions, and generating new ones. As an interdisciplinary artist born in Merida, Mexico and raised in the United States, Dobler Dzul is perfectly situated to probe how identity is constructed in a globalized society and to challenge gender roles and cultural structures. The show vibrantly displays Dobler Dzul’s penchant for craft and fine art by blurring the lines between the two. She is upholding her deep Mexican heritage and casting light on mediums that aren’t always placed on pedestals.

For this exhibit, Dobler Dzul has created a contemporary Mayan codex through painting, sculpture, and textile works. What you see in the work Of Daughters and Dreams is a deep veneration in origin making and a commentary on cultural erasure. Dobler Dzul’s work is not necessarily autobiographical but the works build upon the personal in body politics, sexual identity, gender representation, and cultural heirachies. Through the notion of conception, she is birthing new characters and narratives as an indigenous and queer Latinx artist.

She writes, “I create hybrid mythological artwork to address socio-political issues in a
playful, feminine, sexual way while reshaping and disrupting structures of
misogyny, whiteness, indigeneity, and labor.”

In her works, she is focused on how objects came to be and are used. She works to establish a reciprocal relationship to the earth and the many modes of artistry she takes on. The materials she selects are important to her practice, the colors and how they came to be developed over time have agency, and the personas she is crafting come to her through oral stories from her community in the Yucatan or through dreamstates.

As part of her practice, the artist asks questions to move the themes in her work forward. In this way, the works move beyond the personal and become societal probes. In the creation of objects as representation, Dobler Dzul questions the intentionality of making for consumption. Her making is ritualized and a practice of spirituality and upholding family legacies.

Dobler Dzul references the atrocities made by the Spanish bishop Diego de Landa against the Mayan religion and civilization in the Yucatan as a motivation to make new Mayan works. Around 1562, he burned most of the Mayan manuscripts that served to mark the Mayan history and culture. In turn, he became the singular author on the Mayan civilization, writing the only reference book on what we know of the Mayas. This body of work is a direct response to that loss and erasure. How would Mayan culture be experienced differently if those codices and idols hadn’t been destroyed? How different would we experience Mayan culture if those codices endured and weren’t replaced by a colonizer lens and written from a male gaze? Diego de Landa infantilized the Mayan practices and deemed them as evil. What if they survived and the Mayan gods that took on the properties of animals still existed to demark power, poise, and grace?

As a Mexican-American, the artworks of Dobler Dzul allow for me to imagine a world where our indigenous histories can co-exist alongside our European roots. And they not only exist but are measured and valued by the same merits. Through her practice and through her own mixed-identity, she poignantly pulls just as easily from Renaissance paintings as Mayan stelae from Scottish folklore to Mexican artesania. Rather than focus on oppression, she celebrates liberation in all its forms. This reframing of indigenous knowledge and art created to signal resilience is an empowering reminder that we can take control of our narratives as people of color and be shepherds for new generations of global indigeneity.

In Of Daughters and Dreams, the artist collectively weaves the experiences of her Mayan ancestors—particularly the band of women in her family— to pass on precious knowledge that might otherwise be forgotten. This informs her medium and message. Take for instance the painstaking hand embroidered works on colorful textiles. Dobler Dzul learned the art of embroidery from her grandmother and employs the same techniques and materials that are native to the Yucatan. The needle work you see has been passed on for centuries. The artist wants to unpack and privilege the long line of work that has been considered women’s work, domestic work, and cast off to marginal socio-economic groups. She has a deep reverence for indigenous wisdom, indigenous epistemologies, native plants as sources for dyes and localized artistry.

In a scan of the gallery, you see various materials speak to each other. The glaze of the ceramics articulate the complexity of the paintings while the sheen of the textiles avail your eye to the unmarked space to fully surrender to the realities of creation, of the mythological creatures and the handiwork on the fabric. That unmarked space is a pause so that the viewer can fully imagine how many hands engaged in the making of the piece, how many hours it took with needle and thread to piece together the composition of a brown naked body in repose on a unicorn, surrounded by blue birds and protected by two jaguars. The piece titled “Trono Del Jaguar” is the artist’s recreation of the noble scene displayed at the Mayan pyramids of Uxmal. The jaguars represent masculine and feminie energy and are symbolic of the twin capacities of duality. In Dobler Dzul’s work she is constantly reminding us that it’s not one or the other but always both at the same time.

