Los Angeles painter depicts drug cartel women

Portrait, painting of Ms. Sinaloa Laura Zuniga, who is one of many women wrapped up in the narco world. This appeared in 2008 at the Walter Maciel Gallery. (Painting by Carolyn Castaño)
Portrait, painting of Ms. Sinaloa Laura Zuniga, who is one of many women wrapped up in the narco world. This appeared in 2008 at the Walter Maciel Gallery. (Painting by Carolyn Castaño) Julio Cruz/KPCC

The drug cartel violence in Mexico and Colombia has inspired one Los Angeles artist to create a series of large paintings she plans to exhibit this spring. The work depicts the lives of some women who’ve become involved with notorious drug cartel leaders.

Three years ago, Carolyn Castaño created a portrait of Pablo Escobar and other drug cartel leaders in Colombia and Mexico, paired with the women who became the drug dealers’ lovers, girlfriends or wives.

"What I found is that there’s a high degree of beauty queens and very, models, actresses and journalists who get involved with these kind of dark personas," she said.

She scoured the Web for pictures of what she calls "narco novias" and "muñecas de la mafia" – narco-girlfriends, mafia dolls. The images she found are spread out on her work desk in her second-floor artist’s loft just east of downtown L.A.

The women’s perfect skin and hair makes the pictures look like head shots for a telenovela casting call. Such as Angie Sanclemente, who was the "Reina del Café" – Coffee Queen – and became a model, actress and allegedly the leader of a drug ring that lured attractive young women.

Castaño decided to focus on the women for an exhibit at L.A.'s Municipal Art Gallery in May. She decided to mash up Renaissance-era depictions of Venus – the goddess of beauty and love – with drug cartel references.

"I’m setting them in these kind of garden grottos, that are, it could be like a garden, they’re the sexual Eden, but they’re also laundered with flowers from the tropics or like the coca flowers, the heroin poppies, the marihuana leaves," she said.

So instead of the birth of Venus, the 11-by-5-foot canvases depict the final resting places of narco novias in hallucinogenic reds and oranges. Darker pigments cast a pall on the scenes.

After years of research, Castaño knows these women’s stories by heart. That’s fed her artwork and tested her emotions.

"I’ve been really struggling with how to depict the women, how to depict the stories. I was painting some severed heads then I sometimes couldn’t sleep at night, like is this really what I want to be doing?" she said. Yes, she eventually concluded, because these are someone’s daughters who’ve gotten mixed up, sometimes very willingly, in lives of crime.

Carolyn Castaño’s parents are Colombian and she grew up among Mexican-Americans in L.A. So the drug turmoil in both countries hits close to home for her – even as many people in Southern California believe it’s a distant problem. "I hope that people become aware of the situation but also have a greater connection to something that is happening in our backyard that in essence we’re also implicated," Castaño said.

She hopes her paintings prompt viewers to reflect on the destruction of promising young women’s lives – one result of this country’s appetite for drugs.

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