Angel Sapawechia, a Yaqui Painter

Veronica Wood
June 13, 2023

V: How did you get started with your painting?

I’m fairly new with art, I picked up the paintbrush two years ago maybe, during that time I was mainly focussed on work and paying bills. Until recently I had a lot going on as well as going through loss. 8 months ago I got brushes and paint brushes and started painting. I started expressing how I felt and reconnecting with my culture. That's where I’m at right now, expressing myself through storytelling and art. I'm in the process of trying to find my style. I'm currently doing expressionism and folk art.

V: What inspires your work?

A: Usually it will be something like a memory or idea. I wanted to express beauty and something caught in the moment - like a brief glimpse of something. Deer dancers, usually when they start dancing they transcend to a different realm and I wanted to catch that before they get immersed in their songs and dance. Usually it will come up from an idea or from anywhere - I try to write and express what's in my heart.

V: What values and beliefs underpin your work?

A: I want to share. I was fortunate to come from the Rez - for us Yaqui people we are pretty dispersed. Some of us dont have many resources. I was pretty advantaged to be growing up around the culture. Knowing that helps me reconnect and express how intact our culture is still. It gives me a good advantage to express what I know, it gives me a good foundation.

V: What does being an artist mean to you?

A: Art gives me balance and is very therapeutic. It motivates me, and gives me a lot of clarity and balance - so I can enjoy the little things. If I'm here at the garden, I can see something that inspires me and that will motivate me to keep on living and sharing and expressing beauty to art - starting in that garden. It means a lot to me, more than it did before.

V: What does the future look like for you?

A: I never thought I'd get my first payment for doing art - I never thought I'd get paid doing something I loved. I am participating in community work and doing stuff for friends. My mentor Joanne has been helping me get a lot of opportunities. I have a job tomorrow for the  San Luis Rey mission church. I think it's going to be a year-long project. They are planning an exhibit for me in November, so Joann suggested I do about 20 or 25 paintings for it so I’m working on that. I've got about 3 pieces done but I have to sit down and focus. Also I have my first mural I’ll be doing at Muramid ( Little projects like that keep me motivated.

V: Could you tell us more about that mural?

A: The mural will be about our relatives, the insects and animals - I’m going to do a lizard with flowers in the background, our traditional symbols, with the Yaqui flag in it as well. Basically it's going to be a PAHKO - a ‘fiesta’ in my language - it will be meaningful to me because it's my blossoming - it will symbolize me and my growth of life!

V: How is your art and culture connected?

A: I guess it's difficult for me - usually when I post a painting I try to leave a little space to share knowledge and give the audience more of an idea why we dress up in regalia and stuff - so I’m teaching and sharing at the same time. I didn’t think about this before, how I guess the audience I get is my people or people that are Yaqui descendants so I’m trying to teach as well as create art.

V: What barriers, if any, are you facing in your work?

A: We have different communities spread all over - we have five communities in the Tucson region. Within each community we have different teachings or ways of storytelling. I try not to put out anything that offends anyone - word checking my language and stuff. I reached out to a friend who is a very knowledgeable yoem noki Yaqui/Yoeme language to make sure all the language is correct. I want to let everyone know that my paintings are with good intentions and I’m trying to express to those that never had the privilege of growing up in a reservation or getting to know the language or are just reconnecting to their heritage. I’m trying to express through art and beauty and poetry insight from my experiences. I’m also learning and reconnecting to my language and culture. I’m allowing it to grow and learn with me.

V: Could you tell us more about Yaqui members?

A: We have somewhere in the low thousands of enrolled members. My generation fell through the cracks but the language is being revitalized, they are starting to teach it in the schools and it is being used now more than ever. My art comes from poetry. I’ll come up with something and I’ll try and express it through a painting. What I want to do is incorporate poetry into my work.

V: Where do you work from?

A: I bring a sketchbook and work. I also have my easel and canvas at home, it's where I find sanctuary at. I put on music and get lost and create.