Marianna Olague, Perro Bravo, 2018, Acrylic and oil on canvas, 36 x 48 in

Born in El Paso, Texas, the Mexican-American painter Marianna Olague frequently draws upon her personal experiences and family histories. Her narrative, figurative paintings illustrate the circumstances of living next to the US-Mexico border in low-income Mexican-American neighborhoods.

The subjects of her figurative painting are mainly family members that are engaged in ordinary activities.

Larger than life, her figures often dominate the viewer.

Her color palette is inspired by the culture and landscape of Mexico; the colors saturated, sometimes over-saturated. Her figures seem to be burning in the hot desert soon.

The border is an ever-present component in her works. In her view, borders offer protection and privacy, but they also delineate an inescapable socio-economic condition.

Marianna Olague in her studio at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, 2018. Photo credit: Conrad Egyir

There is a hint of despair coming from their situation but at the same time, you feel an undeniable pride, strength, and energy of the subjects.

“While it may seem as if my figures are trapped, they subvert those boundaries by limiting the viewer’s access into their private space… 

… through body language, expression and the flatness of their environments they take back control and are the gatekeepers of their lives.”

Her theme could not be more up-to-date. Just recently the US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper has granted $3.6bn in Pentagon funding to be redirected to help build a US-Mexico border wall. We met Marianna Olague just weeks after the devastating shooting in El Paso had taken place where 22 people were killed and 24 injured.

It was said to be a hate crime against the Hispanic American community.

Marianna Olague, Close-up of of Hija del sol, 2018, Acrylic and oil on wood panel, 30 x 24 in
Marianna Olague, Devil’s Triangle, 2019, Oil on wood panel, 40 x 30 in
Marianna Olague, Hija del sol, 2018, Acrylic and oil on wood panel, 30 x 24 in

You are from El Paso and you depict its people. How do you feel about the shooting that happened on the 3rd of August?

Did you expect something like this to happen? 

The day of the shooting was one of the scariest moments of my life. I felt so helpless being in Germany and it didn’t feel real. I never expected something like this to happen in my hometown. El Paso’s population is about 83% Hispanic and as a result, there is a strong sense of community there. Racism felt like something that happened outside of us.

It took an outsider, someone who traveled from far away, to bring violence and hatred to our city.

Even though we are devastated by the events of August 3rd, El Paso is strong and we will continue to stick together as a community.

The environments in your paintings illustrate the circumstances of living next to the US-Mexico border in low-income Mexican-American neighborhoods. The border or Frontera appears as a fence or rock wall that offers protection and privacy but also delineates an inescapable socio-economic condition.

What do you aim for with your art? 

I aim to shed light and bring attention to a group of people who are often marginalized and misunderstood.

Ever since I started making these more recent narrative portrait paintings, I’ve had the opportunity to share stories and educate people on the lives of Mexican Americans. While I cannot speak for everyone, I can certainly talk about my own life and the lives of those closest to me and tell a piece of our story through my work. 

Tell us more about your ideas on borders. 

I think borders do more harm than good. I think it is very rare that a border is put up out of true protection and safety; it is often a product of fear. It only produces more hatred and bigotry.

What a border represents has more impact on the surrounding people than the physical boundary itself.

Ultimately, I think borders are fallacies because no matter how many fortifications or ideologies are used to strengthen them, they are penetrable and can always be brought down.


Marianna Olague, Close-up studio wall at Künstlerhaus Bethanien: En Medio, 2019, Graphite, ink, and colored pencil on paper, 30 x 22 in | Maria, 2019, Graphite ink and acrylic on paper, 22 x 15 in

What means home to you?

Right now home to me is the desert and my family.

There are times when I’m traveling that I miss the desert as if it were another person.

I have lived the majority of my life in the familiar dry landscape of El Paso in Texas surrounded by mountains and dust but that’s home to me. There is a harshness to the desert, but there is also infinite beauty to be found. 


Marianna Olague, Close-up of “Mesa Hills" | Mesa Hills, 2019, Graphite, ink, and acrylic on paper, 30 x 22 in
Marianna Olague, Maya, 2019, Oil on canvas, 72 x 60 in

Which of these elements (space, air, fire, water, earth) would you choose about your practice or yourself, and why?

I would choose the air. Air makes me think of distance and height but also of freedom, flying and seeing things from far away.

I’m always questioning the various freedoms my figures have in my paintings as well as what limitations they struggle with. I also strive to look at things from a distance by reexamining my own family history and heritage.


Marianna Olague, studio wall featuring the painting “In the Weeds” | In the Weeds, 2019 Oil on canvas, 72  x 54 in

You have been staying at Bethanien for two months. How did Berlin and the Künstlerhaus Bethanien artist residency influence your work?

At Bethanien I’ve spent much of my time alone, which has allowed me to work and think through things uninterrupted, but Berlin is in stark contrast to that. Berlin is bustling with energy and I’ve enjoyed going from the quiet of Bethanien to the chaos of the city. What has actually influenced me most about Berlin has been its history.

As someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about borders and walls, I found a deep connection to Berlin.

Marianna Olague, Small paintings inspired by old photographs, 2018 Location: My studio at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Photo Credit: Conrad Egyir

To go throughout the city and see and touch the remnants of such a significant time in Germany’s history has been amazing.

It changes the way I view the current wall and political climate within my own country and I expect my future work will reflect that.


Please tell us what you are currently working on and what you are looking forward to this year in terms of exhibitions?

Currently, I am working on a new group of drawings and paintings for a fall 2020 solo show at David Klein Gallery in Detroit, Michigan.

Marianna Olague in her studio at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, 2018. Photo credit: Conrad Egyir

I’m interested in continuing my family portraits, but with more of a focus on the labor and economics behind my subjects’ lives.

I’m also looking forward to seeing new shows at Xolo Gallery, which is a new art space that recently opened up in my hometown that I hope to collaborate with soon.

About Marianna Olague

Marianna T. Olague is a Mexican American artist who currently lives and works in Texas. Olague was born and raised in El Paso, Texas. She received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Texas at El Paso and received her Master of Fine Arts from Cranbrook Academy of Art in 2019. She received this years Mercedes-Benz Financial Services Michigan Emerging Artist Award and spent two months at the residency programme of Künstlerhaus Bethanien.


Author: Inga Nelli