fbpx

Issue 21: A Burning Song

Arte a 360 grados

Reading time: 15 minutes

A
A

15.11.2021

Art is Not Innocent

The collective Arte 360 Grados reflects on contemporary art as an apparatus of hegemonic ideologization, which in the context of Mexico reproduces a cultural policy of mestizaje, reinforcing cognitive ties with colonial power.

In aesthetics, representation is an appearance that replaces x in the world, making its absence partially present, […] in representation, something always needs to be exhibited or represented, however, the desire to exhibit is in and of itself colonizing […]. However, we live in an era in which fascist forms have seized renewed power, as can be seen in the arena of coloniality. It manifests in the essentialization and reduction of political battles that fight for the interests of cultural specificity, which includes much-needed decolonizing and radical forms of representation and representativeness.

—IRMGARD EMMELHAINZ [1]

It is not uncommon to find ourselves in a power play with those who decide what is or isn’t knowledge, and who can and can’t call themselves thinkers. Those who legitimize forms of knowledge impose their own Western logic of interpreting the world. This logic recognizes certain educational and arts institutions and certain circles of artists and thinkers, while destroying other forms of thinking, creation, and expression with the aim of homogenizing them all. That is, the wisdom of our peoples is vetted by the academy. The knowledge and creations produced out of hegemonic Western thought reproduce a global discourse that wears a false image-mask of an aesthetic that is not its own, one that poisons and suppresses all out yeztli—our blood, our nature—and memories.

We recognize that there are many oppressive apparatus that reproduce Western hegemonic thought—science is one example, with its repeated discourses that entrench a vision of life to which it demands we submit. One of the apparati that reproduces this hegemonic ideology is subtle; it disguises itself and wants to convince us to see the world through its sensoriality and not our own. It is the apparatus of art.

Science and its technologies are not the only apparatus reproducing death, for art and the humanities do not foster the protection of life or the living, nor the revival and protection of “other knowledge,” of those “others with their own expressions,” or of their land.

For this reason, art is not innocent of the death and suppression of our knowledge and our worlds.

Art is not innocent because it pushes us into relationships of colonial power through creative processes. The attempt to legitimize our sensory and expressive traditions and wisdom in the eyes of the world embroils us in a political battle in a space where one must seek recognition. However, we do not respond to this ambition for intellectual and artistic power that plays on the imaginaries of contexts foreign to our own. Our creation and sensory expressions emerge from toaciamatiliztli: our making, knowing, and thinking that has been passed down from generation to generation to this day. Its particular representations and meaning can be found when we return to them through “thinking in making and making in thinking.” Ever evolving, they continue to constitute modes of creation and sensory expression that give form to our land.

We encounter the world in the sowing of corn, in the eating of mushrooms and tortillas, in listening to our Nahua language, in searching for streams of water, in entering into to Matlalcueyatl (our Matlalcueyatl), in the temescal, in falling ill and knowing how to heal ourselves. We cannot conceive of separating life into categories: work, contemplation, reflection. This does not mean that we are hard-headed and ignorant, but rather that we know ourselves through our own shared aesthetic forms and mediations that are tied to the land.

Because we have our own way of living and thinking, the West does not represent our manners of being as legitimate creations or traditions, but sees us as mere objects of study for art schools, museums, private collections, and the corporations that finance them.

This aesthetics of whiteness and symmetry imposes upon us an indigenist costume that is accompanied by a double discourse that exalts the supposed poverty in which we live, seeing us as a “beautiful entity” to be admired because it was created as a result of political, social, and economic marginalization. This supposed beauty derives from the most forgotten social entity in the Mexican nation-state: us, Indigenous people, Black people, those who were here first.

 

We’re not talking about bringing art from the centers of big cities to our towns. It has nothing to do with violating our imaginaries, nor with propagating more psychological, symbolic, epistemic, and cognitive violence against our Nahua life. Art obeys particular exclusive and excluding artistic trends and forms part of a discursive framework that justifies and reinforces racist, colonizing, and deterritorializing practices from a position of supposed neutrality, inclusiveness, contemplation, appreciation, and even self-reflexivity.

Art underpins the fiction of something that we are not. The sensitive creation of Indigenous peoples—their song, weaving, music, healing, food— is not nationalist folklore, nor is it Neoindigenist “Mexicanidad” that can be found touted in the Secretariat of Culture’s programming. Art domesticates Indigenous peoples and minimizes their imaginaries. Art reproduces stereotypes and inequalities. Art and its pedagogical mission destroy the wisdom of Indigenous peoples.

