On May 1st, 2012, Mark Vallen and Jeannine Thorpe were wed at Jalama Beach, located on the remote shoreline of California’s Central Coast, an hour’s drive north of Santa Barbara. The marriage ceremony took place at ocean’s edge near the ancient Chumash village of Shilimaqshtush (no translation), which was once located at the mouth of Jalama Creek. The stream was named after a larger Chumash village known as Xalam, or “bundle”, which long ago stood eight miles inland from the sea. The wedding ceremony was officiated over by a Shaman trained in the medicine ways of the Chumash people, witnessed by an Opera Singer, and attended by a wedding party of several dozen seagulls and pelicans.
I started 2012 by taking in four exhibits in the Los Angeles area; Art Along the Hyphen: The Mexican-American Generation and The Colt Revolver in the American West at the Autry National Center, as well as Places of Validation, Art & Progression and The African Diaspora in the Art of Miguel Covarrubias: Driven by color, shaped by Cultures at the California African American Museum.
What unites these seemingly unrelated exhibits are the deep insights they provide into the American experience. This review is to encourage those in the Southern California region to see the shows for themselves if possible, and barring that, to do further research on the artists mentioned.
Art Along the Hyphen: The Mexican-American Generation
Starting with the Autry National Center, the Art Along the Hyphen exhibit (which ended Jan. 8, 2012), presented the work of six Mexican-American artists who created art in Los Angeles in the post-WWII era of the 1950s and early 1960s; Alberto Valdés, Domingo Ulloa, Roberto Chavez, Dora de Larios, Eduardo Carrillo, and Hernando G. Villa. That these artists are still unknown, even to aficionados of Chicano art, is a testament to the influence of art establishment gatekeepers. It was not just elite art world racism that kept these and other Mexican-American artists out of the museum and gallery systems, it was also the totalitarian supremacy of abstract expressionism that held them in check. The artists in the Art Along the Hyphen show were committed to narrative figurative realism, and that put them squarely at odds with an art establishment obsessed with abstraction.
The paintings and prints of Domingo Ulloa (1919-1997) were the most politically charged in the Autry exhibit.
The artist was unquestionably influenced by the 1930s school of Mexican Muralism and social realism; Ulloa in fact studied at the Antigua Academia de San Carlos in Mexico City, the same art academy attended by Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
Born in Pomona, California, Ulloa was the son of migrant workers, and after serving in World War II he came under the influence of the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP - Popular Graphic Arts Workshop), the famous Mexican political print collective. Every bit as didactic and radical as his contemporaries in the TGP, Ulloa’s art focused on the social ills of American society; racism and social inequality, police brutality and imperialist war.
In 1963 Norman Rockwell painted a canvas he titled, The Problem We All Live With. It was a depiction of a 6-year-old African-American girl named Ruby Bridges being escorted through a racist mob by U.S. Federal marshals to the just desegregated William Franz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The real life incident occurred on Nov. 15, 1960, when a large crowd of white racists gathered in front of the school to protest against integration. Armed Federal marshals had to guard the tiny black girl against the angry throng as it chanted “Two, Four, Six, Eight, we don’t want to integrate!” Rockwell’s painting appeared as a double page spread in Look Magazine in 1964, it was a controversial image that would capture the attention of Americans, but Domingo Ulloa had painted a similar canvas six years prior to Rockwell’s original painting.
In 1957 Ulloa painted Racism/Incident at Little Rock, which was based upon real life events that took place that same year in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 1957 a federal court ordered the State of Arkansas to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which outlawed racial segregation in America’s public schools. Orval Faubus, the Governor of Arkansas and a Dixiecrat (a right-wing racist Southern Democrat) resisted the court decision by calling in Arkansas National Guard soldiers to prevent African-American students from entering “white” schools. Republican President Dwight Eisenhower pressured Faubus to uphold federal law and use the Guard to protect black students, but Faubus instead withdrew the troops entirely, leaving black students exposed to attacks by white racist lynch mobs.
When nine black students attempted to enter Little Rock High School on September 23, 1957, thousands of enraged whites assaulted them with stones and fisticuffs. This clip from the 1986 PBS documentary series Eyes on the Prize details the incident. At 7.55 minutes into the video you will see footage that I viewed on national television in 1957 at the tender young age of four; the indelible imagery changed my life forever. Although only a four-year-old, I wanted to rush to the victim’s defense. Ulloa attempted to capture all the horror of that ugly affair on his canvas.
Ulloa’s painting is dramatically different from Rockwell’s, and it goes without saying that Ulloa’s vision did not appear in Look Magazine. In Racism/Incident at Little Rock there are no government agents deployed to rescue black school children, there are only six youthful black students surrounded by a howling pack of phantasmagorical monsters. The adolescent African-Americans in the picture huddle together, the oldest of them looking stoic; they have no one but themselves to rely upon. Ulloa’s canvas was inspired by The Masses, a 1935 lithograph by José Clemente Orozco; one could say that Ulloa perhaps borrowed a bit too much from Orozco, or he was simply paying homage to the master. Ulloa’s paintings at the Autry showed that he had not entirely escaped the orbit of the Mexican Muralists; his heavily textured brushstrokes and color palette bearing a striking similarity to that of Siqueiros.
The works of Alberto Valdés (1918-1998) caught my eye. His delicate semi-abstract paintings were filled with vivid color and Pre-Columbian iconography; dreamlike apparitions, mythic creatures, indigenous warriors, and fantastic landscapes.
A small portrait of a fierce imaginary Aztec warrior held me spellbound; painted in muted hues of red and yellow, the face filled the entire diminutive picture plane.
Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991) was an obvious inspiration to Valdés. A handful of Valdés’ paintings achieved a mystical quality where reality melted into intricate webs of translucent primary colors. However, I think Valdés for the most part agreed with Tamayo that a “non-descriptive realism” would counter the “bourgeois” escapism of abstraction. The enigmatic Don Pela Gallos is indicative of Valdés’ opulently painted visions.
The Colt Revolver in the American West
While at the Autry to see Art Along the Hyphen, I decided to visit the museum’s newly opened Greg Martin Colt Gallery, were the exhibit The Colt Revolver in the American West can be found; I knew a rare poster by artist George Catlin (1796-1872) was part of the exhibit. Starting in 1830 Catlin was the first American artist to travel beyond the Missouri River to visit and document indigenous people; over a six-year period he ended up painting more than 325 portraits of individuals from eighteen tribes, some of which had never seen a white man before.
In 2004 the Autry hosted an unforgettable exhibition titled George Catlin And His Indian Gallery that showcased 120 paintings by the artist. The exhibit was originally organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which houses the greater part of Catlin’s works in its permanent collection. Ever since first learning of Catlin when I was a teenager, I have maintained a keen interest in his works, and so was eager to see his poster in the Colt exhibit.
