Iridescent Guise

Treasure troves of bivalve and sea urchin are packed with history in the work of Livia Corona Benjamin.

Words by Natalia Torija Nieto / Photography by Diego Berruecos for TOUT.

Livia Corona Benjamin, “Silvana’s Sandbox I” (2021); Sea urchin shells and cement mortar on wood panel. Photo by Luis Corzo.

Cover: Livia Corona Benjamin, “Silvana’s Sandbox I” (2021); Sea urchin shells and cement mortar on wood panel. Photo by Luis Corzo.

Bottom image: The artist’s process photographed by Diego Berruecos in Ensenada, Baja California.

Along Northern Mexico’s Pacific coast, Baja California-native artist Livia Corona Benjamin has been uncovering dazzling shell landfills known as desconchaderos, the end result of neocolonialism and globalization which have thrived under the banner of free-trade since the 1990s.

Taking cues from the criollo art technique of enconchado, mother-of-pearl inlaid paintings from the 1600s, the artist reexamines a medium previously used for evangelization or embellished storytelling of the Spanish invasion by providing testimony to the roots of the material itself.

Artist Livia Corona Benjamin grew up sourcing seafood at arm’s-reach around the south end of All Saints Bay in Baja California, Mexico. Today, the fruits of the ocean barely see the light of day as they are quickly extracted, canned and shipped abroad, leaving behind mountains of shells in clandestine landfills, desconchaderos, that inspired the artist’s latest series.

The identity of Ensenada “is always evolving” Corona Benjamin says. “It’s a small town but, industrially, it connects to the world in very direct ways.” It’s this disregard for an identity of its own that makes Ensenada so riveting as locals make their way around their business.

Corona Benjamin, whose work explores the effects of man-made infrastructure upon the natural human experience, discovered an industrial-sized desconchadero while on a hike in the summer of 2020 along the hillsides in her hometown of Ensenada, Baja California. The artist, who splits her time between there and New York, began experimenting by grinding abalone and lobster shells into glitter of varying coarseness using a ceramic mortar. She then created an aesthetic patchwork of different species over canvas and repurposed tarp, crushing sea urchin shells to reveal that as they flatten, they keep their intricately-patterned curved shape.

“[It’s about] exploring how you can tell a story about the landscape by using the colors that the landscape itself generates, and imagining a place of localized self-sufficiency in a pictorial sense.”


Livia Corona Benjamin, “First Signs I” (2021); Abalone shells and polyester resin on wood panel. Photo by Luis Corzo.

Following intensive research into the origins of natural pigments and binding methods — Corona Benjamin mentions the use of pulverized shells was also used in Medieval art, and in Japan, an oyster and clam shell pigment known as gofun bound with animal glue was first used during the Muromachi period (1392–1573) — she began making lavender pigments by grinding the ends of the calcium-carbonate-rich spines of red sea urchin which dry in distinct pale purple tones.

Corona Benjamin is testing out different mixing and binding methods that speak to the material itself and how it reacts to natural elements. Using egg yolk, nopal slime, distilled water, salt, turpentine, dammar varnish and beeswax, her work has become centered entirely on the process. “[It’s about] exploring how you can tell a story about the landscape by using the colors that the landscape itself generates, and imagining a place of localized self sufficiency in a pictorial sense,” she describes.

“...The way to study the lives of the Indigenous people is through shell middens, similar to the oyster middens of the Lenape natives of Manahatta in New York.”

Livia Corona Benjamin, “The Best of All Fishermen II” (2021); Ground abalone shells on linen and wood panel. Photo by Luis Corzo.

“Ensenada has no history of colonial art or architecture,” says Corona Benjamin of her hometown founded some 140 years ago, “so the way to study the lives of the Indigenous people is through shell middens, similar to the oyster middens of the Lenape natives of Manahatta in New York.” These refuse collections associated with past human occupation can be found as industrial dumpsites or adjacent to missions in Baja California that settled where these communities of First Peoples had taken shelter.

“You notice they used shells in the construction because the dirt around the adobe ruins has the iridescent property characteristic of abalone and mussels,” Corona Benjamin says. Using the elements available at the time, “the misionero worked with the Kumiai people to build a church using ground-up seashell for the stucco — as a calcite — and nopal slime.”

Looking out into the bay from Corona Benjamin’s home and studio, one may see a large freighter, a vigilant drone, an abalone diver, a cruise ship, a seagull looking out for sardines thrown from the boats that feed the farmed tuna corrals up the bay. In her recent exhibition “Nueva Figura” at Proxyco gallery in New York, Corona Benjamin posed the question: “What is happening underneath the seascape horizon, how is it tied to international trade and local relations? How do people play out individually under these power structures?” In response, she composed a “reflective abstraction” of this lack of a controlled narrative, with raw materials as the main storytellers.

This is an excerpt from Issue 01 of TOUT, a print magazine by Dims. launching fall 2021. Sign up to be notified when it’s available for purchase.