Mexico City

Maruch Sántiz Gómez, Pedazos de tortilla quemada y lo mordido por el ratón (Pieces of Burnt Tortilla and Bitten by the Mouse), 1994, gelatin silver print on paper, 22 5⁄8 × 18 3⁄4". From the series “Creencias” (Beliefs), 1994–96. From “Los huecos del agua” (The Gaps of Water).

Maruch Sántiz Gómez, Pedazos de tortilla quemada y lo mordido por el ratón (Pieces of Burnt Tortilla and Bitten by the Mouse), 1994, gelatin silver print on paper, 22 5⁄8 × 18 3⁄4". From the series “Creencias” (Beliefs), 1994–96. From “Los huecos del agua” (The Gaps of Water).

“The Gaps of Water: Recent Indigenous Art from Mexico”

Museo Universitario del Chopo

Mexico, according to the anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, struggles to reconcile the two poles of its identity: Imaginary Mexico, which adheres to the Western project and seeks to propel it, and Deep Mexico, constituted by a resistant social base made up of the peoples who incarnate Mesoamerican civilization. This persistent conflict is reflected in the country’s contradictory attitudes toward the material culture of its indigenous peoples: While pre-Columbian artifacts are cherished as national treasures and exhibited with great fanfare in museums, the contemporary artistic output of indigenous creators is disregarded as disposable craft—the product of an underdeveloped aesthetic sensibility. “Los huecos del agua. Arte actual de pueblos originarios” (The Gaps of Water: Recent Indigenous Art from Mexico) attempted to counter such forms of discrimination. The exhibition engaged the social body of Mexican indigeneity not as a homogeneous mass trapped in a time capsule but as a group of historical subjects who partake in the modern languages of art as much as they do in the pressing issues that currently afflict their lives.

The title hinted at Édouard Glissant’s notion of “archipelagic thinking,” one of the exhibition’s chief sources of inspiration. Glissant argues for nontotalitarian perspectives on the world—that is, for looking at it in its diversity. In the works on view, the violent imposition of the Spanish language, the plundering of land, and the environmental catastrophes provoked by capitalist extractivism were addressed as if through a kaleidoscope. Plurality was also emphasized via the inclusion of works in various media and the cross-generational selection of artists. However, the quality was uneven—as in most large surveys—and in some pieces the protest became overly literal.

The exhibition’s most pointed moments were materialized in subtler works of a more lyric disposition. In Poj (Viento) (Poj [Wind]), 2018, Octavio Aguilar offered a lesson on how to make pinwheels from the pages of an elementary-school textbook (published by the Mexican Ministry of Public Education) that teaches the “national tongue”—Spanish. The cover of this didactic instrument, displayed on a shelf next to a finished pinwheel, portrays a woman as an allegory of the nation and the associated patriotic visual rhetoric. In the accompanying video, DIY pinwheels swirl placidly against the verdant mountains of Oaxaca, where the Ayuuk people, the region’s inhabitants, have been deprived of running water for more than two years as punishment for their refusal to be assimilated into Imaginary Mexico. Within the idyllic landscape, one of the recurring tropes of Deep Mexico, the pinwheels mark a subtle contrast against the bucolic scenery, silently voicing nonconformity.

To counter the systematic institutional neglect of indigenous artists, who often remain invisible in part because of the country’s staunch centralism, the exhibition’s curator, Itzel Vargas Plata, conducted research throughout much of southern and central Mexico. While some figures on the artist roster, such as Fernando Palma Rodríguez, are established both locally and internationally, the project was also a reminder that creators have been sidelined by classifications such as “indigenous,” which have the effect of pigeonholing them. This is why Vargas Plata chose the term pueblos originarios, literally “originary peoples,” for the Spanish title of the show.

The complexity of this endeavor could be seen in, for instance, the work of Maruch Sántiz Gómez, whose “Creencias” (Beliefs), 1994–96, a group of eight gelatin silver prints, each paired with a short text in the Tzotzil language, documents the endangered beliefs of her people. In one of these works, a text that can be rendered in English as “One should not drink the water used for washing hands while making tortillas since if you drink it you might end up grinning like a crazy person” is printed underneath a photograph of a hot plate with four tortillas and a clay jar. Sántiz Gómez’s oeuvre has prompted heated debates among critics, among them Christopher Fraga Wiley, who question whether her work should be seen as contemporary or premodern. Has she betrayed her indigenous identity in her refusal to create knitted souvenirs? Or corrupted the purity of Conceptual art by tainting it with an “ethnic” thematic? Such entanglements show us that we still have a long way to go in dealing with art that fails to align with a normative Western mentality. This exhibition took a first step.