Samuel Colt constructed the very first rotating cylinder fed handgun in 1831 at the age of sixteen, a prototype of which is on display in the Autry exhibit. He patented his invention in 1835, and his innovative revolver grew increasingly popular with hunters, frontiersmen, and settlers. Around 1851 Samuel Colt commissioned Catlin to do a series of paintings showing the artist using Colt rifles and pistols during his travels. Catlin’s paintings were reproduced as lithographs, a common practice at the time, and distributed to promote the Colt line of firearms. A total of six different lithographic posters were produced, but only Catlin the Artist Shooting Buffalo with Colt’s Revolving Pistol, is on display at the Autry. Apparently Catlin was one of the very first American artists to promote a commercial product.
While the Autry asserts Catlin’s poster depicts the artist firing a “Dragoon revolver”, I think otherwise. The Colt Dragoon was first produced in 1848, years after Catlin made his 1830-1836 excursions through territory inhabited by the original Americans. The handgun Catlin depicted himself using in the poster looks very much like the model No. 5 Colt “Paterson” Revolver manufactured by Samuel Colt in Paterson, N.J. in the year 1836, a year that fits the time frame of Catlin’s actual travels. In 2011 a rare 1836 Colt “Paterson” sold at auction for $977,500, a world record price for a single historic firearm sold at auction.
Places of Validation, Art & Progression
The California African American Museum (CAAM) offers Places of Validation, Art & Progression, an exhibit tracing the development of artistic expression in the Los Angeles African-American community from 1940 to 1980. On view until Feb. 26, 2012, this large and somewhat unwieldy exhibit covers an important period for L.A. and the United States. The post-war struggle to achieve full human and civil rights for African-Americans, and the social engagement in the arts that accompanied that effort, is a central focus for much of the work in the exhibit.
Concomitant with political shifts in the U.S., Black artists in the 1960s began to explore Africa as an aesthetic wellspring, in addition to taking on a critical examination of Black life and history in America. A good portion of the art on display is in the figurative realist tradition, but the CAAM exhibit also demonstrates how Black artists in the avant-garde used conceptual and installation art in a decidedly political way; here, Betye Saar’s Sambo’s Banjo comes to mind.
The work is a mixed-media assemblage composed of a banjo carrying case displayed to stand open, the outside of the case painted with a contemptibly stereotyped image of a Black man with huge bulging eyes and enormous blood red lips. An examination of the case interior reveals that in the area where the circular body of the banjo would rest, a diminutive “Little Black Sambo” toy figure dressed in red, white, and blue hangs from a tiny noose. Above, in the thin part of the case were the banjo’s fretted neck would be situated, a small black metal skeleton is arranged next to a historic black and white photograph of an actual lynching. A piece of wood carved and painted to look like a large slice of watermelon sits in front of the tableau formed by the banjo case. Altogether, Saar’s assemblage forms a chilling picture of American racism.
The exhibit contains three works by Charles White (1918-1979), an artist whose works exerted a powerful influence upon me in the early 1970’s.
Three works by White are on display, a small linoleum cut and a larger and quite extraordinary etching, the triad completed by a sizeable oil painting titled Freedom Now. These three works alone give enough reason to visit Places of Validation, but the CAAM exhibit offers many other treasures.
One of my favorite works in the exhibit is by Ernie Barnes (1938-2009), who was born in North Carolina during the brutal years of White supremacy.
In 1956 the eighteen-year old Barnes visited the North Carolina Museum of Art while on a field trip; when he inquired of a docent where he might find the museum’s collection of works by Black artists, he was told “Your people don’t express themselves that way.” Barnes would develop into one of America’s premier Black artists and in 1978 would return to the same museum for a successful solo exhibition of his art.
On display at the CAAM is My Miss America, Barnes’ heroic depiction of Black womanhood. Painted in 1970, the canvas portrays a woman made rough by years of drudgery and sacrifice; dressed in a plain red cotton dress she hauls two heavy brown bags with her coarse hands. It is evident the working woman is part of America’s permanent underclass, yet, she exudes the dignity and nobility that evades those thought to be “above” her. The title Barnes gave to his canvas was not based on the notion of woman as trophy, rather, it is an affirmation of the strength, integrity, and leadership of women. If there is a “Miss America”, Barnes showed us where she is to be found.
The African Diaspora in the Art of Miguel Covarrubias: Driven by color, shaped by Cultures
In another wing of the CAAM one can see the works of Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias (1904-1957). It brings together the artist’s paintings, lithographs, drawings, sketches, and illustrations for books and magazines portraying people of African heritage in the United States, Haiti, and Cuba; but the exhibit also includes portraits the artist made of people while traveling through North, East, and West African countries. Gathered under the thematic banner of The African Diaspora in the Art of Miguel Covarrubias: Driven by color, shaped by Cultures, the exhibit’s primary focus are the works Covarrubias produced in the mid-1920s as an observer of the Harlem Renaissance.
With a grant from the Mexican government, the 19-year old Covarrubias traveled to New York City in 1924 where he became immersed in African-American culture. He met and befriended Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and other notables from the literary scene, and regularly frequented Harlem’s many Jazz clubs. He produced an endless stream of drawings and other artworks that depicted African-Americans in church, on the street, and going about their everyday lives; to my mind few non-African-American artists up until Covarrubias had ever been given to such a positive examination of Black Americans. By 1927 a number of these works were published in book form under the title of, Negro Drawings, and more than a few of these original works are included in the CAAM exhibit.
A remarkable painter, printmaker, curator, writer, theatrical set and costume designer, anthropologist, and radical humanist, Covarrubias is mostly known in the U.S. as an illustrator and caricaturist whose celebrity caricatures graced the covers and inside pages of publications like Vanity Fair, Fortune, and The New Yorker in the 1920s and 1930s. But when it came to his depictions of African-Americans, he said the following: “I don’t consider my drawings caricatures. A caricature is the exaggerated character of an individual for satirical purpose. These drawings are more from a serious point of view.”
One especially striking painting in the exhibit is Covarrubias’ Black Woman with Blue Dress, an oil on masonite study of a fashionable young woman. One must assume she was a denizen of one of the Jazz clubs the artist haunted, her cool gaze and “Flapper” attire the mark of an urban sophisticate.
The reproduction of the painting shown here does not begin to do the original justice; Covarrubias made full use of the transparent characteristics of oil paint, his vibrant portrait looking ever so much like a backlit panel of stained glass. Next to this painting, another similarly sized and composed oil portrait stood out conspicuously, a masterful interpretation of a young woman in a deep red dress.
