Interview with Mia Eve Rollow

The Sailing Stones Act

Interviewed by Iona Nave Griesmann

Mia, a Chicago native, is a multidisciplinary artist.  After receiving her Masters degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2009), she moved to Chiapas, Mexico where she co-founded EDELO (En Donde Era La Onu/ Where The United Nations Used To Be).


As a person who was raised in Chicago, what experiences or education did you have that helped you be able to work closely with communities of Mexico, India and Palestine?

While in Chicago, during graduate school, I entered into a time of metaphysical experiences. I will not go into detail on much of it, I will only say I was in a collision where I underwent a physical transformation that lead me into immense pain. However, it also undid the shackles of prescribed reality and my identity as “singular” was wiped away more than ever from then on.

Six months later, back in graduate school, I began to re-form notions of reality in this performative entity that was my new body. I began to create costumes and theatrical body performances to act out elaborate strategies intended to break apart my dysfunctional persona, using these metaphysical experiences as my guide.

In public, people started to come up to me and tell their own intimate stories of wounds they endured, so these isolated performances soon became community performances extending into larger social and political investigations; everything was interconnected. In an otherwise grey world, I found something that felt very communal and real; this became a foundation for my collaborative work, my understanding of our body, pain and oppression, survival and self-determination, and our deep divinity within.

Do you know specifically what led you to working outside of the US? How did studying the art of Zapatistas in Mexico influence your artistic practice?

In graduate school I became very close to another student in the department, Caleb Duarte. He invited me to Chiapas to begin the experiment of an art space inspired by the Zapatista Movement. One of the main reasons I went is because I had always been an outcast within my own culture and family, and so I wanted to go where others conversed with the natural world the way I secretly did. A place where this dialogue was intrinsic to the way of life, where the communities ruled themselves in autonomy and without fear.

I wanted to see in this type of world; what did “art” look like over there? I wanted to see the power of art as it runs in the veins of Zapatista methodology; they create from a place that is so connected to the stars it can move political mountains.

Their way of seeing– their art–creates a symbiotic relationship between the past or the roots, and the present day, or the dream. Because of this relationship, they are not confined by human-made reality; rather they manifest their own myth, they can hear the true chants being spoken from the spirits of the ancestors within the natural world, and they have the wisdom to listen and organize around the whispers.

Did your beliefs shift when you became familiar with Mayan Shamanism and Cosmology?

The wisdom I found in the peoples’ art was braided into the earth-based healing practices I wove myself into. In this world there has been a historical bleaching of earth-based practices; the indigenous people have been subjugated by those calling their science superstition, their faith heresy, and their wisdom make-believe. When in fact those ‘superstitions’ are the tributaries leading to oceans of truth.

Unlike many other artists who make work about their own experiences, you appear to directly channel the experiences and stories of others. What work do you do to make sure that the performance artists in your work are represented profoundly and accurately?

In the work that you see in the show I have created nothing myself besides the drawings on the wall. All of the performances were done in collaboration with the people in the pieces. When I say collaboration, I don’t mean they are paid actors and I am the director: I mean they are as much the creators of the myth as I am, from beginning to end. My role is that I come from a background of making this work so I bring a sort of structure within which to create, but once we are inside the structure, it is a very organic and open playing field where the people themselves are determining the actual game with me, and have approved and wanted the work to be shown.

Can you tell me more about the “structure within which you bring to create” and the process of making?

Under the name of “art”, a free space to act out realities that are unspoken and even unrealized comes about through interviews, film screenings and discussions, sculpture and performance workshops, and by visiting important landscapes both physical and in our collective psyches.

We sift through themes that are relevant to the participants both on a local and global level and identify potent symbols in order to create our own game or myth. We use what is readily available and familiar to that particular community – materials, significant objects, healing rituals and bodies of the people – which are worked and alchemized by the participants to capture a meaning they chose. The action itself can be the meaning, and there can also be a message that is hoped to be captured in a film with hopes to share globally.

Through this approach, we sidestep any stereotypical tropes of how people may typically be represented, and we enter into a way of creating authentically. We make a way to approach and access ancestral mythic imagination and we hear wisdom from the future. The game masks life and for moments we are playing in our own manifested destiny. The aesthetics are not commercial or produced, they are real happenings, it is magical realism, grounded in reality but suggesting the possibility of unbelievable change.

