The Peruvian-American Artist Weaving Vibrant Artworks That Explore Craft and Sexuality

Eli Hill
Jun 5, 2018 3:52PM

Installation view of Sarah Zapata, “If I Could,” at Deli Gallery, New York, 2018.

“Our current administration is performing masculinity so horribly,” Sarah Zapata tells Artsy. “I feel like it’s our duty as queer people, as lesbians, to fuck that up.”

As Zapata expresses her frustrations with our current political moment, she runs her hand over a 5-foot-tall knit sock, situated in the middle of her Brooklyn studio. She goes on to explain that the garment was constructed to house her body––or, rather, the body of her drag king persona, Jesus Zapato.

The 29-year-old artist regularly hosts drag king nights, where participants take on a masculine persona, just as drag queens perform femininity. For Zapata’s drag king shows—titled “Nightwood,” after the celebrated novel by Djuna Barnes—she invites fellow artists to perform, but never specifies what style of drag or masculinity she is looking for. The result is a public space for participants to experiment and play; at the most recent iteration, Jesus performed a dance while inside of the aforementioned enormous sock.

Installation view of Sarah Zapata, A little domestic waste I, at Deli Gallery, New York, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Deli Gallery, NY.

Detail of Sarah Zapata, A little domestic waste I, at Deli Gallery, New York, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Deli Gallery, NY.


The artist’s urge to elaborate on identity extends into the everyday of her studio, where she crafts fiber art pieces that are as intersectional as herself. While Zapata’s extended family is split between Peru and the United States, she was born and raised in Texas, where she often felt isolated from her Peruvian heritage. In response, Zapata began learning traditional craft skills that she still employs in her work today. To create her lively, shaggy, and colorfully loud sculptures, she combines Peruvian weaving techniques and American rug-making traditions. The resulting cross-cultural objects become a way to connect her body to the craftworks women have been performing in Peru for hundreds of years.

For her first solo show with Deli Gallery in March 2017, Zapata titled the exhibition after Simon and Garfunkel’s 1970 hit “If I Could (El Condor Pasa),” which samples a Peruvian piece of music. The conversation between Peruvian and American culture attracted the artist to the song, as well as the title’s nod to self-reproach. “There’s all these verses in Psalms talking about the ‘good woman’ and how she works with wool and performs honest labor,” Zapata says, rolling her eyes. “I’m originally from Texas and was born into a very strict evangelical Christian household, so being a lesbian, I just have a lot of guilt.”

Plenty of honest labor is embedded in each of her works––whether Zapata is coiling yarn (a technique in which you continuously wrap fibers around each other) or weaving threads on a loom. Though her art is not conceptually dependent upon how long she spends making it, labor is an invaluable currency for Zapata.

Left to right: Installation view of Sarah Zapata, A little domestic waste III and A little domestic waste IV, at Deli Gallery, New York, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Deli Gallery.

“I think in the end, the labor goes back to guilt,” she says. “I feel like I have to push myself to these really insane limits in order to really feel like I earned it.” That hard work undoubtedly pays off, culminating in an alluring excess of textures, shapes, and colors. In one work, A little domestic waste I (2017), a 3-foot-tall form sits in a small coiled basket. Rising out of the green container, the curvaceous artwork is a spectacle, with a piece of long blonde hair emerging from the yarn’s extravagant display of color. Looking at the shaggy sculpture, it’s hard to resist running one’s fingers through the fibrous features.

For “Haptic Tactics,” a recent exhibition at the Leslie-Lohman Museum, Zapata recreated her encompassing installation on a smaller scale. Tucked into the corner of the exhibition, a brightly hued panel extended off the wall and onto the floor, with a shaggy sculpture placed in the middle. And on the wall, a sign requested visitors to remove their shoes and socks before entering the installation. Going barefoot in a public place may make some viewers uneasy or slightly embarrassed, but this is just the experience Zapata hopes to spark in her viewer––a moment of humility and intimacy.

Installation view of Sarah Zapata, If I Could (reprise), at Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Coiled vessels often act as the bases for the artist’s mixed-media figures; she explains that they’re inspired by a burial practice used in the Paracas civilization, a pre-Columbian Peruvian community. “They first put the body into a natal position, then they would put them into a funerary basket in order to embody this idea of leaving and entering the world in the same way,” she says. The Paracas civilization is remembered for its finely woven, brightly colored clothes, and its textile craftsmanship was integral to its peoples’ funerary practices. “They bury the figures with these intricate handwoven textiles that are crafted at every important event in the person’s life––like when they first got their hair cut, or when they got married––and then they would be buried with these moments.” For the Paracas, each textile wrapped around a corpse is a reflection of an important aspect of that person’s life. Colorful fabrics rendered in red, blue, and yellow surround the individual with the memories of their lives, their culture, and their legacy.

Zapata’s life and artwork revolve around the fetishized, the feminine, and her own multifaceted identity. Even her hair, long and dyed an intense shade of orange, mimics the bins of vibrant yarn filling the walls. Looking at her flamboyant figures, with their shaggy neon clumps and the occasional piece of flowing human hair, it is not hard to see her sculptures as embodiments of her own life. With each artwork Zapata creates, she carries her heritage, and herself, with honor.

Eli Hill