Local artist Meli Nava recently completed her BFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and since her return to the Valley of the Sun, she’s been busy. She’s created new work and, in November, hosted a pop-up exhibition in her parents’ backyard as an act of homage to the land and people that have supported her growth. She’s also continued to expand and promote a new publishing venture called Navaja Press that she began in collaboration with two other women artists of color, with the goal of sharing visual anthologies of the margins.
When we spoke with Meli to learn more about her practice, she expressed deep gratitude for the sacrifices her parents have made to allow her to pursue her art. Here’s Meli Nava, in her own words, about what nourishes her, the importance of familial bonds, and her desire to support others and their storytelling.
“My identity is the result of generations of labor, miles of travel, and sweat off my family’s back, and this history is something I feel I must uplift within my work.”
Meli Nava, Photo wall installation, 2019. From a solo exhibition in Chicago, IL. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: Tell us about who you are and when you knew you wanted to be an artist? What was your first inspiration, and what motivates you to continue creating?
Meli Nava: When asked about who I am, my mind automatically goes to two things: place and culture. So when I say I am a Mexican-American woman from the Southwest, that holds a lot of weight for me in many different ways. As a Phoenix native with a transnational upbringing, I developed strong ties with not only this city but the one my mother is from as well, Ciudad Juarez in Chihuahua, Mexico, which I constantly visited growing up and still do even to this day. I am a daughter of immigrant Mexican laborers, and this limbo between borders was a constant for me—but one that has truly shaped my perspective of home and where I come from. For me, where I come from is not just where I was born—it’s also the places my family has left to bring me to where I am today.
My unraveling into an artistic career was really scattered. I actually grew up thinking I’d be a writer, as I’ve always had a love for reading stories. But toward the end of high school, I started sketching every day and filled notebooks upon notebooks. I’ve never had a lot of patience, but I found myself taking my time when illustrating. So given that miracle, I decided to take a chance on art school, and I walked out of my first semester thinking that there was nothing I would rather do.
As any young artist, I turned inward for inspiration, which mostly manifested in identity work. Through that introspection, I’ve realized that I have my family and history to thank for who I am and what I have been able to accomplish. My identity is the result of generations of labor, miles of travel, and sweat off my family’s back, and this history is something I feel I must uplift within my work. In a way, this realization has brought me full circle, back to my fascination with storytelling, but now with my familial history as the author and I the visual narrator.
After four years at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I’ve arrived at a homecoming. I remain comforted and assured by the same thing that’s always comforted me: the look on my parents’ faces when I show them how a 4×6 photo has been transformed into something so much more.
Meli Nava, Jerezanas, 2018. Lithograph. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: What are the media that you prefer to work in, and what are the topics you most focus on?
Nava: My practice revolves around working with various printmaking methods, but my mainstays are stone lithography and woodblock relief. The subject matter of my work is rooted in the representation of immigrant labor. I haul from familial histories and southwestern iconography to emphasize the laboral gesture. In this practice, I pull from a personal archive, one that is brown, intergenerational, and transnational. During this process, I search for ways to reconstruct what and who an archive is composed of. I like the idea of subverting the archaic purpose of portraiture, its selective and/or elitist framing of history, and who is handpicked to be remembered.
It all starts with three storage totes of photo albums that have been accumulating since before I was born. My family has always been keen on documentation and archiving, though they wouldn’t call it that. These photos have always just been a way to remember things, from a third birthday party to a random weekday afternoon. I see these albums, though, as vessels of history: to me, this is our way of countering the canonical Western archive. A Mexican immigrant family able to have a hand in writing their own narrative, to be viewed through a lens they are directing, is an act of resistance against the erasive writing of history. I am interested in how this marginalized group is able to make a mark and document their existence and journey in such an organic way. Every photo comes with a story and varying emotions, which are then embedded into the work I produce. As I go through these photos, I consult family members, gathering dates, names, etc., and this practice is instrumental to the process. In these moments of recounting, I get my substance and interest in continuing to push for more.
Meli Nava, 1,902 Kilometros, 2020. Lithograph and screenprint. Courtesy of the artist; Meli Nava, 1,902 Kilometros (detail), 2020. Lithograph and screenprint. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: Who are your greatest artistic influences?