It may sound prescribed to speak of the ingredients that make up this structure, but it actually is a way to take us out of notions of normality that fabricate our reality and give us the freedom to act within the subliminal.

How do you determine who you will work with, and why do the participants agree to work with you?

EDELO was the nucleus of most of the work in this show. The space, residency and programming gave way to these collaborations. When EDELO was a physical space, a residency and cultural center, I learned to build extremely close relationships with the people I collaborated with. Life and work were not compartmentalized, rather it became a shared and intimate experience of creation while living together sharing chores, meals, celebrations, ceremonies, rituals, weddings, funerals, crises and adventures. Many times, people ask to do a project with me, and sometimes I seek people or communities out who have a story that I find interesting. As EDELO has become nomadic I am still able to bring this energy to the work I create in other places.

Is there any economic profit you make that could be seen as exploitative to the participants?

I receive money due to my disability, but it is very little, but in places where I tend to live the dollar goes a bit farther. Through this income I fund my own work – I funded Edelo, Zapantera Negra, and all the performance work I’ve been involved in its entirety. (Caleb, my collaborator in much of the work, has also given himself to it without any profit and by spending his resources and life energy in its creation.) I maintain autonomy by not seeking money out from large governmental organizations, and I have only just begun to apply for small arts grants from organizations I believe in. The work I am involved in is not monetized, and if it ever will be, the funding will only go back to the collaborators and cover the costs it took to make the work in the first place. I don’t pay the actors to play a role like an actor, but often times I do give a symbolic stipend because I know the time the collaborators spend with me they could be making money by their own means.

What were some of your most emotionally/spiritually intensive experiences when working with others around the world?

I feel like almost everything I get into is that way. Because I tend to work with people who have intense experiences, within the work we are both affected spiritually and emotionally. I suppose one of the more recent pieces comes to mind: this past year I spent a few months in a Palestinian Refugee Camp living with a family. I became very close with the family, specifically with a man who was around my age who spoke English. Through our many conversations he decided he wanted to create art with me about their lives, and we decided interviewing people with disabilities due to the occupation was our starting point. He was interested in this route because his father suffered severe schizophrenia due to the 12 years of torture he underwent in prison. His father was unable to really tell his story in a cohesive way due to his condition, but he became extremely energized by the exercise and subsequent performance they came up with to abstractly document the psychological conditions of prison and his mind.

The act of being witness to someone’s condition in itself was healing in some way. The act of bringing art into people’s lives and letting them direct the work in a world where their human rights have been relinquished is extremely powerful. The act of asking the simple question of how one stays alive amid such darkness became a journey that deepened our reverence to the soul of life. I will be friends and collaborators with them for our lifetime.

I see the documents of the videos as not just capturing the facts but operating as stand alone pieces that embody the ephemeral nature of the performance. Can you talk about your use of projection, sound, and the installation you created?

In many of the performances seen in The Sailing Stones Act we are creating in collaboration and on a grass-roots level with individuals and communities of people, not typically self-proclaimed artists. In this installation, because there are no barriers visually or with sound, the happenings from one side of the world leak into the other, the meditations, prayers, violence and laughter cross pollinate. The audience isn’t a factor because it is an isolated viewing experience, it’s just the viewer and this horizontal space of the projection flooding onto the reflected floor, so it becomes a very contemplative space. Each projection separately loops which means the variations of relationships of the projections are always changing, mimicking the way our realities collide to others. It functions as a cross-cultural experience of the we and the now, where our contexts and labels at first glance are of less importance. What becomes relevant is that we are all here together in movement in this sacred land. This unified vision of the people is something I’m wishing to inspire, so we can see ourselves in unity and rise up to a new and better day.

In the series Father Don’t Hit Me, one of the videos show actresses Dalia Perez and Adriana Tomy Santiz sweeping gesso penis sculptures off the streets of Chiapas. How did you and the actresses develop this concept, and did you get any unexpected reactions from people who watched?

In response to local violence that our community was enduring in Chiapas Mexico, we developed a series of performances that addressed femicide and gender-based violence, both in Chiapas and globally. The phrase, “If they touch one, they touch us all” refers to a real conviction to stop this violence and create a more united and healthy society.