The portrait of the Black woman in the red dress continues to enthrall me, though I did not get the title or date of the painting. The woman wearing a bobbed Flapper hairdo so angular it seemed architectural, was portrayed in silhouette against a background the color of ripe lemons. Thrown into shadow and her beautiful ebony skin painted in the darkest of hues, her features appear hidden, until a closer look reveals that her eyes are staring back at you. Covarrubias’ close-up portraits of North African women are similarly eye-catching and arresting studies that will have me visiting the exhibition a second time before its closing.
I cannot speak highly enough of The African Diaspora in the Art of Miguel Covarrubias, it is one of the best exhibitions I have ever seen in Los Angeles, if only for the fact that the artist’s fine art prints and oil paintings are so little known in the United States. Regrettably the museum offers no printed catalog of this important show, not even an informative pamphlet. The superb exhibition runs until Feb. 26, 2012.
A glorious noise emanated from the main cathedral sanctuary of the historic Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles on the night of July 31, 2010, but it was not the sacred music one usually associates with a church. The concert was distinctly Latin American, with no small influence from the indigenous roots of Latinoamérica. More to the point, all of the songs being performed were from the socially conscious, Nueva Canción (New Song) or Nueva Trova (New Troubadour) traditions. As a follower of the New Song movement since the early 1970s, I want to share with readers of this web log my experience of the Immanuel concert, as Nueva Canción has had an abiding impact on my work as a visual artist.
The church’s 80-foot-high vaulted ceilings provided concert hall acoustics for an unusual multi-media presentation by the MusicaLatitudes Ensemble. Hailing from Ventura county where they run a performing arts center, the troupe performed America, Let Me Tell You About Ernesto, their musical homage to the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The performance combined live music, spoken word poetry, and a bi-lingual powerpoint slide show to great effect; but it was the content of the production that truly provided a jolt to the senses. By performing songs and poems written by some of the greatest artists - both living and deceased - from all over Latin America, MusicaLatitudes opened a window into the very heart and soul of the region.
As the ensemble played their cover songs in the original Spanish, the song composer’s name and country of origin were projected on the stage backdrop, followed by the lyrics in English. Much of the time the projected song lyrics were punctuated with stunning artworks or photographs that further conveyed the song’s message. In between songs, Venezuelan born Enoc Cortez Barbera and Chilean born Elizabeth Rosello read poems from legendary poets such as Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) of Chile and Otto René Castillo (1934-1967) of Guatemala, the poetry text also being projected onto the stage backdrop in English. The compelling stage readings drove home all of the despair, rage, hope, and revolutionary zeal inherent in the written words of Latin American poets from down the ages.
The life of and death of Otto René Castillo is indicative of the grim and painful realities Latin Americans have had to suffer through over the decades - actualities that have been consistently dealt with in Nueva Canción. In 1954, when Guatemala’s democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown in a U.S. backed military coup orchestrated by the C.I.A., Castillo fled into exile. Longing for a free and independent Guatemala, he clandestinely returned to his homeland in 1966 to take up arms against the military regime. He joined the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes (FAR: Rebel Armed Forces), heading that guerilla organization’s education and propaganda unit.
In 1967 Castillo was captured by the military and taken to an army barracks where he was viciously tortured along with his girlfriend Nora Paíz Cárcamo. The military killed the two by splashing them with gasoline and setting them on fire. While most people in the U.S. have never heard of Castillo, Guatemalans still remember him as their greatest poet - and they have not forgotten how he met his end. So goes the history of U.S.-Latin American relations. Knowing that troubled history, as well as the story of Castillo, when his poetry was read from the stage I openly wept - it would not be the only time tears came to my eyes that evening.
The talented MusicaLatitudes ensemble is led by a core group; Greek-Venezuelan-American composer, vocalist, and keyboardist Pantelis Palamidis (who is also the musical director of the troupe), Ecuadoran-American bassist Juan Carlos Rosales, and American drummer-percussionist, Bill Davis.
The Mexican born Jose Cruz Gamez Baroza played led acoustic guitar, and proved to be more than a competent vocalist as well. Puerto Rican born Mayra Bermudez and Guatemalan born Andrea Zúñiga provided commanding backup vocals - sometimes being showcased as lead singers; I was completely enthralled by Zúñiga, who stole the show with her impassioned delivery and powerful vocal range.
The Venezuelan born Clara Alvear played the cuatro (a small four-stringed guitar-like instrument commonly found in South America) along with Latin American percussion instruments; “Guiro” (a scraper made from a dried and notched gourd), large-sized “Tumba” conga drums as well as the smaller “Quinto” congas, and the “Bombo” - the indigenous drum of the Andean region that is played with a stick and mallet.
The Spanish poet León Felipe (1884-1968) was the only non-Latin American whose works were included in the program, but for very good reason. Having fought in the Spanish Civil War against General Franco and his fascist army, Felipe was forced into exile once the fascists won the war. Like many other anti-fascist Spaniards, he went into exile in Mexico, where he lived and worked until his death in 68.
Interestingly enough, when Che Guevara was captured and executed by the C.I.A. and the Bolivian army in 1967 (more on that later), the executioners found a green notebook in the guerrilla leader’s backpack. It was filled with poems El Che had written in his own hand - poems by León Felipe, Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo of Peru (1892-1938), and Nicolas Guillen of Cuba (1902-1989). According to ensemble director Palamidis, the publication of Guevara’s notebook in 2008 served as the basis for the troupe’s presentation of songs “from the decades of struggle and oppression that several Latin American countries went through in the 70s and 80s.”
Mr. Palamidis further stated that the music and poems performed by MusicaLatitudes were a tribute “to the new awakening of Latin America in its search for its definitive socio-political and cultural independence, just as Simon Bolivar, Che Guevara, and many Latin American revolutionary leaders dreamt for centuries. Let these poems and songs become the antidote that will relieve our souls from the unjustified wars, the killing of innocents, the devastation of families, the financial corruption, the manipulative mainstream media, the increase in discrimination, the deterioration of our environment, and the amazing paralysis of a big majority of our society, which we unfortunately witness day after day.”
The pan-Latin American phenomenon of Nueva Canción and Nueva Trova continue to have deep resonance in América Latina, but most people in the United States are still blissfully unaware of the genre.
The only equivalent musical movement in the U.S. would be the early Folk scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Singer-songwriters like Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan sang topical “protest” songs, but Nueva Canción largely turned its back on Western influences and instead embraced indigenous instruments and rhythms for inspiration. Moreover, the form has a decidedly left-wing political orientation that focuses on the critical problems of the region, Yankee imperialism, poverty and its causes, social inequality, the legacy of colonialism, and racial oppression.
