Famous Hardware exhibition filled with knowledge of ancient healing

Famous Hardware exhibition filled with knowledge of ancient healing
April Wallace

Downtown Springdale’s Emma Avenue is alive with vibrant color and foliage, and it’s not just because spring is in bloom. It’s because New York artist Blanka Amezkua crafted an array of colorful flowers for an exhibit you can take in from the street.

The images that now appear in the windows of the Famous Hardware building began to form in Amezkua’s mind when she contracted covid-19 in early March 2020, at the very beginning of the pandemic’s arrival to the U.S.

The invention of the covid vaccine was still a dream, and as she experienced the illness, she found herself thinking back to childhood with her family in Mexico, where they were close with Amezkua’s aunts. Their household was a big one with nearly 10 people.

“They always had a tea for any remedy, for a headache, stomachache, (something going on with your) chest, there was a tea,” Amezkua says. “I began to think about how our bodies are cured by things available in nature.”

As Amezkua got more curious about natural remedies, she came upon the Codex de la Cruz-Badiano, the oldest medical text crafted in the Americas. She began to get familiar with it and used it as inspiration for “Hierbitas de saberes” (Tiny herbs of knowledge), which will be on view in the storefront in downtown Springdale through June 5.

Amezkua describes herself a painter, cultural promoter, educator and project creator based in New York City. Her creative practice is greatly influenced and informed by folk art and popular culture, from papel picado to comic books.

Her exhibitions have appeared across the country at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, San Diego Art Institute, the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts and also abroad at El Museo del Barrio and Art Base Brussels among others.

“Hierbitas de saberes” “shares the joy of the arrival of spring and brings to life the rich botanical diversity in Mexico,” according to a press release, and features the flower illustrations found inside the Codex.

The book, known to some as “The Aztec Herbal” because it was translated from Aztec, was discovered by American scholar Charles Upton Clark while he was conducting research in the Vatican in 1929. He happened upon the only copy still in existence.

Amezkua’s research will include a little trip to pay homage to him for that discovery.

“Part of my journey is going to (Clark’s) tombstone in Boston to thank him,” Amezkua says. “If it weren’t for him, (the Codex) would be sitting in the Vatican. … To say thank you for having that curiosity. It really changed many lives and understandings, (and gave a) knowledge of a part of something we have in Mexico.”


Blanka Amezkua was born in Mexico City, but came to the U.S. and lived in Los Angeles. She got her formal art education in Fresno and spent a year in Florence, in the world of the Renaissance. The experience did so much for her personal formation, she says.

“You go to cities, but (this is one that) before you’re there, you know it, (you’ve) studied it so much in art history,” Amezkua says. “Everybody thinks of that and wants to be there.”

The non-stop tourism traffic took some getting used to in such a small place, but it was absolutely formative. So was her upbringing in an immigrant household. Her family’s food and traditions were different from those of the people she grew up surrounded by.

“The fact that I was in the States, in California, the American culture, going to school was one thing, and home was another,” she says. “It was enriching, simultaneously interacting between two worlds, going back and forth.”

As a kid, the experience didn’t always feel like a positive one. In terms of food, Amezkua was fully aware of tater tots, sloppy joe sandwiches, pizza and crumb cake, but there was none of that at home. A full appreciation for her mom’s homemade Mexican food, always made from scratch and with fresh ingredients, would come later.

Blanka’s parents did not speak English. At home, they spoke only Spanish. She came to realize that they could only teach her through the immigrant experience. At first, she felt like it came with a baggage of cultural things, but she’s since come to realize “that richness they brought with them is present in me because that’s who they are.”

In a larger sense, Amezkua’s family wasn’t alone. Being in California there was a large Mexican population and she grew up with her grandmother nearby.

The rest of Amezkua’s inspiration is a series of things, big and small, that have compounded over the years. Some elements rang out to her from magazines she originally bought in 2013, then put away for a time and rediscovered. Blanka’s noticed in her artistic process that certain themes sometimes resurface when facing a new project.

By the time Amezkua earned a place at a prestigious artist program in the south Bronx, the idea was percolating through research she had done during the first couple years of covid. Through the program she met artist Risa Puno, whose work, centering on local stories told through panels shaped like face profiles of Arkansans, appeared at Famous Hardware during the winter months. Puno recommended Amezkua to the Creative Arkansas Community Hub and Exchange (CACHE), and Blanka soon had an opportunity to teach others about the remedies nearly lost to history.