In another textile piece, the figures get lost in pattern to connotate a dream-like state. You have to spend some time with the piece to outline the characters and their interaction with each other. At this point in the show, does your eye pick up on a recurring motif? Are you seeing the full picture? In this approach, the artist is questioning representation and visibility as it relates to artists and particularly women of color: Are we ever fully seen?

In another textile piece dedicated to the political and economic importance of henequen plant to the Yucatan, Dobler Dzul embroiders a Spanish map of Mexico over American Toile fabric. This artwork is steeped in deep research and is an object made to process trauma and rage. The piece is equal parts education (for the viewer) and rage (for the artist and, hopefully, for the viewer). The map, made by Spanish colonizers, outlines the natural resources of the Yucatan, how to tame the ‘savage’ Indians of the area, and details the areas where Mayans have been conquered. The book that the artist references is an example of information as systemic measures of erasure based on Spanish knowledge of indigenous people. These tomes still exist, are still referenced in MesoAmerican history, and are still problematic for indigenous people.

Dobler Dzul says, “This research has influenced me into detailing the maps, objects, and Mayan people based on how we are seen or not seen and how our bodies are still being exploited within our own lands or commodities. I wanted to play with the pattern design which is of a plantation in the south of Savanna and has Spanish moss ( an invasive plant to the region) and address the similarities throughout the Americas stolen lands, rape, murder and slavery.”

I’d like to imagine a world where Dobler Dzul’s textiles could hang alongside stolen Mayan relics at major institutions like Museo del Prado or the Smithsonian. As a viewer to the artwork, it is also our role and responsibility to not look away, to acknowledge the pain and suffering of others and to look to future opportunities to retell history, center people of color, and invite a more inclusive narrative into our formulations of history, especially when it comes to colonized nations and people.

In the tryptic “El jardín de las delicias,” we recognize a landscape populated with grotesque creatures similar to the Renaissance paintings “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch. Through the absurdities we learn of the struggle between morality and pleasure, power and privilege. Dobler Dzul is also bridging our gaps of knowledge and making historical connections. It is no accident that when “The Garden of Earthly Delights” was painted, it was a socio-cultural commentary on our ideals of utopia and paradise as it pertained to discovery of the riches of the New World and the subsequent wealth made by Europe through colonization.

Here in Dobler Dzul’s paintings she is reinventing landscapes, and depicting the cycles of life with many creatures of varying races and genders colliding together. Her vibrant brown bodies in their caustic landscapes yearn to be seen as sublime, for their greatness beyond calculation or measurement.

In Dobler Dzul’s versions she is giving power to what others perceive as primitive. She is amplifying representations of wealth and power through an Indigenous perspective by referencing postures of Renaissance paintings and imbuing Mexican cultural relics like glyphs and wrestling masks. Through her own symbology is unpacking references of police brutality, white supremacy, rape, lust, and death. She says she applies those tactics of composition to “dream up what future ancestors and lands would look like if they were given the opportunity of perseverance and care for our ancestral lands.”

By pressuring the past she can create future possibilities. In these paintings, we understand the strength of dreams and the blending of dreamstate with reality. Dobler Dzul is perpetuating the hard truths and experiences by indigenous people through time. She says of the paintings, “Its also in dialogue with how Western religion and colonization have contributed to massive illiteracy, erasure of identity and native language.”

As you walk around the gallery you will encounter Dobler’s five sculptures. In Dobler’s sculptures its important to note all the parts that make a whole. Upon first glance we see a menagerie of mismatched beasts taking up colorful formations but if you stop to inspect each detail and learn the values of the coexistence you will find a measured and thoughtful opportunity for self representation. You will find a tale that is blended with Mayan mythology and zoology, oral history and pop culture. She has paired each sculpture with stacked qualities as totem powers.