Nueva Canción went hand-in-hand with, and was an outgrowth of, the various political movements for radical social change in América Latina. It should also go without saying that it has commonalities with the socially conscious literature of the region; it is probably a safe thing to say that nowhere else in the world is poetry so closely linked with popular song. But there is also an obvious tie to the social realist visual arts of Latin America - here the Ecuadoran master painter Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919-1999), or the Mexican Muralists come to mind.
The New Song movement has been so closely intertwined with left political movements that it has been impossible to separate the two. For instance, in 1973 the Chilean Nueva Canción singer Victor Jara wrote the song ¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido! as an anthem for the democratically elected Popular Unity government of Chile’s socialist President Salvador Allende. The song was further popularized when it was sung at marches and rallies in Chile by the Nueva Canción group - Quilapayún (this video shows the group performing the song in front of Chile’s Presidential Palace just days before the country’s military coup).
Allende was overthrown and murdered in 1973 during a U.S. backed military coup, along with at least 3,000 other Chileans - including Victor Jara. His song has since been transformed into an iconic international anthem of the left, and the chant of ¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido! (The people united will never be defeated!), is today heard at demonstrations around the globe. Two songs by Jara were featured in MusicaLatitudes’ program, his timeless numbers El arado (The plow), and Juan sin tierra (John without land: sung as a Mexican style corrido), but Jara’s influence on music warrants an entire concert in his tribute. Of course, the Clash made mention of Jara in their 1980 song Washington Bullets - but a contemporary Spanish rock band has also immortalized him.
Juan sin tierra is in the repetoire of the Spanish Ska-Punk band, Ska-P. Currently one the most popular Ska-Punk groups in Europe, the group’s name pronounced in Spanish (es’kape) is a clever pun involving the Spanish word for “escape,” with a reference to Ska and P(unk). Their name and music more than suggests “escaping” the stranglehold of contemporary society, and their songs attack war, fascism, capitalism, and the abusive power of the state. By performing Victor Jara’s work, Ska-P shows just how relevant - and popular - Jara’s songs continue to be. Hopefully other artists, working in a multiplicity of musical genres, will embrace Jara’s compassionate songs as their own.
The name of the evening’s program came from a song with the same title by the Cuban Nueva Trova singer, Silvio Rodriguez.
Possessing an extraordinary voice, and highly skilled at writing political songs in the most flowery poetic language, Rodriguez is today’s prime exponent of Nueva Canción.
The MusicaLatitudes Ensemble performed moving covers of his América, te hablo de Ernesto (America, I tell you about Ernesto), La Maza (The flail), and Cita Con Ángeles (Appointment with Angels). Released in 2003, Cita Con Ángeles tells the story of the angels in heaven being horrified and helpless before the great horrors committed on earth by the unjust - with political assassinations amongst these crimes. In the song Rodriguez recounts the dismay with which the angels met the killings of Giordano Bruno, José Martí, Federico García Lorca, Martin Luther King Jr., and John Lennon.
The angels, Rodriguez tells us, were also disconcerted over the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, but when Rodriguez tells of how the angels became inconsolable over the carnage of September 11th - the heart breaks. At that point during the MusicaLatitudes’ performance, a photograph of the Twin Towers exploding into a massive fireball flashed upon the stage backdrop, and one could almost feel the collective sadness rippling through the audience. But in the very next stanza, Rodriguez reminds us that 9-11 also stands for another catastrophe; on September 11, 1973, the U.S. engineered a coup d’état against the elected government of Chile, a coup that not only took the life of President Allende and some 3,000 Chilean civilians, but turned the country into a torture camp where democracy was extinguished.
MusicaLatitudes performed a single song by the celebrated Argentine singer, Atahualpa Yupanqui - his poignant homage to Che Guevara, Nada Más (Nothing More). An artist of great consequence, Yupanqui (1908-1992) is considered one of Argentina’s most important singers, and is known to have written more than 12,000 musical compositions. He became an ethnomusicologist of sorts, traversing his native Argentina in order to study the songs and musical traditions of the country’s indigenous people.
In the 1960s Yupanqui was rediscovered by a younger generation of artists who were to comprise the Nueva Canción movement. A youthful fellow Argentine, Mercedes Sosa (1935-2009) was one such person, and although her music was not performed in the MusicaLatitudes program of July 31, it could be said that Sosa took up Yupanqui’s banner to become a leading Argentine exponent of Nueva Canción (here Sosa performs the Violeta Parra song Gracias a la Vida with Joan Baez. It was Parra who set the foundations for Chilean Nueva Canción). In addition, Victor Jara was another deeply influenced by Yupanqui and Parra.
Towards the end of their program, the MusicaLatitudes Ensemble performed what is widely hailed as the anthem of Latin America, Canción con todos (Song with all), composed in 1969 by Argentine singer César Isella, with lyrics by Argentine poet Armando Tejada Gómez. In 1976 the Argentine military staged a coup that shut down all democratic institutions; the military’s “dirty war” against the civilian population began. Upwards of 30,000 civilians are thought to have been killed by the authorities during the repression - with left activists taking the brunt of the army’s ferocity. Canción con todos was banned by the military authorities, who eliminated all things perceived to be in opposition to their rule; the fascists ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983.
I first heard Canción con todos in the early 1970s, and I still consider it to be one of the most beautiful songs ever written; it speaks of pan-American solidarity, and how all the people of the hemisphere are one. The song carries a gorgeous melody, its lyrics conveying an unquenchable thirst for liberty and independence. One particular line from the song’s ending, “toda la sangre puede ser canción en el viento” (all the blood will be songs on the wind), sums up the implacable human spirit intrinsic to Nueva Canción - all of our collective tragedies will be transformed into victories, provided we never forget what is true and beautiful (here Isella performs a remarkable version of Canción con todos before a Chilean audience in 2003).
At the close of the evening the ensemble performed the most famous of all songs written about Che, Hasta Siempre Comandante (Forever Commander), penned by the Cuban Nueva Trova singer, Carlos Puebla (1917-1989).
Puebla wrote the song in 1965 upon hearing that Guevara had renounced his Cuban citizenship and resigned from his positions in the Cuban government in order to make revolution throughout the world. Che’s decision ultimately took him to Bolivia where he attempted to initiate an insurrection against the U.S. backed military regime of General René Barrientos. After 11 months in Bolivia, Che was captured with the help of the C.I.A. and immediately executed without benefit of a trial. Performed by innumerable artists over the decades, including the notable Buena Vista Social Club, the MusicaLatitudes Ensemble became the latest group to cover Puebla’s iconic song.