The Codex de la Cruz-Badiano is a guide to the medicinal plants used to cure ailments before the arrival of the Spaniards in Mexico.

Its “manuscript was created in 1552, the first medicinal book created in the Americas, and was meant to be a gift for Charles V, to entice him into funding a university in Mexico City,” Amezkua says. This university was where the elite of the Indigenous population was educated. “The Codex, with all of its prescriptions and remedies, was written and translated by Indigenous artists and doctors and translators.”

Its title, de la Cruz-Badiano, comes from the two main authors — a doctor named la Cruz and the translator Juan Badiano, resulting in a mashup of their names. Not only was the writing and translation important, at that time the students of the university in Mexico City would have been trilingual, having an original language in addition to Spanish and Latin.

After the worst of the pandemic was over, Amezkua knew it was the right moment, the right time, to explore the Codex. As she was doing her artist residency, Blanka learned of a Hispanic society for healing in New York, where she learned more about the historic book.

The installation that resulted is vibrant in color, rich in history and tells a story of how nature can help cure our present ailments, says a press release by CACHE.


As a painter, the illustrations of the Codex grabbed Amezkua’s attention.

“The colors in the book are intact and pristine and gorgeous,” she says. “I’ve been fortunate to see two painters of the Codex, one at the Museum of Anthropology (Mexico City) in 2021, where I was able to see the brilliance of those colors, the use of natural materials that are very vivid.”

Among the materials Amezkua chose to use for the first part of her work was something she grew very familiar with during her time teaching middle school. Each Mother’s Day, Blanka would get silk flowers from the area’s dollar stores, pull them apart and allow her students to reassemble them to create their own flower for their mom. They were allowed to make as many as they wanted, even five to 10, but she often saw kids giving up after three or four since it was so labor intensive.

Silk flowers adorn the walls, and though she’s worked with them before, Amezkua says this is the first time she’s assembled them in this particular way, using window screens to hold flowers in place.

The large illustrations in the Famous Hardware windows depict the plants in the Codex, using one flower from each of the book’s 13 chapters. The Codex is arranged by where illnesses present, starting with the head and ending with the toe. Amezkua’s images of the plants are altered a bit. Some of the leaves are left off, giving more stage presence to the flower itself. And while most of them are flowers, the biggest one is not. Instead it’s an agave plant.

“It stands out because it’s one of the plants that are a complete plant,” Amezkua says. “It feeds you, it can clothe you and has many purposes with the fiber within.”

Other elements include confetti. The rest of the exhibit uses traditional techniques and embroidery, but it is also influenced by popular culture and traditional technology, Amezkua says. It has also come out of a strong collaboration. Blanka loves to collaborate with her mother and other artists.

In this case, the cut paper that you see in the main/center space, is a collaboration with Mexican artist Rene Mendoza. Blanka met him in 2018 because she wanted to learn how to make papel picado, a “beautiful tradition of paper cutting,” through incorporating collages and creating her own designs and understanding.

Mendoza’s been doing this style of art for more than 30 years and is from Huixcolotla, Puebla, the birth place of papel picado. Since meeting him in 2018, the two have been working together, and the center piece is collaboration between them. Thanks to CACHE funding support, Amezkua went to Mexico City to see him and brought the works back. They’re intensely colored, highly layered tissue paper that have been fused together and cut or chiseled with a hammer, she says.

Ordinarily you’ll see these traditional Mexican decorative crafts at Day of the Dead altars. Movement of the papel picado signals that a soul is there with you, but they’re so light and delicate and will move even from a faint breath, Amezkua says. That makes it a beautiful symbol that your loved ones are always there with you.

“Hierbitas de saberes” looks festive and celebratory, but it’s very much about curing the body with natural medicine from a place of ancestral knowledge, Amezkua says. She wants more people to know that a lot of that knowledge is available to all of us.

“You don’t have to be from (this) part of the world,” she says. “At the end of day, how do we take care of our bodies … (think of) how nature can take care of us if we’re attentive … Nature is there and available, if we’re more attentive.

“That ancestral knowledge is for all of us.”

Categories: Galleries