Interview: Xilam Balam, 20 Years of Lines

Lines are one of the fundamental elements of art. Regardless of the medium, it is the line that is constantly guiding the eye, creating or negating space and conveying information. They are the universal language of art, and looking throughout history we can determine so much about different eras based on the use of lines. Since the earliest cave drawings, they have been used not only to create beauty but tell stories. For veteran Twin Cities artist Xilam Balam, the line is used in its purest form; to tell stories that reflect an exploration of history, culture, and identity. His lines go beyond aesthetics, using the language of hieroglyphics and ancient symbolism to tell a modern narrative about what it means to be an indigenous person in a colonized society. A conversation with Xilam tells us a little about how 20 years ago, a school art contest and the beginnings of hip-hop culture brought this talent to the forefront.

RL: When did you first start producing visual art? What got you started?
XB: You want me to go way back?

RL: Yeah let's go way back....
XB: The first big piece I remember doing was in 6th grade. I was always drawing and sketching before that, but they were having a contest at the elementary school I was at. I referenced the image from Beat Street, which was a popular movie at the time. That movie was inspiring to me because of the graffiti art they were doing. Just watching that inspired me to start doing letters, well characters and letters. So they had this contest to do a poster and I designed it to look like the train they did that said "hip-hop don't stop" in the one scene. I ended up winning and that gave me some motivation to keep doing the letters, practicing and stuff. That was ‘86. Then through high school I was doing mostly graphic arts, mostly screen print designs, that I would also enter into the state fair, where I won a few ribbons. So it was mostly graphic arts for me during high school years, but also a lot of drawing because you have to prep them, but it wasn't until after I graduated in that I got my first airbrush set and started airbrushing. That's what got me started seriously thinking about doing visual pieces, bigger pieces. I started doing realistic images on fabric because with airbrushing you can get that photographic quality. That's pretty much how I got started.

RL: How did Mayan/Aztec/Indigenous imagery start becoming the basis of your work?
XB: The indigenous imagery came into play after I chose a name for myself, a Mayan name, and I started to get interested in the images that surrounded us because I'm Chicano; my family is from Texas and we always had that Aztec/Mexica/Mayan imagery around us without ever knowing what it was. [Balam later added about choosing a name like many hip-hop artists do, that he chose his name as an indigenous revolutionary stage name as well as a way to reconnect with his ancestors, going back to the old names and ways.] In 1993, when I went to the U of M, was when I started to read more about it. I was always interested in drawing the images but actually finding out what they meant and where we came from has helped me, in hindsight, to know where I’m going.

RL: It's interesting how you started off with these graffiti letters and then came into these hieroglyphic letters, it's kind of a path you can trace...
XB: Yeah, it's still the writings on the wall.

RL: So how important is it for you to interpret the information behind the source imagery? Because a lot of times when we see indigenous imagery being produced today we just see a replica, it can be very derivative, and there's not a whole lot of story behind it or information that's bridging it to important is it that there's knowledge behind it and it's not just an interesting image?
XB: For me, when I reference a source of Maya or Aztec art, I think it's necessary that I keep it as accurate as possible. I mean sometimes in the source there's missing objects, there's missing lines, or a piece is broken in half, or a third of it is missing.. But in my pieces I like to keep it extremely accurate, and I feel like it has to be because otherwise part of the story would be missing. It’d be like taking several pages out of a 10 page book and replacing it with mumbo-jumbo or just inventing the rest of the story. It's really just keeping all the symmetry. I like to give it my own kind of refining so that it's a little more balanced because I could see where they were going with it.

RL: What is the process like for you? When you’re creating the pieces like the ones we see in the gallery where do you start? How do the ideas start to take shape?
XB: It's funny because I can see the final image but I can't see the final colors. The final color always comes as a bit of a surprise to myself and I always experiment with different colors just because I've been doing lines for so long. But I feel like the colors will come to me without thinking about it too much anyways. What I focus on is clean lines, or at least as clean as I can make them, and from there the colors reveal themselves to me.

RL: Kind of like you're channeling the colors?
XB: I do reference sources and whatever contrasts well with each other, but it could be from anywhere, from nature or patterns around me.

RL: We know you do other art forms too such as music and other types of visual arts... how do they inform each other? Where do they intersect for you?
XB: I never really intend for them to intersect but that's just how it is. This kind of art is such a big part of my life I guess. It's Maya inspired art that I feel most attracted to; it's what moves me the most and it's what I feel the closest connection to are these Maya lines, these brushstrokes, the intended perfection of the image, the consciousness behind it. And that’s where I also believe my different art forms are connected, just through energy. Because I put the same kind of energy behind producing a music track as I put into a painting, or when I sculpt something. For me it’s the same kind of energy that keeps everything inside me calm, balanced, and feeling young, if you will.

RL: Who inspires you?
XB: [We pour a lot of coffee] I guess it’s not so much who inspires me but what disappoints me in this world that really pushes me to make some beautiful stuff, some beautiful images, or music. There’s too many names to name musicians I’ve been inspired by or different artists that I like.

RL: It’s really that underlying consciousness like you said, bringing authenticity and consciousness that’s missing in so many things.
XB. Yes, and to put it out there in visual or audible form is really nice.

RL: Ok we have to name one person, just one that inspires you the most. How about a visual artist?
XB: You know my first inspiration with the airbrush was the homie…[we try to remember his name] He’s been at the Walker, I think they might still have one of his airbrush pieces, sitting there with a cigarette in his mouth, it’s not Chuck Close is it? [It is.] Really the most I’ve been inspired is by Maya artists that aren’t even alive anymore. And rarely any of them from the references I’ve used sign their name to any of their pieces. So that kind of intrigues me too, that being anonymous in your art, I guess, even though I sign most of my pieces. [We pour more coffee] So yeah, Maya scribes and artists are really my biggest inspiration, the artisans.

RL: What advice do you for anyone that’s trying to break into the art world? Especially because you pretty much did it on your own, just through the merit of your work.
XB: Some advice would be to just do what you do best, paint or whatever inspires you. Don’t let this world stop you. Just make art.


Reynaldo Lara: writer, artist, educator, and Electric Machete Studios member 

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