Art underpins the fiction of something that we are not. Art is not innocent!

While art participates in the aesthetic-epistemic and territorial power plays, it is not a tool for social transformation. Let’s stop conceiving of art as Westerners do, let’s think of it differently. Given that art is not innocent, art must take responsibility for itself and go through critical processes to destabilize its own hegemonic narratives and its racist and classist representations. It should also address the epistemic racism that imposes a single way of seeing, feeling, and moving through the world and crushes and devalues other forms of seeing and feeling. This epistemic extractivism and racism is voracious and it is everywhere to be found: in political, cultural, and educational institutions, and even in social movements. Art should be opposed to the folklorist discourse and the use of popular art as referents for Indigenous peoples.

Comrade Yásnaya Elena A. Gil cites a comment made by former President Lázaro Cárdenas in his speech for the inauguration of the First Interamerican Indigenist Congress: “Our Indigenous problem has nothing to do with speaking “Indian” to the Indian, nor in indigenizing Mexico, but rather in Mexicanizing the Indian.”[2] We should understand that there already existed a politico-religious-nationalist structural plan that sought to exalt “the Mexican”— or that which was understood to be “Mexicanist”—through public policies in education, art, and science. We, the supposed Indians, were beginning to embody something emblematic and representative of Mexico in the eyes of the rest of the world, while actually remaining hidden behind the sacralized mask of a false identity.

Ever since we began to see ourselves as standing apart from the society created by the Mexican State, those who hold positions of power have sought to make our bodies submit o them, designating us as their servants, their slaves. As time passes they have tried to monopolize everything, including our artistic and cultural production, imposing canons and styles or assuming concrete Western aesthetic codes.

In our existence as Nahuas living on Matlalcueyatl, we live with the voices of our history, listening, speaking, and learning from the head of the world, the earth-water-mountain-land. There is an ineluctable relationship between the skin of our faces and the skin that contains the wisdom-voices that protect the earth-land. This voice and this skin protect the world. The Nahuas raise the voice that came from the mouth of the flesh-earth to care for to altepetl—our land on the slopes of Matlacueyatl, and that sounds like the rain that falls, covers, and protects the earth-land.

We must comprehend that there is no autonomy without earth-land. Any stripping of the flesh-face-earth-land is an act against our flesh-footprint-path-body-head, against our voice that protects the world which contains it. Here, we are not referring to something surrealist, metaphorical, or symbolic; it is a concrete reality in the life of our people. We have the possibility of containing and protecting the flesh-footprint-path-body-head of the world and the earth-land with our voice, making ourselves one with the earth and the world we live in. This is how we can resist the constant threat of intervention into our earth-land—the state-sponsored and corporate projects for the extraction of wood as well as of sensory creative expressions, the criminal mafia of illegal loggers, the human traffickers, and the national guard, all of whom contribute to the violence.

Those of us with knowledge of art and the humanities, and those of us who live in the Nahua community in Cuauhtotoatla still have respect for expressive forms that are not our own. That is, people may always continue their work in art or science so long as it doesn’t seek to suppress, refine, or create new designs based on the work or expressions of our peoples for Western consumption.

Enough artists and people in the academy and the humanities appropriate and take advantage of our traditions and stories. For example, the artist Amor Muñoz explores the relationship between technology and society through textiles, performance, drawing, and experimental electronics. She stands out among artists in her appropriation of manual and craft work for a contemporary global economy. In Yuca_ Tech: Energía a Mano (2015), one of her social projects, she juxtaposes tradition and innovation with current technology to generate work and resolve “local problems.” It is important to question whether this really improves the life of the community. We can at least say for sure that it improves the life of the artist who does the extracting, but it doesn’t promote our technology.