Nava: I’d say most definitely José Guadalupe Posada, the Mexican print collective Taller de Gráfica Popular, Graciela Iturbide, and Guadalupe Rosales.
PhxArt: Tell us about Navaja Press. What inspired you to start this work? What is the press’s mission, and what types of work are considered for publication?
Nava: Navaja Press is a publishing and printmaking collective that I run with the aid of my collaborators, Taylor Ramirez and Lorena Reyes. This all truly grew out of a love for storytelling and wanting to share the stories we cherish. We are all Phoenix natives with Mexican roots, so a lot of the stories we’ve swapped overlap in many ways. They all originated with our parents, who heard them from their parents, and so forth. This tradition of oral history passed down from generation to generation sparked the essence of what this press wants to accomplish, honor, and carry on.
We run on a platform of bringing forth work that explores—but is not limited to—intergenerational history, archiving lived experience, and translating oral histories into visual/graphic works. We want to focus on highlighting the experience of existing within the margins and hope to bring visual anthologies to the forefront. We are excited to explore how one’s lived experience can be seen, heard, and read. These iterations mainly take form in books/zines or print work. There aren’t any strict parameters for what is published or printed, but we do like to form wholesome relationships with anyone we work with. Above anything else, we just want the work to be able to have a genuine sense of engagement and tell a story that is its own.
Meli Nava, Photo wall installation, 2019. From a solo exhibition in Chicago, IL. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: What else have you been working?
Nava: Personally, and fitting within the theme of homecoming, I’ve been working on a series of mixed-media drawings and prints that explore the household as a site of identity and memory. I’m looking at household items that have been staples throughout my life and exploring the weight they hold in our history. For example, I’ve completed a drawing of a family nameplate that’s mounted on my late grandmother’s front porch. This serves not just as an object but as a marker of the family’s presence, a way of proudly taking up space. Just like the photos I pull from, these objects have been with my family for so long that memory is embedded in them. I drink coffee from a mug that my father bought in Zacatecas, Mexico, before I was born. In doing this, I see it as a continuation, expansion, and ultimate consequence of that moment in time. His memory of purchasing that cup in the mercado is now a part of my daily routine, which I find so fascinating.
On the Navaja Press side, we put out an End of Summer print drop earlier this year with local artist Hector Viramontes. It was a fun project and way to say goodbye to summer through printmaking. We have been fostering a relationship with Hector for quite a while, and it’s been interesting in that my work is so representational while Hector’s is very much abstract and that juxtaposition was nice to play around with. This was our first collaboration, and I loved the process. Every screen print was hand-pulled in our mini make-shift print studio, so you can really see the sweat and love that went into each one.
We also hosted a pop-up library in my parents’ background earlier this month. We have so many zines and art books coming from our own respective networks and felt like this would be a nice way to share our resources with you all and uplift the networks we wholeheartedly support. This project really stemmed from the multitude of book fairs and zine shops we have visited and how they have been a place not just to purchase incredible work but form wholesome connections with people whose work we care about.
Meli Nava, Dos Mujeres, 2018. Lithograph. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: What can our community expect to see next from you and Navaja Press?
Nava: Navaja is really dedicated to centering voices of the community and helping to expand said community. Next, we are collaborating with Mobile Print Power, a print collective based in New York City, on a postcard project centered on how we can propagate community not just locally but nationally. We are hoping to have the postcards out by the end of the year and will be distributing them at local mutual aid sites in Phoenix, New York, and Anaheim.
We’re curious how creatives are navigating the time of coronavirus. Meli Nava shares what’s giving her life as a creative during quarantine.
Nava: I’d say my top two quarantine activities have been extensively curating my playlists and reading list. I have a playlist for every mood, whether it’s angsty hardcore or Mexican rancheras. I will shout out some recent favorites, though, such as Men I Trust, Thee Lakesiders, and Title Fight. As for reading, I’m a nerd for critical theory, so I have been devouring Gore Capitalism by Sayak Valencia. It’s a very eloquent, intense deep dive into the world of drug trafficking and its economic/social effects on the border. While it is definitely mentally and emotionally a lot, it has given me so much language for things I knew about but couldn’t even begin to process. It so happens that the book describes something that occurs in my mother’s hometown, so having a critical lens added on top of my family’s and my personal memories of and emotional ties to a place has been an interesting space to dwell in and think on for future work.