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Issue 21: A Burning Song

Patricio Majano

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01.11.2021

Heritage and Memory: The Work of Mario López Vega

Curator Patricio Majano looks at the work of Mario López Vega and highlights the importance of generating a Nahua aesthetic as a form of resistance to the historical annihilation of the Indigenous peoples in El Salvador.

Indigenous peoples in Latin America are caught in a constant struggle and state of resistance. This can be seen in their own images and creative practices, as well as in the ways in which these peoples have been and continue to be represented. In El Salvador, works like those of the artist Mario López Vega offer a platform that invites us to reflect on the colonization of visual languages. These reflections also reaffirm the resistance of Indigenous peoples in the reclamation and revalorization of their own traditional methods of production, eschewing the privileged assimilation of Western forms of production.

Mario López Vega’s work is located in a complex environment. Despite the fact that many peoples on the “American” continent share a similar history of colonization and oppression, each region’s experience is characterized by its own particular nuances. Therefore, it is important to begin this discussion by revisiting the history of the country and the peoples Indigenous to the territory occupied by the Salvadoran state. Before Spanish colonization, the region that is today called “El Salvador” was previously known as Kuskatán and was inhabited mainly by the Nahua, Lenca, and Cacaopera peoples. The history of these peoples has been strongly marked by the systematic elimination and whitewashing of their culture. In 1932, a genocide was carried out in El Salvador that left between 5,000 and 35,000 victims of Indigenous descent.[1] This act was perpetrated by the government, then led by General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, president of El Salvador from 1931 to 1944. The state systematically denied and minimized the extermination to the extent that the exact number of victims has never been able to be determined. The genocide was accompanied by coercive policies that led to the collective abandonment of many cultural practices and Indigenous customs throughout the population. As a result of these events, according to the country’s most recent census, only 0.23 percent of El Salvador’s population considers themselves Indigenous.[2] This incredibly low figure in a region that clearly has a strong Indigenous heritage reveals the efficacy with which the government implemented its strategy of internalized racism within the Salvadoran population.

Concepts of indigeneity and of Indigenous identity have also been heavily manipulated by the state, and this has contributed to the construction of a skewed image of the Nahua, Lenca, and Cacaopera that ignores their history, conditions, and current needs.[3] During the twentieth century, certain artists and artworks were promoted over others in order to solidify and reaffirm the Salvadoran state’s hegemony over the cultural imaginary. One example of this—among many others—is the case of the “Altacatl Indian,”[4] a figure who supposedly fought against the Spanish invasion of Central America. This character, however, is fictional and lacks a basis in historical truth. Nonetheless, he was continually represented in artwork that was often sponsored by the government. Sculptures of his likeness were placed at important governmental sites—on the façade of the Palacio Nacional (carved by Joaquin Aguilar Guzmán) or on the Avenida Independencia (sculpted by Valentín Estrada and later relocated elsewhere). Using this strategy of monumentalizing a fictional character, the Salvadoran government contributed to the construction of the idea of an “Indigenous hero” consistent with the agenda of the Salvadoran state.

His representation focused negative attention away from the Salvadoran state onto oppression associated with Spain.

Worse still, the clothing that Atlacatl was represented as wearing was in fact more similar to the dress of Indigenous peoples living in the north of Mexico and the southern United States than it was to the apparel of Indigenous people in El Salvador, further contributing to the erasure of the particular cultural traits of Indigenous peoples.

At the same time, important historical figures like Feliciano Ama, one of the Nahua leaders who led a peasant insurrection in 1932, were being invisibilized. In this era, representations of this and other important Indigenous figures that were also promoted by the state were effectively nonexistent or very rare. Furthermore, the representations of Indigenous people that appeared in the visual arts of that epoch were often rendered through a Western gaze, according to artistic styles like Primitivism or naïve art that were imported from Europe. Considering the artistic production of Indigenous people, it is also important to problematize the concepts of fine arts and craft, since the tendency—one that is in large part promoted by the state—is to see the majority of objects produced by Indigenous people as craft, and to place this category beneath the “fine arts” or methods of artistic production that originated in Europe. For this reason, many names of Indigenous artists[5] do not enjoy the same visibility as artists working in Europe.

It is out of this history and context that the work of artist Mario López Vega emerges. López originates from Panchimalco, a small village in the mountains south of San Salvador, the nation’s capital. This region has a long history that goes back to precolonial times. It is one of the regions historically inhabited by the Nahua people of El Salvador. López departs from this heritage and in his work explores themes related to the region’s history, culture, and identity, approaching them through his own experience and distancing himself from the stereotypical representations of “the Indigenous” that run rampant throughout El Salvador. He carves his sculptures directly out of stone, a practice tied to the techniques used to produce artifacts and architecture in precolonial America for thousands of years, and which persist to this day. In fact, his own grandfather carved stone, and though he only knew him briefly in his childhood, Mario López Vega notes that this relationship has had an important influence on his work.

In addition to their strong ties to his community, López’s sculptures also have a strong relationship to the environment that they inhabit. On the one hand, the artist began his production in his village. He participated in sculpture symposia that took place in Panchimalco, where he made largeformat works, many of which have remained in public spaces. On the other hand, López uses as his raw material stones sourced from local quarries or that he has collected from nearby locations. The restrained aesthetic and the level of abstraction in his works refer to the sculptures and petroglyphs that are spread across El Salvador in different archeological sites. Although one could argue that some of his works bear a likeness to the modern abstract sculpture of Europe and the United States, it is extremely important, and an exercise in decolonizing art, to recognize the true references in his work.

