“Mournful and yet grand is the destiny of the artist,” claimed composer Franz Liszt.
Nowhere is that truth more vividly embodied than in Mexico at this moment.
While the nation reels with about 52,173 murders since 2006 and staggers under a wave of crime, Mexico’s culture isn’t dead yet. Rather singers, painters, poets and others seem driven into warring camps echoing this chaotic country at large.
Some actively glorify the narco-drug scene, hoping to cash in on the action. Others passively co-exist with unspeakable evil as it seems unavoidable, hoping for a change.
But change agents in war often arise from the arts. Mexican painters, performers and poets are quietly taking on cartels and killers in nonviolent confrontations throughout the country and in the international art scene.
As soldiers, policemen and journalists are serially mowed down, almost no one is left to question and defy the violence in public places. The spotlight on artists who deal with this subject is very threatening, and they have all my respect.
I’m not the only one noticing them. Last year the entire world was awed by an invasion of angelic beings camped about Cuidad Juarez, unaffectionately known as the “murder capital of the world.” The New York Times, Huffington Post and others reported on the artistic and spiritual activities of a small, evangelical church known as “Psalm 100″ with the words, “Our Father, free us from sin” on its wall.
Covered with silver or gold paint and costumed as angels, teenagers from this tiny evangelical church have been showing up at scenes of massacres, shootings and body dumps since 2010.
While police mop up blood and body parts, the teens solemnly stand guard and bear witness to the many tragedies. Targets of the “messenger angels” are “murderers and hit men” with invitations offered to “believe God and repent.” Corrupt police are counseled to seek God and do a better job.
Taking pains to be seen, the angels’ feathered wings reach up to 10 feet as they stand on chairs, carrying large signs. The costumes aren’t elegant, but the effects on onlookers are dramatic with some bursting into tears and others honking in encouragement or praying.
The incongruity of the scene could hardly be starker as the bleak, bullet-ridden city is a place of little hope and almost no justice. Ciudad Juarez is one of the world’s most dangerous cities caught in a turf war between drug cartels. More than 3,000 people were killed in 2010 from 1.3 million residents. Juarez was notorious decades earlier for the almost genocidal numbers of young women who were raped, tortured and murdered, with almost no arrests or convictions since.
City leaders are quite impressed with the group and have encouraged them in their dangerous pursuit of peace.
One young “messenger angel” interviewed by CBN noted the risk, saying, “God says to be strong and courageous, and I will be for Juarez.”
The messengers also set siege in front of police stations and prosecutors’ offices – hoping to convict the occupants of various sins – risking arrest and worse.
Besides being interesting to see and theatrical, courage of this sort has a grandeur about it. It surpasses human nature, totally unexpected and out of place like an apocalyptic witness in a toll-booth.
The toil of these “angels” also appears to be working for Juarez since they began their vigils. According to a local newspaper El Diario, homicides decreased almost by half from 222 in the month of January 2011 to 117 in January 2012.
In fact the “angels” are so encouraged by the results that they’ve taken their silent protest/street theater/evangelism to other Mexican cities. In Torreon and Matamoros, which are also under heavy assault from drug traffickers, other young people join the dangerous work. Together they hope to “prick the conscience of people” and bring a message of hope and peace to the nation.
Other artists may be less religious but just as serious. Some are gunning their sights against the bloodshed caused by the cartels, such as Pedro Reyes and his “Weapons to Plowshares” project (Palas por Pistolas en Espano).
Making a statement about the effects of the drug war, Reyes collected thousands of guns from the public. I’m not certain that he managed to gain any from cartel members, but that would be encouraging. Reyes then had the metals crushed and smelted into shovels which were used to plant 1500 trees, symbolizing lives lost by the weapons.
Acclaimed poet and novelist Javier Sicilia wrote a short poem on violence, which was also tragically personal. Last March his son Juan Francisco was murdered with six other people by cartel gunmen in Morelos state. Below are the last lines of the poem he write in his honor:
And the pain does not leave me
All we have is a world
For the silence of the just
Only for your silence and my silence, Juanelo.
After gaining international recognition for his work and prestigious prizes such as the Aguascalientes National Poetry Prize, Sicilia announced the poem would be his last. He now leads a national movement, “Peace with Justice and Dignity,” and leads protests against the drug war. This poem and Sicilia’s actions galvanized the entire nation of Mexico and profoundly affected other artists and intellectuals to ratchet up resistance to the corruption and violence.
Mexican artist Emiliano Gironella exhibits some very interesting stuff in his own nation and internationally. His show “Mexico to the Edge” (2011) in Mexico City featured art related to drug-trafficking and the violence in his country.
Gironella uses an incredible amount of mediums and seems to excel at most. His cast sculpture pieces project ghostly, 3-D drug users in large solid blocks, but come with editorial warnings. Gironella’s addicts may have guns aimed at them, skulls beside them or other symbols of death in the works. He seems equally disgusted by cartel members and graces them with satanic horns or other graphic odiousness.
Another Mexican artist has done quite well in Europe, where she is on a shortlist of finalists for the £40,000 Artes Mundi Prize, the U.K.’s largest prize for contemporary visual artists. Teresa Margolles has an intriguing background from Mexico City. In the 1990s she received a degree in forensic medicine and worked in morgues while also pursuing art. Margolles found lower-class victims of violence were buried in anonymous mass graves, which disturbed her, as she claims they’re “ignored not only during their lifetime but even in death.”
From that time Margolle’s theme is almost continually death in one way or another. Her works are generally installations, such as an actual, shot-up, crime-scene wall imported and reassembled from Mexico. Much of her stuff seems minimalist at first glance, such as cleaning supplies and buckets of rather filthy water. Viewers later learn that the water has actual human blood or body fat from cadavers (all for the sake of authenticity) to confer deep relevance.
I actually find it rather grotesque and somewhat sensational (if only minimally so). To endlessly observe and mull over parts of a corpse seems disrespectful and ghoulish – quite the opposite of Margolles’ stated intent.
For instance, one of her installations is of jewelry made with materials collected from murder victims, for instance glass from a body. Does that create sympathy, or is it booty?
Apparently the folks at Artes Mundi wouldn’t agree with me. They call it “rigorous realism in the choice of material,” which is “deeply emotional and dramatic.”
Margolles explains her jewelry for drug lords this way: “I wanted to take the value away from these jewels and replace it with their score-settling incidents, so that they can see their deaths.”
No doubt she means it, but I question some of the means and props used.
Another art writer who waxed enthusiastic about Margolles’ work still shared some of my misgivings. Patricia Helena Micolta made a moral connection with pieces by Clinton Fein on Abu Ghraib prison torture. Although they both probe moral issues, they’re marketed in galleries and sold to wealthy investors who profit indirectly off the violence and artifacts. Meanwhile, the artist in this case is making a killing (please excuse the pun).
In 2009 Margolles represented Mexico at the 53rd Venice Biennale with another bucket of bloody water from more morgue residents in her work “What Else Could We Talk About, Cleaning.” There the exhibition space floor was continuously mopped with water from a morgue. The rationale was an intervention which brings attention to our understanding of death, violence and social inequalities. Apparently the people at the Venice Biennale lapped it up, but I hope it didn’t make them ill.