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We have all spent far too much time browsing social media than we are willing to admit, for me, Instagram particularly stands out for its wealth of visual art and creativity, real treasures are discovered. A picture speaks a thousand words as the old adage says and social media platforms are ripe for artists showcasing their craft, creations and increasing exposure in order to build a following.

Among the ocean of content on social networks, a group of images catch our attention such as: cut-out pieces depicting child soldiers, figures wearing masks, a child flying a kite. As we explore closer we see that each piece is created from banknotes and in that moment, our perception of what we see changes. This work is created by mexican artist Gabriela González Leal.

We contacted Gabriela for an interview so she could tell us about her distinctive work as an artist who uses money and her experience as a Money Artist.

Gabriela is a born storyteller and has the curiosity of someone who enjoys seeing the world through different lenses, each one enriching the vision of the other.

© Gabriela González Leal | “Amor”, 2020

Every story has a beginning (with some twists and turns)

”I studied plastic and visual arts at the National School of Painting, Sculpture and Engraving ‘La Esmeralda’. My initial goal was to become a painter. Although I studied several traditional techniques, I was more inclined towards lithography.

Leaving school, with an advanced knowledge in lithography, I entered the Lithography Museum ‘Estación Indianilla’. There I got to know the artistic world in a professional way. That experience allowed me to work on techniques with artists, beyond the classroom, broadening my horizons and my own expectations about art”.

Working with artists in a non-academic environment aroused Gabriela’s vision, deepening her interest in lithography. It is here where she traces a line that would later connect with Money Art.

(Lithography is a printing process that uses a flat stone or metal plate on which the image areas are worked using a greasy substance so that the ink will adhere to them by, while the non-image areas are made ink-repellent.)

”Lithography marked a connecting thread towards banknotes. Blackstone Press (an important lithographic workshop in Mexico City) is a creative space where I met Norma Rajz, curator of the Cultural and Numismatic Collection of Banco de México. She introduced me to the project “Arte, Billetes, Maculatura, Refines, Diseño” in 2018, and it was a year later that she invited me to participate and create a piece based on the maculature. It was love at first sight.

The following year, Gabriela was invited back to create an artist’s book. As part of the program, she was able to see, firsthand explore how banknotes are made at Banco de México. ”They gave us maculatures to work with. With them I lined some of my daughter’s shoes (Pies descalzos, 2019) and I realized: each piece of maculature was a universe rich in detail. I remember taking a bill out of my wallet and it was like seeing it for the first time. I understood that as citizens we don’t realize all that it encompasses. That’s why I continue to experiment with this medium: I keep discovering worlds with banknotes”.

© Gabriela González Leal | “Otros Vuelos”, 2021

Universalising the local

Although Gabriela’s encounter with paper money as an artistic medium dates back to 2018, her need for expression goes back much earlier. In “La palabra como dibujo”, (2013) she explores the intimate relationship that exists between literature and drawing, as a tribute to her father, who passed away a year earlier. In this way, words take on a new aesthetic meaning.

Subsequently, in El patio de mi casa, (2017) two topics that would later become a constant exploratory of the artist are manifested: play and childhood (the latter motivated to the birth of her daughter). In her own words, this series ”metaphorically reflects what happens in the courtyard (my environment) of my house (my country) from different supports where I explore matter, play and bodily actions. I was interested in creating a series of garments mainly as a means to create identity from traditional games that in turn, generate reflection on child violence”.

© Gabriela González Leal | “El Patio de mi casa”, 2018
(The game as a metaphor for everyday life)

© Gabriela González Leal | “El Patio de mi casa”, 2018 (detail)

This theme is addressed again in Dioses, Heroes y Monumentos (2018 – present), a tryptic where she also works with the concepts of Game, Value and Power: ”I use objects-actions that have the same symbolic meaning as the Game (Soccer balls, marbles), Value (Bills, coins) and Power (Police uniforms, bullet shells). A project that mainly addresses childhood issues, yet also re-signifies symbols of identity transfigured in historical, social and mythological allusions”.

In “Heroes”, Gabriela takes a Mexican banknote and adds a greater layer of cultural identification. In her hands, the paper money tells not one, but many stories that connect with land, longings, dreams, her vision of the world and the surrounding reality. This is an example of how something of national significance acquires a local character.
”One of my objectives is to create pieces of art that are accessible to the public, not only in size but also in concept. As the banknote is something we all use, giving it this new value makes it an attractive piece.”

I remember taking a bill out of my wallet and it was like seeing it for the first time. I understood that as citizens we don’t realize all that it encompasses. That’s why I continue to experiment with this medium: I keep discovering worlds with banknotes”.

Art on top of art

The confinement caused by the COVID pandemic became a creative opportunity for Gabriela. Her work breaks the bonds of two-dimensionality and rises, acquires depth, plays with light and shadow to convey a message. All of her pieces are hand-cut with precision. ”I am very detail oriented. That has allowed my work to evolve from two-dimensional to three-dimensional and from small sizes to large format.”

Using collage as a technique, her works stand as small-format sculptures. Each piece involves extensive research. ”I have my sketchbook, where I write down the message I want to say, how I want to say it and what kind of banknotes I will use in the process. I analyze each one to see which one best fits what I want to express.”
Gabriela González Leal presents herself as a leading exponent in the world of Money Art, where she invites us to rediscover paper money: ”When we see a banknote, we think first of its economic function and we don’t stop to think that it is a work of art in itself. That’s why I think the Money Art movement gives added value to a work of art. It is art on top of art“.

Money art is to redefine the concept we have of the banknote, its history and signs of identity. Giving it this new value allows people to see it with new eyes, to appreciate each pattern, each figure, each engraving”.

© Gabriela González Leal | “Muro de juego”, 2020
(Inspired by the “Wobbly Wall” of the American architect Ronald Rael)

In her hands, the paper money tells not one, but many stories that connect with land, longings, dreams, her vision of the world and the surrounding reality.

Expansive ripple effect

Social media has amplified Gabriela’s work and has allowed her art to reach new audiences far beyond Mexico. The receptivity on her Instagram account has been, it is interesting to see that the artist seeks to convey a message that not only aims to provide answers, but to generate an infinite number of questions.”My work has generated curiosity and I have frequently been asked about the characters printed on the banknote, the technique I use or the story behind a piece”.

© Gabriela González Leal | Gabriela in her art studio

When asked what plans she has for her future and how she thinks her work might evolve, Gabriela is very clear: ”After the pandemic, I no longer make plans (laughs). Everything has been a search. I started with a painting project and as I got lost in other techniques and other paths, I really found myself. Today I feel fulfilled with the path I’m on”.