Mexico City

Cristóbal Gracia, Simples y primitivos (Simple and Primitive), 2016, watercolor and pastel on ink-jet print, 28 3/8 × 34 1/4".

Cristóbal Gracia, Simples y primitivos (Simple and Primitive), 2016, watercolor and pastel on ink-jet print, 28 3/8 × 34 1/4".

Cristóbal Gracia

Cuarto de Máquinas

Cristóbal Gracia, Simples y primitivos (Simple and Primitive), 2016, watercolor and pastel on ink-jet print, 28 3/8 × 34 1/4".

Cristóbal Gracia was hailed by the press as one of the “most rewarding discoveries” of the 2016 Gallery Weekend Mexico. This was in response to his takeover of gallery Cuarto de Máquinas’s newly opened space with the solo show “Aquatania: Parte I,” curated by Inbal Miller and Edgar Alejandro Hernández. Immediately striking, as one entered the first of the two rooms, was the color of the walls––a beautiful, floral shade of pink, which, as it turned out, matched the hue decorating the interior of the Hotel Los Flamingos in Acapulco, the long-term residence of Johnny Weissmuller, the actor and professional swimmer who starred as Tarzan in a dozen films shot in the 1930s and ’40s.

Gracia unpacked the story of Weissmuller’s last Tarzan vehicle, the notorious B-movie classic Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948), directed by Robert Florey, in a varied body of work. Gracia’s canvases, sculptures, hand-colored photographs, and video works addressed and ridiculed the exoticization of Mexico by Hollywood. Adjacent to the entrance, Suite Tarzán (all works 2016), a photograph of the room in the Los Flamingos hotel once presumably occupied by Weissmuller, was hung near a monitor showing a master shot of a picturesque veranda overlooking the ocean. The sound of waves and rustling palm-tree leaves created a perfect, dreamy atmosphere easily associated with a holiday resort but having little to do with the darker side of a contemporary Acapulco fighting decay, underinvestment, and crime.

Back in the day, however, Acapulco was not just Weissmuller’s home, but also the backdrop for Florey’s movie. There, it was supposed to represent Africa in the story of a local beauty who refuses to marry Balu, a false man-god—eventually unmasked by Tarzan—who rules the imaginary island of Aquatania. At the beginning of the original film, the camera takes us through the Mexican landscape, which the narrator describes as the estuary of the Nigu, a river with “tortuous swamps” and a “subterranean passage” leading to the imaginary island of Aquatania. The actual inhabitants of Acapulco are depicted against the background of this exoticized landscape, and are introduced in the movie’s trailer as “simple, primitive people.” Gracia refers to this condescending representation in Simples y primitivos (Simple and Primitive), a hand-colored photograph showing a group of men, their skins darkened, climbing a wooden footbridge. The artist also used the original sound track from the film in his own video, Aquatania Parte 1; Un hombre debe ocupar el lugar de Dios le otorga––Caminos selváticos o las calles de Hollywood––y pelear por las cosas en las que cree (Aquatania Part I; A Man Should Stand Where God Places Him––Jungle Trails or Hollywood Streets––and Fight for Those Things in Which He Believes). He confronts the narrative with images of a modern beach, with rocks covered in graffiti, and of the fishermen who work there. In his version of events, the locals take the lead, unmasking and killing the man pretending to be a god. Tarzan, the American savior, is no longer needed. On the other end of the same room, Gracia presented a sculpture, Una tumba no asegura una suite en el infierno y otras manifestaciones del poder después de la muerte (A Tombstone Does Not Ensure a Suite in Hell and Other Manifestations of Power After Death), presumably representing the tomb of Balu, adorned by a mask and tentacles made of colorful foam, props that also appear in the video. Just as their clumsiness ultimately strips the fictional character of its divinity, Gracia’s exorcism of Hollywood’s racist past came full circle. In a couple of steps, the emancipatory energy was released to challenge the images and myths of an Acapulco rooted in the past but still all too present.

Sylwia Serafinowicz