In the Studio with Mariá Camila Cepeda

In the studio with María Camila Cepeda, whose latest works explore our relationship with nature and territory, in which she sees a strong linked to identity. We met with Mariá to tell us more about growing up between Columbia and the UK, wanting to be a pintora, and her unexpected sources of inspiration.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

I possibly started seriously seeing myself as an artist when I was on my last year of high-school. I was very lucky to study with a Colombian painter called Alfredo Araújo who I met around then. I’d go after school and on the Saturdays to learn everything I could from him. It was at this point that I started seeing that this was my career, and I started fully devoting myself to make it happen.

 Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?

I am from Colombia-  I moved to the UK 5 years ago to do my undergrad and then my MA. I was very privileged in my upbringing: both of my parents encouraged me from a very young age to do whatever made me happy. I also went to a lot of art exhibitions since I was very young- we’d always go to see artists that were brought into the museums in Bogotá, and we’d also go to the local art museums of wherever we traveled. I think doing this definitely influenced me wanting to become an artist. I also went to a bilingual school so I had contact with external cultures since I was very young. I always wanted to be elsewhere and be someone else. It wasn’t until moving out of the country, and being home sick, that I realised the beauty of my country, our culture that is so diverse, and the people living there who are all, for me, like hybrids. My work has definitely evolved from this, as it now revolves around Colombia, its nature and the south-american identity- seeing it as a hybrid that comes from all the cultures and races that converge there.

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice, artistic work?

I remember in kindergarten I’d always say I wanted to be a “pintora”. That changed throughout the years and I fancied myself as a physicist, or maybe a chemist, or maybe a writer. It wasn’t until later on after taking a drawing course in the National University in Bogotá ( I think I was 16), that I decided that that was what I wanted to do. I then went on to study with an artist, Alfredo, that I really admire and who was key in my artistic journey for around 4 years. During two of those years I did a technical degree in painting and drawing. It was a period in which I grew my skill-set massively. I then went on to do my undergrad in Leeds Arts University,  in which I worked mainly in sculpture- The workshops were amazing so I was able to go crazy experimenting with all the materials I could think of. I then did my MA at the Slade (2019-2021)- it was very affected by covid and this definitely modified where I was going with my art and what I wanted to do. I worked with painting, sculpting, and animation towards the end of my degree, and I’m still following these lines. 

I knew being an artist was the right track for me from very early on, and I was stubborn enough to not change my mind!  However I’d say maybe it was with Covid, and not being able to visit home in Colombia, that I found what I actually wanted to say and do through my art. It was also during this period that I realised I didn’t need to limit myself to working in only one form of art making, which I’d completely convinced myself about during my undergrad. I started painting and drawing again, which was my first love, without stopping my sculptural practice, and going into new territories too.

What’s the message of your work? How would you describe your aesthetic? 

My work is exploratory in trying to understand what makes up a latin american identity. I like to make up characters and narratives around this, taking from the different cultures in the region as inspiration, so for example, in a lot of my work there’s this type of hybrid creature that I see as a synonym to the latino. They are reflecting what I sometimes think is the contradicting nature of latinos. For me,  they all link together regardless of the medium, and I’ve been working on making ceramic instruments that “call on” these creatures, in the same way that some pre-columbian cultures used instruments to bring animals to our dimension. I work with themes of nature, identity, and the mestizo (which is a term that comes from the colonies). The purpose is to elevate the latino identity, and give it all the value it has, which is a value that it wasn’t until recently I could fully appreciate, partly because of the post-colonial condition in which we still see the colonizer countries as being superior.

Who/what are your greatest influences?  

A lot of my inspiration comes through observing the flora and fauna endemic to my country, as well as learning from the cultures that once lived there that were tried to be wiped out, and that many latinos didn’t want to identify themselves with for a long time. I look a lot at the ceramic work and goldsmithing of these cultures. Especially the goldsmithing of the muisca culture- I love the shapes they used. I also look at contemporary artists like Tilo Baumgärtel, and I really like Rousseau too, I think Rousseau has been a big influence recently.

An unexpected source of inspiration?

I am always inspired by books I read, even if they have nothing to do with what I am working on! I sometimes will read the first few pages of a book and completely abandon it because I like what I read in those pages and don’t want the ideas that it ignited to be ruined if I continue reading. It’s definitely a big source of inspiration in my work.

What do you want people to take from your work when they view it?

I don’t think I have the audience in mind while I am creating, but I definitely think of the first perceptions a work can have- I usually do this just after I’ve decided I finished something rather than while I’m doing it. However, I think there is an unconscious element in which perhaps you don’t need to be thinking about what you want to say specifically- I find that I definitely block myself when I do that. For me, different works have different intentions but in general I do want to transport the viewer to a different place, hopefully ignite their imagination, and make them reflect about element such as our relationship to nature, territory and identity

What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise/aesthetic? How has your art evolved? Do you experiment?

The latest one has been covid- I worked a lot with the laser cutter (plastics) and welding (metal). I couldn’t do that during covid so my work moved towards painting, animating and ceramics as a result, as it was things that I could do from home.

 My practice has evolved and changed quite a lot in the time I’ve been making art.I started working on what was very realistic painting and drawing focused on the human figure. I then moved into abstract sculpture, while still dealing with ideas of identity and being human, and then I introduced the elements of narrative and characters by creating wearable sculptures for performing.

 All the paths I’ve walked through definitely converged during my MA and in my practice now, in which I make up fictions, and devote an equal amount of time in the studio to painting and sculpting, (having relegated animation, to an at home activity!). I believe all the technical elements I’ve learned come together, as well as my interests and intentions.

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

I feel that the best conditions are when you can completely forget about yourself, everyone around you and all your circumstances and just concentrate on a piece. That’s when the best work comes out. I tend to overthink a lot and I know that when I’m really stressed the art I make is just not good. There needs to be enough time for you to lose yourself in your work, and you need to give yourself that time. I like going into the studio without thinking “ I will leave at this time”- that’s when I work best.

Something in the future you hope to explore?

I have been writing and would like to make a series of works that follow perhaps a slightly more defined narrative. I’m also thinking of working on an artist book, and in general I will continue to do my trio of animation, painting and ceramics, exploring deeper connections between them.

Tell us about the inspiration behind one of your works?

The piece There (there) was part of some work I did during a residency. I read the first few pages of “The Cockroach” before starting, and the part in which the cockroach has become human and is really missing its exoskeleton stuck with me. It was reversing the human becoming cockroach tragedy into a cockroach becoming human tragedy, giving the cockroach more agency and importance- which is also something that I’m currently trying to reflect on with my art. In this work I wanted to create a world without humans, in which the creatures comfort each other and are the central and main actors.