Arts of Resistance: Politics and the Past in Latin America
At the Museum of Anthropology at UBC until October 8
Horned devils and fire-breathing serpents, extrajudicial executions and human sacrifice, armed insurgents and masked men wielding large hypodermic needles—there’s no shortage of frightening imagery in Arts of Resistance. There’s no dearth of beautiful and peaceable imagery, either: sumptuous flowers, winding rivers, idealized scenes of hearth, home, and agricultural abundance. Part of what is fascinating in this exhibition, subtitled Politics and the Past in Latin America, is the tension generated between the overtly critical and the quietly subversive.
Curated by Laura Osorio Sunnucks, a postdoctoral curatorial fellow at the Museum of Anthropology, the show examines the ways in which marginalized, largely Indigenous communities in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile use folkloric art traditions to express what Osorio Sunnucks describes as “contemporary political realities”. These realities, she notes while walking the Straight through the exhibition, range from state-sponsored violence to the forced imposition of genetically modified crops. While a few of the historic objects in the show are drawn from MOA’s permanent collection, many of the 100-plus works on view were recently commissioned for the museum. Two wall works—a graffiti mural by the Lapiztola collective from Oaxaca, Mexico, and a kené design mural, painted by members of the Shipibo-Konibo diasporic community in Lima, Peru—were created for the exhibition directly on-site.
The show also explores the inspiration that contemporary Latin-American folk art draws from pre-Hispanic cultures. A powerful example is Ayotzinapa Codex, a banner that alludes to both Spanish colonial and pre-Hispanic forms and histories to protest a number of contemporary social, political, and environmental wrongs. Most notable among these is the 2014 kidnapping and disappearance of 43 education students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in Guerrero, Mexico. Created by Juan Manuel Sandoval Palacios and Diego Sandoval Avila, the work uses handwriting and painted figures modelled on those found in historic Mesoamerican codices to draw our attention to both the particular (collusion between a drug cartel and state authorities in disappearing the Nahuatl-speaking students) and the general (violent oppression and exploitation of Indigenous people by those in power).
Also on view are paintings on roof beams, from the Sarhuino people of Peru. They exemplify a traditional folk-art form, now mostly discontinued, depicting scenes of family life, beliefs, and rituals. Collaboratively created for newlyweds, they functioned, Osorio Sunnucks says, as a way of passing on family and cultural histories. Evolved from that tradition are a series of similarly styled paintings on rectangular wooden panels, representing the violence committed against the people of Ayacucho by both government troops and Maoist “Shining Path” guerrillas during the 1980s. The panels were painted by Venuca Evanánda Vivanco, who reproduced them for MOA from originals by her father.
The extravagant and alternately frightening, humorous, and satirical festival masks and costumes displayed in the show suggest the ambiguous character of depictions of Satan in parts of Indigenous Mexico and South America. A carved and painted wooden mask from Guerrero, for instance, conjoins twisting horns, twined serpents, and multiple snarling and ferocious creatures, intended to scare children when performed and yet also a source of historical pride, related to a skirmish with the Spanish during the Mexican struggle for independence.
“Because the Spanish missionaries forced the association of pre-Columbian deities with the Devil,” the exhibition text tells us, “it is possible the Indigenous people of Mesoamerica sympathized with the Devil.” At the same time, Osorio Sunnucks says, Indigenous peoples may have seen the Spaniards themselves—cruel and avaricious—as devils.
A few works in the show are extremely understated, including five small ink paintings on bark paper, depicting in intricate detail the daily lives of rural folk in the Balsas River region of Guerrero, Mexico. Created by members of an extended family from Xalitla, these works gradually and subtly shift from idealized representations of rural life to images of social change, including political corruption and desperate rates of emigration.
More understated still is the array of huipiles or blouses from Maya communities in Guatemala and southern Mexico, which Osorio Sunnucks has strategically placed in the show’s introductory installation. While the woven and embroidered patterns on these garments vary widely, from the floral to the geometric, the basic huipil form is consistent throughout: a folded cotton square with a circle cut out of its centre, its edge often highly decorated, indicating the neckline. This form reproduces the pre–Classic Maya conception of the universe as a four-cornered structure with a hearth at its centre—and places the head of the Maya woman wearing the huipil at the centre of that universe.
In the context of the exhibition, the message encoded in these blouses is an assertion of cultural identity and solidarity, especially in Guatemala, where the Maya have been systematically oppressed and outright murdered. Osorio Sunnucks speaks about another, more paradoxical subtext in this display, that is, the appalling rate of femicide in Mexico, especially involving missing and murdered Indigenous women. Although the introductory text panel asserts the “irrepressible resolve of rural, Indigenous, and diasporic peoples in Latin America”, redress of their suffering seems very far away.