With actresses Dalia Perez and Adriana Tomy Santiz from the Mayan Chamula community in Chiapas, we recreated a classic and everyday scene that we might observe anywhere in the world: two women sweeping. But in this incarnation, the spectator public experiences surprise, awkwardness, and even grief as the gravity of the surrealist scene unfolds. These women sweep up hundreds of gesso penises littering the central plaza, and throw them into the organic waste garbage can. This work uses surrealism and even comedy to bring people into issues that are dark; it uses absurdity to take people out of their comfort zone and notion of reality. Over the course of the performance we could see the viewers excitement turn to a more serious understanding of the issues at hand. In the end, many of the spectators took a penis out of the garbage as souvenirs.

In some of the video performances like Boleros, Bartolo, Art Urgente, and Sonoras Resistencias, performers are sometimes seen chipping away at white gesso blocks with various tools. Could you discuss more about how these blocks are symbolic of oppressive structures, and the desire for social change?

We are all born in this world that is completely backwards. From the moment we were born we were so thoroughly indoctrinated by the insanity of Western European world, views that eat away at our bodies, minds, and our existence. In these pieces, all of the people chipping and pounding away at these structures is like the participant or collaborator going through a meditation process breaking away this coldness, leading us to who we are and who we might have been.


Can you speak to the prominence of the disabled figure in many of the performances?

In my work I’m looking for the power of the human to be found. Where are we? Where is our magic, our bond to something that is aware, awake and real? I feel like in my life I search for these qualities in humans who are living intense lives. Because when we try to manifest a liberated society that doesn’t yet exist, who else has the imagination to dream it than the ones who are made to fight for their every breath? And all of us breath, demographic identity alone does not determine us (“disabled” people), our stories, offer paths from identity politics to unity amongst all oppressed people, laying a foundation for a collective claim of liberation and beauty.


I found Shai to be one of the most magical parts of the show. Can you please talk about this piece?

In this work I was trying to create a still yet slowly moving portrait of Shai, like a moving painting or a frozen moment in time with only an open door. It gives the viewer time and space to enter in and experience who this person is and to actually feel their presence. Portraiture was developed as a form of making a highly-ranked person immortal. In this time where monuments are being taken down, and hopefully more than that will be dismantled, we need to offer genuine options for life. This imagery was a push towards the unified body – human’s nature and the cosmos alike – the celebration of our unique selves and connection to the spiritual and supernatural planes. Art is a conduit between the seen and the unseen, it can change our perspectives and therefore change the way we engage in the world. It is a place where the seemingly impossible can be manifested in our minds, and so it can plant seeds for inconceivable change. All of this was embodied in Shai Kumar and his magic that we tried to capture in this short psychedelic film.

Can you speak about the piece titled Santos. When I first walked into the gallery I was captured by this otherworldliness presented in front of me.

This creation of this work was very organic in its nature, every collaborator brought their own delineation for the path of the piece, but somehow it all came together. By the time the final performance day came we were able to enter into the experience as if we were figures in an actual dream acting out our generational traumas and desired hallucinations and transforming them, using collective symbology. It felt as if we created a dream telepathy where the potent symbolism was shared from one person’s subconscious to the others, and this overlap created collective non-linear healing.

The work seemed to cross-culturally function as potent for all the collaborators there that day, everyone connecting to it with a different reference point of meaning. For example, my ancestors were killed by the Nazis for being Jews in Eastern Europe, so the position of the limbs formed a swastika in my mind, I was able to go to that ancestral past, confront and release some of that pain. Santos and the Elambo community were relating the dismembered limbs to the Mesoamerican Aztec Goddess Coyolxauhqui, Baha Al-zain a performer from Palestine was relating it to demonization and resistance of his people. It continues to function in this manner in this exhibition, for example a Tibetan man who saw the show told me it had cultural significance to him because it resembled the Buddhist Tibetan Sky Burial Ceremony.

Working in our collective subconscious has a depth of meaning I am just becoming able to imagine the power of. Letting ourselves become unaware of our immediate surroundings we can come to a place where the heart of life is what can alchemize us away from the pain of our perceived separation.

To see more of Mia Eve Rollow’s work, visit:

To learn more about EDELO, visit:


This interview was conducted by Iona Nave Griesmann, an Intern at VisArts gallery, and current Illustration/Graphic Design student at Montgomery College. Their work can be found at @Iona_Nave on Instagram.