Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Jesús Malverde, Santa Muerte and the Virgin of Guadalupe

Mexicans are tough. The Mi Casa Su Casa exhibition at No Vacancy gallery shows why. It has stencil art of smashed up cars, wrestling masks in orange juice ads, skeletons singing and stigmata bleeding Christ holograms that turn into Pope John Paul. It is tough but it is bright and it is festive and there are doilies and embroidery and colourful cowboy shirts and beer bottles with flowers in them at the altar of the patron saint of narcotics. The smashed up cars are displayed on a sunny roller-brush background. One death skeleton has the virgin of Guadalupe’s crown being placed by angels on his head, while he is surrounded by American eagle body builders and fake tanned pole dancers. We see how Mexican culture not only lets Death in but laughs at the arrogance or absurdity of ever trying to keep him out. 

Oscar Reyes and Watchavato show us the side of Mexico that Octavio Paz describes as ‘the hubbub of a fiesta night our voices explode into brilliant lights, and life and death mingle together’. In his essay The Labyrinth of Solitude, Paz contrasts a North American preoccupation with purity, health and longevity with the Mexican belief in communion and fiesta. Paz puts it that ‘there is no health without contact. Tlazoltetl, the Aztec goddess of filth and fecundity, of earthly and human moods, was also the goddess of steam baths, sexual love and confession’. Paz suggests that the disinfected North Americans live in a perpetual denial of filth that manifests in a ‘sadism underlying all relationships imposed by a doctrine of aseptic moral purity’. Reyes’ collages juxtapose the tropes of North American advertising (that focus on the individuals desire to be “cleansed” or “improved”) with the chaos of communal catharsis in the fiesta.

Throughout the exhibition we see an embrace of destruction as a part of life. The skeleton Santa Muerte (Saint Death) playing on a guitar, is printed on embroidered roses and mounted in a pretty white frame. The image evokes a reverence and humor in response to the inevitability of not just our actual death but also failure, sadness, life’s frequent banality. The embroidery and detail evoke a warm domesticity that makes us even more comfortable with a singing death. We sense the presence of a mother.

When we look to the side, we see her. An altar for the Virgin of Guadalupe with a sculpture of her surrounded by lights, flowers, pictures of her that sparkle and a little diorama of her rose bush miracle in a clear box. It’s beautiful and excessive and we feel how much this image is adored. The dark skinned Virgin of Guadalupe is symbolic of the fusion of Spanish and Aztec cultures that was born from colonial violence. This is the ever loving mother who forgives. Sin is not to be denied but rather confessed. 

Opposite the shrine to the Virgin is the shrine to Jesús Malverde—the patron saint of narcotics. He is prayed to, to help conceal drugs across borders. Watchavato has made wallpaper behind the shrine of Malverde’s image on American style bank notes. This evokes the capitalist conundrum of supply and demand in terms of North American’s participation in this drug trade. Next to this is a work commissioned by a drug lord, including skate boards with Malverde’s image (among others) airbrushed on them. The druglord was killed before he was able to give them to his sons. 

So amongst all the colour and festivity of this show there is a confrontation with destruction. Amongst the flowers, the girls, the cars and the ever loving mothers, you get the feeling that death is avowed and homely.


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