Mexico City

Maruch Sántiz Gómez

Maruch Sántiz Gómez’s photographs come with curious bits of advice written underneath them. Consider the following: “When lifting a griddle off the fire, one shouldn’t look at the little sparks produced, or pimples will grow on one’s face like those on the surface of the griddle.” This odd tip accompanying a stark image of a frying pan is much more than a cynical provocation. Sántiz, a twenty-two-year-old Tzotzil Indian, was recruited by photographer Carlota Duarte to participate in a community project in the recently newsworthy state of Chiapas. Sántiz responded with twenty-five black-and-white prints that index the Tzotzil’s various superstitions with straightforward depictions of foodstuffs and rudimentary tools. In one work, an image of a basket filled with dried chiles placed on the dusty ground is accompanied by a ban on shaking such baskets and rattling the chile seeds, lest it cause a child to cry when being hugged. Similarly, an image of an open gourd used as a tortilla container bears a reminder not to eat the first tortilla, since that would supposedly lead to bad-mouthing others.

Sántiz intends this project to be useful to her people; as she explains it, the Tzotzil’s esoteric knowledge can be saved from extinction if it is compiled in a medium readily accessible to the community’s largely illiterate members (much as Giotto did with biblical tales in late-medieval Assisi). Sántiz’s expectation that she can effectively use the photographic medium for this purpose might appear to contradict a cultural-relativist’s tendency to question photography’s transparency as a medium for conveying information. Nevertheless, for those uninitiated into the ways of the Tzotzil these images will cry out for further explication, pointing to the particular dilemma surrounding the reception of indigenous practices within the context of an art gallery. Much as the austerity of Sántiz’s work might appeal to current tastes, characterizing it as “contemporary art” and expecting it to deliver up its meaning in some aesthetic lingua franca would be as questionable as treating Australian aboriginal dot paintings as Modernist abstraction.

Appearances aside, Sántiz forces us to choose between reading the legends under the pictures first or beginning with the images, a decision that strongly affects one’s response. When the text is read first, the photographs become mere anthropological illustrations; whereas when one begins with the pictures, one is forced to try to pay attention to their formal qualities in order to derive some kind of significance from them, bracketing the photographs into a discourse that is ultimately alien to them. Sántiz’s work thus functions in an unintentionally sophisticated manner, triggering a semiological examination of the visual and the verbal.

The surprisingly welcome complications brought to light by Sántiz’s photographs foreground the impulse to understand art, to value it, only by privileging the distinction between art and nonart. The mutual exclusivity of these two categories, which derives from an overreliance on a paradigm that Marcel Duchamp brought to light, is made happily untenable by Sántiz’s project. Her photographs function effectively as art, even though—one might even say because—they are not intended to do so.

Yishai Jusidman