 

In another one of her projects, Chiapas-Tech Lab (2018), the Hernández family from Altos de Chiapas learned basic electronic skills in order to design their own technology. According to the artist’s website, in Oto_Lab: Artesanía Aplicada (2017), a community technological laboratory formed by artisans from the Grupo Otomí Guanajato, A.C. replicated the artisan-technological workshop from Yuca_Tech so that “they might combine sustainable and intelligent materials.”[3]

The project Chihuahua-Tech LAB (2019) proposes a “new art.” A group of Indigenous Rarámuri, Mazahua, and Otomí women from Chihuahua City participated in a Laboratory of Appropriated Technology. Muñoz states on his website that the “participants learned and experimented with new modes of craft production using new materials and photovoltaic energy.”[4] Like the practices and works of other artists, this kind of supposedly innovative ethnographic design is an example of how art is not a tool for the revalorization and preservation of traditions, much less for giving agency to communities.

Another example of this trend can be found in the work of Tania Candiani, an artist interested in the iconography of labor relations and ancestry, who works in a range of media. The piece Huipiles (2018) “explores the geometry of the textile design, which proposes two types of abstraction: the use of canvases with the same measure of the clothing that refers to the body without having it present, as an absent body; and the removal of the color to translate the uniqueness of each colorful design in a binary language, in this case, the black and white.”[5]

Today contemporary artists give themselves permission to use elements of our lives in their work, as can be seen in another piece by Candiani, Reverencia. Beyond reinterpreting “the symbolic meaning of the movements of the Danza de Los Quetzales,” Candiani, in collaboration with the artisan, “decided to eliminate the bright colors and the festive movements of the dance to focus on the meaning of duality in symbolic terms.”[6]

Many of these representations are based on stereotypes that have been injected into the “Mexican imaginary.” These condense the supposed characteristics of Indigenous peoples—almost all of which are simplistic—ideas and visual and aural images of the position that we apparently occupy in society to encourage the idea that we are an exploitable resource. This is how the lives of Indigenous peoples are transformed into an exotic commodity for the delight of domestic and international tourists.

Ocaso de los soles [Twilight of the Suns] (2019) is a piece by the artist Rogelio Sosa composed to be narrated by Spanish and Nahuatl readers, commissioned by the Casa del Lago to mark the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Spaniards at Tenochtitlan. It makes use of fragments from Miguel León-Portilla’s La Vision de los Vencidos:[7] “Ocaso de los soles seeks to revisit the Mexica musical universe in an eclectic and syncretic way.”[8]

Seeing fragments of our imaginary represented in a false or incorrect transfiguration of our lives has been a crushing experience for us. We have never asked them to intervene into our world. To these and other artists, we ask “What about us interests you? Why do you appropriate these fragments? Why are you artists, and marginalized people artisans? Standing on the supports of their class privilege, they extract that which serves them and ignore the long history of the other, of our peoples. While we are rendered more and more invisible, they continue to appropriate our expressions without taking into account our context or our history. This is the cultural policy of mestizaje as “Mexican” identity: the extraction and colonization of imaginaries by the privileged and powerful.

On the other hand, we question whether Mexican identity—the identity of the land that they call “Mexico,” should represent itself using simplified and folklorized elements of the culture of Indigenous peoples. Is the aim to portray the imaginary of the “Mexican” and obfuscate the diverse reality of Indigenous peoples? Our traditions are used in extractivist ways, removed from the context in which they were produced, which strips them of their meaning and resignifies them according to a Western logic of cognitive, epistemic, and economic production. These traditions serve ends unrelated to the community at the same time that they exclude that same community from accessing symbolic or economic capital. People from the communities that produce these traditions are reduced to mere raw material for researchers or artists who offer no reciprocal commitment, and who classify, study, and exploit us.

The state, the market, artists, scientists, academics are the masks of appropriations, extractions, decontextualizations.[9] The state and the market create “Indigenous” rituals, aesthetic or political relationships of unjust cultural approppriation; they make use of elements that are not part of any particular tradition for political and commerical ends and present them in performative actions and “happenings” in which stereotypical elements unfold.

Rituals are complex acts that are simplified for the client-market through a stereotyped interpretation of Indigenous peoples. These hollow pieces have a particular effect on the public, who ends up identifying with preconceived notions of the Indigenous. Sosa’s piece is an example of this “affectivist” performance, with its obvious intention of being a sort of reality show that pays homage to Mexico’s roots. It would seem that the Indigenous peoples who have already suffered so much oppression are also seen as a reserve of disposable material for the fortification of a state that has done everything in its power to make them disappear. This sad reality grows out of a foundational phenomenon.