She says, “I’m looking at all these different properties because these objects, from a patriarchal perspective, wouldn’t be able to reproduce. If the body has no function, what does it mean now that it can do all these other things? You look at insects that can reproduce on their own. I’m combining these different elements into these new hybrids, ceramic pieces.”

For Dobler Dzul, the sculptures are a political remark on the functionality of our bodies when they are void of reproduction. They are an opportunity to fully celebrate sexuality, pleasure, and other forms of human connection. She says, “I’m looking at different processes and methods of how our body will function when some of us don’t want to or can’t carry children. When we can’t label someone’s function, or they are are based on what they can produce with their body.”

In “​​La madre de las serpientes,” we see a fleshy woman, seated in full acceptance of her body and crowned by snakes. Dobler Dzul wants us to change our fear and evil associations with snakes, as with her other work, she wants to challenge what is acceptable. Mayan gods and goddesses were powerful snake/human creatures that told a symbiotic story of creation and power. La madre is not burdened by the snakes, she coexists and playfully surrenders to their presence on her body.

In “Estrangula la serpiente, antes de que te coma (human snake), Strangle the snake, before it eats you”, a masked female taunts us into observing her posture. She is a seductress and sorcerer. In her folded and layered body we believe in the reign of power, part snake, holding snake, and part female, we identify her form as a mermaid of cavernous and deep earth interactions. Here, she beckons and calls for us to observe her in all her glory. In her casting, Dobler Dzul opens up the opportunity for her to be powerful, playful, full of good intentions, and as a goddess to place new energy into. She dares us as viewers to venerate new female forms of power.

In the Yucatan Peninsula, one can happen upon a crab crossing the road. It is a humorous and magical endeavor as you witness the crustacean side shuffle across a busy street. There is inherent danger from the constant flow of cars, bicycles, and feet. At night in the rainy season, hundreds of male crabs make their way by moonlight from the depths of the jungle to the sea to find mates and reproduce. In “Nina cangreja (crab monkey sculpture)”, Dobler pulls from many influences from the animals native to the Yucatan to venacular references of Mayan culture. We’ve seen this spider monkey before in the works of Frida Kahlo. In the natural world, spider monkeys communicate their intentions and observations using postures and stances,especially postures of sexual receptivity and attack. This creature represents queer identity. In Spanish, cangrejo has two meanings it means crab but it is also used as an offensive word for gay. This creature is well aware of her body, sexuality, and her power to call on lovers at night.

From these animals we learn concepts of time, sexuality, power, and the desire for livelihood. In the sculptures you get a sense of action and procession. If Dobler Dzul’s paintings are somsanbulists, the ceramics ground us in the distinct gifts of each animal. Humans have been learning from animals from the beginning of time, watching, and learning from their natural rhythms as something to emulate and praise. Indigenous communities position animals as equitable partners in an interconnected world between humans and other beings, animating with spirit and expanded abilities to act and communicate.

Of Daughters and Dreams is a vibrant reimagining of all the qualities that make us whole, as individuals, as a culture, as a society. As with many artist’s practice, this collection of work is singular and Dobler Dzul has already evolved to examine a new set of constructs. In her painting practice, she wants to work with muted and natural colors that are native to the materials of the Yucatan. What happens to her work if the colors fade like the frescos in Mayan pyramids? What is the emotional connection to colors the shade of maize, tobacco, blue incense? Will we, as viewers, still feel the energetic bursts of identity and representation without the pop of color? From the ceramic work she is exploring how to sustain life through clay by embedding native seeds or growing moss from the sculptures. How will this change our relationship to human forms? Much like other bodies of her work, Dobler Dzul is prepared to task the process and explore new outcomes. She asks, “What will our bodies be? Because we ultimately give back to the earth when we die, we dissolve and we get back into soil.”



The Mayanist: The Art of Priscilla Dobler Dzul by Marina Garcia-Vasquez