Interestingly enough, it has been the French actress and pop songbird Nathalie Cardone, who has done more to immortalize Puebla’s song in recent times than any other performer. Her 1997 version of Hasta Siempre was a runaway international hit, selling well over 800,000 copies in France alone. Her accompanying video to the song is an astonishing melding of commercial pop and faux “agit-prop” sensibilities. While not a Nueva Canción singer, Cardone has certainly brought new interest to the genre.
The MusicaLatitudes Ensemble delivered one of the most ambitious left cultural events to have been presented in Los Angeles in many years, and their opening the door to the world of Nueva Canción was in many respects a wonderful gift to the people of my city. In the past the ensemble has offered concert performances in tribute to the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, and the Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa. The ensemble will offer a tribute to Chilean poet Pablo Neruda at their performing arts center in Ventura in the months to come, watch for it - no doubt it will be a production not to be missed.
In 1989 the Guatemalan Information Center (GIC), a human rights organization founded by a group of Guatemalan exiles living in Los Angeles, commissioned me to create a poster.
Its purpose was to announce the Guatemalan Human Rights Tribunal, a public forum the GIC was planning to hold in the Council Chambers of Los Angeles City Hall on the subject of the war then raging in Guatemala. I had been closely following the unfolding tragedy in that Central American nation since the late 1970s, and my concerns were reflected in the art I was making in those days.
I created the poster for the GIC free of charge, and the widely distributed artwork brought hundreds of people to the group’s City Hall event. At the tribunal, eyewitness accounts of the war were provided in testimonies from Guatemalan labor union activists, clergy, representatives of indigenous peoples, students, human rights workers, and others. My collaboration with the GIC was motivated by the reports I had been reading about the plight of Guatemalans – like the following story involving the Mayan village of Las Dos Erres in the north of Guatemala.
On December 5, 1982, the hamlet of Las Dos Erres was visited by unspeakable horror when Special Forces commandos of the U.S.-backed Guatemalan army attacked the sleepy village – which the Guatemalan military government suspected was sympathetic to the country’s left-wing guerrilla movement.
Beginning on that fateful December day the commandos of the “Kaibil” Special Forces commenced the systematic butchering of some 350 men, women, and children – nearly the entire population of the Mayan settlement. The massacre would continue for three days, and only two five-year-old boys would survive the bloodbath.
I am writing about this now because on May 5, 2010, officers from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency arrested a former member of the Kaibil Special Forces who had been living in Palm Beach, Florida as a naturalized U.S. citizen. Gilberto Jordan was charged with lying about his role in the Las Dos Erres massacre in order to obtain U.S. citizenship. According to ICE, Jordan admitted “that he participated in the killings,” and that he stated “the first person he killed was a baby, whom he murdered by throwing into the village well.” The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Wifredo A. Ferrer, said, “The acts alleged in this complaint are horrific” and that “we will not provide shelter and cover to those who lie about their criminal past, especially human rights abuses, to gain U.S. citizenship.”
This past February, immigration agents also arrested former Kaibil soldier Santos Lopez Alonzo in Houston, Texas. Picked up as an undocumented day laborer, Alonzo is alleged to have held women and children at gunpoint as they were being murdered and thrown into the village well at Las Dos Erres. Immigration authorities are also seeking two other former Kaibil soldiers known to be hiding in the United States who were present at the Las Dos Erres massacre – Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes, a second lieutenant in the Kaibiles who is alleged to have murdered civilians by smashing in their heads with a sledge hammer, and Pedro Pimentel Rios, a Kaibil commando alleged to have raped a number of girls and women before they were slaughtered.
Writing for the Global Post on May 5, 2010, reporter Matt McAllester summed up the history of the massacre at Las Dos Erres – in all its grisly detail – in his article, “U.S. rounds up Guatemalans accused of war crimes.” But McAllester’s piece also raises a number of important questions regarding the mass executions, not the least of which is the fact that the U.S. government trained and armed the Guatemalan army responsible for such mass killings.
In his article, McAllester notes that de-classified cables sent from the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala to the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C. during the years 1982 and 1983, confirm that the U.S. government knew the Guatemalan army had carried out the massacre at Las Dos Erres, “yet the School of the Americas began to welcome new instructors and students from the army only days after the killings.”
McAllester’s report stated that just a month after the atrocity, the Kaibil commando Pedro Pimentel Rios – the one who allegedly committed mass rape – became an instructor at the Pentagon’s School of the Americas in Panama. Not only that, McAllester wrote, “He was given an Army Commendation Medal for meritorious service by the then-U.S. Secretary of the Army John Otho Marsh in 1985.”
The massacre at Las Dos Erres was not an aberration. When the 36-year war between leftist guerrillas and the U.S.-supported Guatemalan army ended with a peace accord in 1996, over 200,000 Guatemalans had perished. In 1999 Guatemala’s Historical Clarification Commission, a UN-sponsored truth and reconciliation commission, released a report titled “Memory of Silence” that found indigenous Maya accounted for 83% of the dead, and that 93% of the victims had been murdered by government armed forces. The commission’s report concluded that the U.S.-backed Guatemalan army had identified “the Mayan population as the internal enemy,” and that the army’s relentless assaults upon indigenous communities comprised “acts of genocide.”
There are those Americans who were long aware of the U.S. government’s role in the Guatemalan civil war of the 1980s, and I count myself amongst those who not only attempted to bring attention to America’s responsibility for the violence, but actively sought to end U.S. military aid to the homicidal maniacs that ruled the Central American nation at the time.
I worked closely with the Guatemalan Information Center in developing the poster announcing their Human Rights Tribunal. GIC members provided me with background information and materials needed to create my artwork. However, it was the compelling personal testimonies from GIC members that I found most valuable. Many had taken flight from their homeland out of fear they would be murdered by government sponsored death squads. Each had an anguished story to tell; soldiers stopping people at checkpoints and arbitrarily arresting individuals who would never be seen again; people who would disappear, only to be found dumped in a public place, their bodies displaying telltale signs of torture, mutilation, and execution by death squads.
After hearing the personal stories of Guatemalan Information Center members, I decided upon creating a 3 x 5 foot chalk pastel drawing depicting campesinos carrying a wounded man shot by government troops. Upon completion, the chalk drawing titled “Voices of Justice” was printed as the full-color, 11 x 15 inch offset poster that announced the Human Rights Tribunal. During the event at L.A.’s City Hall, the original chalk drawing was displayed in the City Hall Council Chambers.
Due to the fearsome level of repression and wholesale murder of political opponents practiced by the regime of President Lucas Garcia in the late 1970s, U.S. President Jimmy Carter cut overt military aid to Guatemala in 1977. Garcia was deposed in a 1982 coup d’état led by General Efrain Ríos Montt, who was a graduate of the U.S. School of the Americas.