We believe that the exchange, contact, and appropriation of cultural material are relevant topics. It is impossible to impede the flow of cultural information between the peoples, cultures, and nations of the world in hopes of protecting “pure cultures,” since these themselves have taken elements from others, resignifying and incorporating them into their world-cultures. Today it would be absurd to think of cultures as worlds enclosed by rigid borders; it is impossible to discern where one cultural world ends and another begins. But this doesn’t happen in a context of harmonious equality, as the discourse of multicultural diversity would have us believe, obscuring the fact that actually all knowledge-producing societies have been categorized and hierarchized.

 

The Mexican state is the largest extractor of Indigenous culture in the country. Moreover, by bringing together all sorts of decontextualized elements, it has forged a mixture that it calls “Mexican culture,” to which it refers as though it were some great tribute to its roots. Paraphrasing Yásnaya Elena A. Gil, if this deindigenized mestizo population goes on to appropriate some aspect of Indigenous culture for itself, is this not a creative-investigative act of questioning the process of mestization? Mestizos could assume such cultural aspects in order to question the state’s process of acculturation. But the mestizo population does not share in the opression that Indigenous people experience in the flesh, although they may suffer racism. In general, those who place themselves in the category of mestizo aspire to racial and cultural whitening, and this implies disdain for Indigenous people, although it does not stop them from cherry-picking cultural elements for their entertainment or helping others to exploit these cultures for capital rewards.

Dismantling mestization from the mestizo requires us to start from their experiences. In art, we must stand for the deconstruction of the imaginary, the rupture with the static past, the revalorization of the land’s origins, and the understanding of life today. Contact with the people of Cuauhtoatla, for example, is possible through parties and conviviality, food, cultural production, and the sound of our history resounding through megaphones. You have to listen to the voices that recount our stories, not the books that speak of us, but aren’t ours.
In our lands, producing a political land action that involves situated experiences impossible to contain in categories of the Indigenous is a matter of life and death. We call it a communal aesthetic action, with representations of the altepetl Cuauhtotoatla (Cuauhtoatla land) that are indispensable to the teaching and learning of our children so that they may connect with our world and our history. The narrative exercise of our expressions can fracture colonizing ideologies and break apart the representations that Western thought has constructed over the Indigenous. In our experience as an art collective, and now as the reflexive space Tequiocalco, representations of the altepetl Cuauhtotoatla are urgent here and now.

We thank the support of Patronato de Arte Contemporáneo (PAC)

Text revised by: Brenda Hernández Miranda, Enrique Maraver, Eduardo Abaroa, and Nayeri Gwennhael Huesca

Note: If you wish to read a longer version of this essay, please contact aa360grados@gmail.com.

Notes

  1. Irmgard Emmelhainz, “El cercamiento neo-liberal de la representación. La intensificación del punto ciego de la modernidad: la colonialidad,” Re-Visiones 7 (2017). Available at: https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=6854418.

  2. Twitter, @YasnayaEG, August 22, 2020, https://twitter.com/yasnayaeg/status/1297349791899213824.

  3. Amor Muñoz, “Oto_Lab”, https://amormunoz.net/2015/12/09/oto_lab/.

  4. Amor Muñoz, “Chihuahua -Tech LAB”, https://amormunoz.net/2015/11/20/chihuahua-tech-lab/.

  5. Vermelho, “ARCOmadrid 2020. Booth G09”, 17. https://galeriavermelho.com.br/sites/default/files/arcomadrid2020.pdf.

  6. Ibid, 12.

  7. Translator’s note: Broken Spears is the book’s title in English, but a literal translation would be “Vision of the Conquered.”

  8. Rogelio Sosa, “Ocaso de los soles”: https://www.rogeliososa.com/odls.

  9. Some more examples of this include the activities designed by the University Museum of Contemporary Art (MUAC): the exhibition Chto Delat, curated by Cuauhtémoc Medina and Alejandra Labastida in 2017, which includes El nuevo callejón sin salida Escuela de verano de orientación en Zapatismo (2017), “a new work developed through the interaction with Zapatistas in Chiapas: #17”; Ai Weiwei’s 2014 visit to Mexico, during which time the artista explored the personal and social consequences of the disappearance of the 43 students from the Escuela Normal Rural de Ayotzinapa, a topic which was also explored in the exhibition Hacia una estética investigativa by the collective Forensic Architecture and curated by Rosario Güiraldes in 2017.

filter by

Category

Geographic Zone

date