Tracing aesthetic genealogies against the grain of Europe and the United States is a decolonial method of historicizing that allows us to imagine futures situated, in this case, around Nahua material memory.

The content that interests López is deeply tied to the history and memory of local communities. In his work he addresses concepts and content related to the worldview and traditions of the Nahua peoples. For example, in the Yawal series, he found inspiration in the name and shape of a traditional object from the region and the ideas and beliefs that constellate around this image. Yawal is the name given in El Salvador to a circular object, generally made of fibers or organic fabrics and commonly used to wrap around containers like clay jugs. In the Nahua worldview, the circular shape that characterizes the Yawal is linked to the idea of lifecycles, for example the cycle of life and death. The artist learned about this relationship from conversations with the elders of Panchimalco. It is fascinating to consider these conversations as an integral part of these works, and to think that the creation process of these pieces forms part of a genealogy that spans many years back, a genealogy that has been maintained through the oral transmission of beliefs and knowledge from one generation to another.

López has mentioned that his grandmother was also a maker. She worked with the backstrap loom. This type of textile production, along with a good portion of the region’s handcarved stone sculptures, is usually classified as a “handicraft” according to Western notions of art. This categorization is something López questions in his work, as in the piece Persistencia de la memoria [The Persistence of Memory], a traditional grinding stone that the artist has complemented with different products of the earth—corn kernels, pito seeds, and flower petals. This gesture is more than a simple act of placing a utilitarian object in spaces conventionally dedicated to artistic dissemination, it is the reappropriation of an object with the purpose of endowing it with aesthetic and sociocultural value, value which extends as much to the object as an essential part of a culture as to the people who have produced and continue to produce such objects for so many years.

This kind of reappropriation and revaluation of objects and materials is a constant in the work of Mario López Vega. He repeats it, for example, in the piece Piedra de la memoria [Memory Stone]. This work is a stone that López collected from the Sumpul River in El Salvador, a river well-known as the site of a 1980 massacre in which the armed forces of El Salvador, with the support of the Honduran army, murdered between 300 and 600 refugees. The artist traveled to the river, where a local person guided him to the specific spot where the events took place. It was from there that he selected the very stone he presents in his piece without any intervention in order to highlight the stone’s origins and therefore the events that occurred there. In the same way, this stone can be interpreted as a memorial to the victims of the massacre.
In another of his sculptures, Arma Prehispánica Contemporánea [Contemporary Pre-Hispanic Weapon], López took inspiration from the form of precolonial arrowheads. In this piece, López started with another object originally considered to be essentially utilitarian, styling it in such a way as to simulate the appearance of paper rather than stone and thereby creating a tension between the solid material and the fragile appearance. Through this tension, López succeeds at eliminating the conventional use of the object. The work’s title is also extremely interesting in the way it collapses two moments in history inside a single object, creating a seamless continuity between the “preColumbian era” and “the contemporary moment.” This piece can be linked to the work of other artists from El Salvador like Beatriz Cortez or Simón Vega, who detach their works from a linear reading of history in a decolonial strategy that evades the relegation of the Indigenous to the past as something crystallized and immutable in time.

This alternative reading of history-time opens the way for new possibilities in the conception of the Indigenous in El Salvador in the present.

The exploration of these possibilities is important to the creation of exercises in the reappropriation of Nahua, Lenca, and Cacaopera heritage and identities so that they can be seen beyond stereotypes and anachronisms. It is equally important to recognize that these identities are diverse and malleable, and that they should not be viewed as fixed categories that serve to classify and racialize people, or determine what is and is not Indigenous. López Vega’s work can be seen as an exercise in reconciliation with a past that has been distorted and obfuscated by the ruling party. In turn, it is a material practice that exists in the future. It is an aesthetic act of creation that is situated within the historical and temporal struggles that demand space for Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, and other subaltern identities that have been relegated to the margins within the structures of current art.

Notes

  1. Carlos Felipe Osegueda Osegueda, Miguel Ángel Hernández, Charles Clayton Arévalo Coronado, Fátima Lisbet Mejía Rosales, Brian Antonio Moz Mendoza, and Georgina Lorena Soriano Aguilar, “Los derechos humanos en El Salvador: una retrospectiva analítica del etnocidio de 1932,” Entorno, no. 64 (October 2017), 57–64. Available at: https://doi.org/10.5377/entorno.v0i64.6061 (Accessed on October 5, 2021).

  2. DIGESTYC, Censo de Población y Vivienda 2007 (Población). Available at: http://www.digestyc.gob.sv/index.php/temas/des/poblacion-y-estadisticas-demograficas/censo-de-poblacion-y-vivienda/poblacion-censos.html (Accessed on October 5, 2021).

  3. Mariella Hernández Moncada, “Pueblos Indígenas de El Salvador: La visión de los invisibles,” Centroamérica Patrimonio vivo | Acer-VOS (2016), 138-157. Available at: https://www.upo.es/investiga/enredars/wpcontent/uploads/2017/03/138157.pdf (Accessed on October 5, 2021).

  4. Max Mojica, “Atlacatl el indio inexistente,” elsalvador.com, December 5, 2015. available at: https://historico.elsalvador.com/historico/172157/atlacatl-el-indio-inexistente.html (Accessed on October 5, 2021).

  5. There are some artists like María Dominga Herrera or Pedro Ángel Espinoza who, considering where they were from, might have belonged to Indigenous communities, though there are no records that prove it. I think this is partly due to the strategies of the state. Many people were afraid to reveal that they were part of these communities. It wasn’t until around the eighties that artists such as Francsico Jiménez began to openly identify themselves as Indigenous peoples.

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