In 1983 the Reagan administration lifted Carter’s arms embargo to arm the fanatically anticommunist military junta led by Montt. An unprecedented level of barbarity was unleashed upon Guatemala by Montt, who let loose a wave of political kidnappings, assassinations, torture, and a scorched earth policy that totally annihilated some 600 Mayan Indian villages.
It cannot be emphasized enough that the Reagan administration supported the savagery by funding, training, and equipping the Guatemalan army, as well as giving the military dictatorship full political support. In the midst of the Guatemalan army’s campaign of mass extermination against the indigenous population, President Reagan visited General Montt in Honduras. On December 4, 1982 – just a day prior to the massacre at Las Dos Erres – Reagan acclaimed Montt as a leader who was “totally dedicated to democracy,” further proclaiming that the junta leader had falsely been given “a bum rap” by human rights activists.
In today’s Guatemala there are purportedly over 100 secret graveyards where government soldiers and their death squad allies buried the many thousands of non-combatant civilians they murdered in a killing spree meant to rid the country of “communist subversives.” But those dead do not rest easy, and their tales are now just beginning to come to light in the present. Miguel Angel Asturias (1899-1974), Guatemala’s Nobel Laureate for Literature, was quoted in the prologue of Guatemala’s Historical Clarification Commission report for saying the following: “The eyes of the buried will close together on the day of justice, or they will never close.”
I am frankly stunned at how quickly the war in Guatemalan has been forgotten – at least by those who were not direct victims of the mayhem. What was once an international cause célèbre has been quietly put out of mind; we have moved on to Iraq and Afghanistan. But reality has an unpleasant way of stabbing through our most formidable walls of denial. The poster I created for the Guatemalan Information Center in 1989 continues to reverberate in the present – the arrests of murderous Kaibil Special Forces in the U.S. are reminder enough of that.
Of Rage and Redemption: The Art of Oswaldo Guayasamín was an important two-year long traveling retrospective of artworks by Latin American master, Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919-1999). The exhibit recently ended its scheduled tour last August 16, 2009 at the Museum of Latin American Art (MoLAA) in Long Beach, California. Guayasamín, hailed in his home country of Ecuador as a national hero and widely acclaimed throughout Latin America and indeed the world – is scarcely known in the United States. What accounts for this near total lack of recognition? Emphasizing the magnitude of his omission from public awareness in the U.S., I overheard someone say while viewing the show, “I’ve never heard of Guayasamín before. I don’t mean to sound sacrilegious, but I think he’s better than Picasso.”
Expertly curated by Joseph Mella, Director of the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery in Nashville, Tennessee, Of Rage and Redemption first premiered in February of 2008 at the Vanderbilt before moving on to four other national venues, including a run at the Organization of American States’ Art Museum of the Americas in Washington, D.C. The exhibit was laid out as a timeline, starting with the artist’s early figurative works from the 1940s, and culminating with his late period minimalist paintings from the 1980s and 1990s. Walking through the exhibit not only gave insight into Guayasamín’s artistic development over the decades, it presented an overview of history as it occurred in Latin America and throughout the world, since the artist was deeply concerned with real world events. In his own words:
“I have used a powerful weapon, the plastic, to denounce and protest the bad behavior of ‘man against man.’ I speak the truth of my time, without the picturesque or the anecdotal. I don’t look for beauty - but for truth. I use the body of humanity to show the present and historical reality, without academic euphemisms; this humanity – tortured by injustice, misery and horror, is present in The Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon.”
While Guayasamín was undoubtedly influenced by modernist aesthetics, he wanted to move away from European traditions in art. One might see the German Expressionists in his agitated brushstrokes and figurative exaggeration, but Guayasamín’s unique late style was inspired by the ancient civilizations of pre-Hispanic America; it was Inca, Maya, and Aztec aesthetics that fired his imagination and guided his vision.
The Maya murals of Bonampak, Mexico painted in 790 AD and the Inkapirqa (Inca wall), built in Ecuador by the Inca in the late 15th century before the Spanish conquest – had more to do with Guayasamín’s artistic vision than anything offered by the European avant-garde of the late 20th century. In part it was this “indigenismo”, the utilization and further development of deep-rooted indigenous aesthetics that made Guayasamín’s art so greatly admired throughout Latin America.
I would like to remark on a number of paintings presented in the exhibit, for example, the oil painting titled Napalm. It condemned the incendiary weapon made infamous by its massive use in Vietnam by the U.S. military. Guayasamín’s terrifying canvas looks as if it were made from scorched flesh and coagulated blood. Painted in 1976, the canvas surely alluded to Kim Phúc, the little Vietnamese girl who was severely burned in a napalm attack that took place in 1972.
Photos and motion picture film of Phúc running down a village road, her clothes burned off and her seared flesh hanging in strips, became some of the most unforgettable imagery from the Vietnam War. But Guayasamín was also undoubtedly thinking of how napalm had been used in Latin America as well. In 1965 the Peruvian army bombed guerrilla fighters at Mesa Pelada with U.S. supplied napalm, and in 1968 the Mexican government used the U.S. furnished jellied gasoline against guerrilla groups operating in the southern coastal state of Guerrero.
The canvas Los Torturados (The Tortured) alludes to another tragic moment in history. Painted in the years 1976-77, Guayasamín’s canvas at first glance seems a commentary on the torture of civilians at the hands of military regimes, which indeed it is - but the artist had something more specific in mind. Chile’s democratically elected government of Salvador Allende was overthrown on September 11, 1973, in a brutal military coup backed by the United States. Some 3,000 civilians were killed and thousands more were detained by the military junta.
One of those arrested was Victor Jara, the famous Chilean folk singer and supporter of the deposed socialist government. He was taken by the army to Chile Stadium in Santiago, then being used as a torture and detention camp for thousands of prisoners. Once they realized the celebrated singer was in their custody, soldiers began to savagely torture Jara. Troops broke both of his wrists and crushed the bones in both of his hands with rifle butts before machine-gunning him.
Three years later Guayasamín would dedicate Los Torturados to the spirit of Victor Jara. In 2004 a new democratically elected government honored the memory of the slain singer by renaming Chile Stadium, The Victor Jara Stadium. In 2008 a Chilean government investigation and autopsy confirmed that Jara had been tortured and shot 44 times. Finally, in May 2009, a former low ranking army conscript was charged with the murder of Jara.
Another impressive oil painting in the exhibit was the monolithic, Reunión en el Pentágono I-V (Meeting at the Pentagon I-V). The five panels created in 1970 offer psychological portraits of fictitious U.S. military chiefs conspiring behind closed doors.
While viewing the panel portraits it is difficult not to think of director Stanley Kubrick’s doomsday film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, not for any intentional connection Guayasamín made to Kubrick’s cinematic masterwork, but simply because the paintings so brilliantly depict men whose minds have become unhinged by militarism.
While Kubrick drove home his point with dark humor, there is little of a comedic nature to be found in Guayasamín’s rough semi-abstract caricatures of the militarists. His military chiefs are Machiavellian ideologues practiced at placing lives in the balance for the sake of political expediency and bellicose Cold War objectives.
One is almost tempted to chuckle at the men in the portraits for all of their pomposity and ridiculous jingoism, but quiet laughter seems inappropriate. Guayasamín and his compatriots had seen too many hearts and souls crushed by real jackbooted tin horn dictators to find anything funny about them or their shadowy benefactors.
The technique employed by Guayasamín in creating the panels added to the work’s powerful narrative. He literally troweled oil paint onto the panels, spreading and smoothing it in places, scoring and scraping it off in other areas. Repeated applications of paint applied in this manner resulted in a textured surface over which he applied glazes of color. His figures were painted on a black underpainting, and his finishing brush strokes of black were painted into wet color. The painting is a tour de force, full of lustrous transparencies, aggressive brush strokes, and remarkable textures.
Guayasamín’s masterful handling of paint bestowed upon his subjects a surprising if distorted humanity. One appears as a fleshy bureaucrat and another as a rhinoceros-skinned brute. One blue-eyed fellow hunched over at his desk with a look of consternation etched upon his face displays an unexpected vulnerability. The shred of morality he still possessed had been stirred; his eyes convey self-loathing – or is it extreme doubt – over something he has done or is about to set into motion.
The history of U.S. military intervention in Latin America is so extensive that one could devote an entire lifetime to its study. U.S. military invasions and occupations in the hemisphere pre-dated the existence and influence of the Soviet Union, often cited as the reason for the U.S. engineered coups and assassinations that took place in the 20th century.
Prior to the founding of the Soviet Union there were at least 25 major U.S. military interventions in Latin America, from the 1848 war of the United States against Mexico – one of the most shameless land grabs in world history – to several thousand U.S. Marines occupying the Dominican Republic in 1916.
Guayasamín’s Meeting at the Pentagon portraits adhere to the profile of military leaders from “El Norte” that Latin Americans have long held, and there has been little recent evidence given to make them change their minds. Despite President Obama’s assurances that there will be “no senior partner and junior partner” in U.S.-Latin American diplomatic relations, his actions speak otherwise. His near passivity regarding the June 28, 2009 coup d’état in Honduras have left many wondering if Obama tacitly approves of the military coup. Every Latin American nation has withdrawn its ambassador from Honduras in protest of the coup, and member states of the European Union have done the same – it is only the U.S. that has failed to do so. Worse yet, Obama has struck a deal with the right-wing government of Colombia, giving U.S. military forces long-term access to seven military bases across that country and allowing for an expanded U.S. military presence in Colombia. At an Aug. 28, 2009 emergency meeting of the South American Union of Nations (Unasur) held in Argentina, South American heads of state blasted the Obama plan as a threat to regional peace and stability.
It was Simón Bolívar who once intoned, “Nuestra Patria se llama América” (The name of our country is América); an axiom that gave expression to a vision of hemispheric unity so deeply- instilled in Latin Americans that many still take umbrage when citizens of the United States use the name “America” to mean U.S. national exclusivity and pre-eminence. Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Bolívar (1783-1830) came to be known as “The Liberator” for his leading role in the independence movement against the Spanish. Revered throughout Latin America for having smashed Spanish colonial rule in Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela, it was Bolívar’s pan-American vision that inspired and inflamed Latin American patriots ever since his death. That same pan-national fervor permeates Guayasamín’s art, yet it would be a mistake to view him as an artist who was devoted only to the people of the Americas; the core of his art was a passionate universal humanism.
Strolling through the exhibit was akin to reading the works of Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano, in that Guayasamín presented the region’s anguished history in a visual language similar to the hallucinatory verse of Galeano. I first read Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America, an authoritative history of the Americas from 1492 to the late 20th century, in the late 1970s; I have followed his writings ever since. However, it was his magnificent 1985 trilogy, Memoria del Fuego (Memory of Fire) that remains a favorite work of mine. A non-prosaic chronicle of the continent’s history, Memory reads like an epic poem that begins with the creation myths of indigenous people before there was written history, and ends in 1984 with a peasant fiesta in Bluefields, Nicaragua, where; “however much death may come, however much blood may flow, the music will dance men and women as long as the air breathes them and the land plows and loves them.” Galeano’s trilogy is a remarkably powerful and insightful work, and Guayasamín’s art is the closest visual equivalent I can think of.
Despite its profundity, the Of Rage & Redemption exhibition had its flaws, the greatest of which was overlooking Guayasamín’s extraordinary power as a modernist portraitist. Save for a few realistic early works, the exhibition focused mostly on the artist’s mid to late period minimalist style, where he reduced the human figure to near abstraction. On the whole, the viewer was left with a rather narrow view of Guayasamín.
To fully appreciate the weight of Guayasamín’s art one must begin with his portraits, of which he created hundreds over the expanse of his career. Without sentimentalism or showiness, Guayasamín painted the likenesses of friends, relatives, associates, workers, and fellow artists. As time went on he would also paint celebrities and presidents, but of those who sat to have their portrait painted - whether campesino or luminary – all were painted as equals. There were no “natural rulers” in Guayasamín’s universe; the only sovereigns were those who struggled against cruelty and injustice. The list of those who had their portraits painted reads like a directory of Latin American notables; Atahualpa Yupanqui, Mercedes Sosa, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel García Márquez, Fidel Castro, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Francois and Danielle Mitterrand, and many others.
Guayasamín’s style of portraiture was largely based upon exaggerated caricature, yet his portraits were never cartoonish. Portraits from the 1940s and 1950s were generally more realistic, but his later period primitivist approach in no way bordered on kitsch, and while he stripped away superfluous details he always succeeded in capturing the unique spirit of his individual sitters. In its totality the body of Guayasamín’s portraiture can be viewed as the collective face of Latin America’s people.
It is a shame that more people in the United States are not familiar with the works of Oswaldo Guayasamín, but his not being well-known in the U.S. is an issue of some complexity. The fashionable art world of today, transfixed as it is with the strictures of postmodernism, essentially does not know what to make of such an artist. Irony, cynicism, and lack of introspection, are the hallmarks of today’s trendy art – all notions antithetical to Guayasamín’s work.
One can imagine the nauseating kitsch of Jeff Koons’ Michael Jackson and Bubbles on display at the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – but it is impossible to imagine Guayasamín’s memorial to the spirit of Victor Jara hanging in the same institution. Despite my differences with the Museum of Latin American Art, it deserves credit for mounting the Guayasamín retrospective.
For more information on the work of Oswaldo Guayasamín, visit the official website of the Guayasamín Foundation. MoLAA offers a small illustrated catalog of the exhibit, which is available at the museum’s gift shop. However, a splendid and much superior collaborative book by Guayasamín and Chilean poet Pablo Neruda can be purchased through Amazon. Titled America, My Brother, My Blood, the book combines words and poetry by Neruda with paintings and drawings by Guayasamín. Image of the Mother Country, a colossal mural commissioned by the government of Ecuador, hangs in that country’s Legislative Palace (Congress) in the capital of Quito. The National Assembly of the Republic of Ecuador maintains an illustrated Spanish language .pdf file that explains the history and narrative of the mural – which was installed and officially unveiled in 1988.
The federal government has decided to eliminate funding for the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning, Montana. Opened to the public in 1941, the museum not only houses a major collection of historic artifacts from America’s plains tribes, it hosts frequent exhibitions by contemporary American Indian artists. The Daily Inter Lake of Montana reports that the museum’s annual budget of $150,000 will be eliminated by October 2007, so that the funding may be diverted to “law enforcement.” The U.S. government in its infinite wisdom, also plans to severely cut the budgets for the American Indian museums in Anadarko, Oklahoma and in Rapid City, South Dakota.
While the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning has a premiere collection of historic arts by tribal peoples from the Crow, Sioux, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Nez Perce, Cree and Shoshone nations, it is located on the tribal lands of the Blackfeet. Since the museum is a major tourist attraction and a site for many annual festivals and exhibitions, the institution’s closing will represent a significant blow to the local economy. But it also represents a critical setback for established and emerging American Indian artists, who have come to rely upon the museum as a primary venue for exhibiting and selling their works. In addition, the closing of this institution demonstrates a callous disregard for American heritage. That the cuts have been enacted by an administration proclaiming itself to be above all others when it comes to “patriotism,” only makes the story that much more of an unacceptable outrage.
The Indian Arts and Crafts Board within the U.S. Department of the Interior is responsible for axing the museum’s funding. Adding insult to injury, the U.S. government has stated it “hopes” that the Blackfeet Tribe will find a way to keep museum doors open, but quite obviously the bureaucrats have nothing but contempt for indigenous peoples - not to mention the arts. That the U.S. government could so easily appropriate $251 BILLION dollars to wage war in Iraq - but can’t find $150,000 to keep an American museum open - only illustrates the depravity to which my homeland has sunk.
I recently wrote an article for Xispas Magazine, the online journal of Chicano culture, art and politics. The piece, entitled Mystery of the Aztec Crystal Skull, details how modern scientists have exposed a legendary Aztec artifact as a counterfeit. Their conclusion is shocking to say the least, as anyone even remotely familiar with the art of pre-conquest Mexico has seen the sculpture featured in numerous authoritative art books and journals. Here’s an excerpt from my article.
“A report issued by a scientific team in early January, 2005, concludes the sculpture to be a fake. Professor Ian Freestone from the University of Wales at Cardiff and a former head of scientific research at the British Museum, led a team of researchers from the museum in thoroughly analyzing the artifact. Professor Freestone said that while circumstantial evidence indicates the skull was of 19th-century European origin, there was no definite proof. However, the case for the work being a counterfeit is very strong.” To learn more about the controversy, read my entire Xispas article.
One of the books I’m currently reading is artist Jean Charlot’s, The Mexican Mural Renaissance. Written in 1963, the book is a recollection of the French painter’s active participation in the Mexican Mural movement circa 1920-1925. Charlot befriended artists Siqueiros, Rivera, Orozco and others, at a time when their very first murals were being produced. Charlot himself created fresco murals in Mexico City’s National Preparatory School and the Ministry of Public Education. As he put it, having “assisted at the birth of a national style is a rare event, as well worth recording as the birth of a volcano.” In a remarkable passage from his book, Charlot compares Aztec art to Europe’s early 20th century avant-garde, and finds the latter somewhat lacking:
“Early in this century, when the Parisian vanguard, having hacked its way through uncharted stylistic jungles, proudly returned with its strange trophies, the displayed grotesquerie looked familiar and somewhat tame from an Amerindian vantage point. Just having known calli, the Aztec hieroglyph that signifies “house” - a cube of space contained in a cube of adobe - watered down the angular landscapes of Braque and Derain into little more than a mild departure from impressionism. The flat colors of the codices, with raw chromas paired in refined discord, could pass as the goal toward which Matisse of Music and Dance took his first hesitant steps.
The anatomies that Leger put together with ruler and compass were doubtless veering away from Bouguereau, but still had far to go on their semi mechanical legs to equal the frightfully abstract countenance of a Tlaloc or Tzontemoc. Idols combined the moroseness of a 1916 Derain with the mathematical innuendos of Juan Gris. A few were spared in the comparison: Picasso’s evisceration of objects, for example, matched the fierceness of an Aztec ritual knifing.”
What Charlot saw so clearly in the early 1920’s, that Mexico’s ancient indigenous art can be a starting point for a thoroughly modern aesthetic, is still a valid perspective. I addressed this in an earlier post of mine, Aztec Art: Roots of Modernism.
I’ve been studying Aztec art for decades. Many artists active in or familiar with the Chicano arts movement of America’s Southwestern states have appreciated the blunt figurative style and bold colors of the Aztecs. As African art influenced European artists to establish cubism, so too has Aztec art given inspiration to Chicano painters and print makers from the late 60’s to the present. Currently artists and art enthusiasts around the world are discovering the staggering grandeur created by the indigenous of Mexico over 500 years ago. In 2002, the Royal Academy of Arts in Great Britain presented Aztecs, an exhibition of art and artifacts visited by over 465,000 people, making it one of the most popular exhibits in the Academy’s history.
Now the Guggenheim Museum in New York Ciy presents, The Aztec Empire, a major exhibition running until February 13th, 2005. With over 435 works in stone, ceramic and precious metals from private and public collections, the show is an essential look at the art and culture of the Aztecs. Guggenheim Museum director Thomas Krens felt it important “to visit past cultures in which modern art has its roots in order to examine the context from which today’s art has emerged.” Beautifully stated… and a remark not to be overlooked. Working artists everywhere should study and embrace the overwhelming aesthetic accomplishments of Mexico’s original inhabitants. The Guggenheim maintains a terrific website for The Aztec Empire exhibition.