The Sacred and the Dead

Photo by Jack Gould”Visual Voices of Mexico,” sprawling leisurely through 10,000 square feet of the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA), is as tender and terrifying to your average gringo (let alone the average loony right-winger, who would flee as if chased by hungry chupacabras) as only photographic portraits of dead babies can be.

And “Visual Voices” doesn't skimp on the dead babies—or, indeed, on much of anything. It's got the dead-baby market cornered, and revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata is here—and here, and over there—second only to the platoon of olive-skinned Virgens de Guadalupe. And there are enough joyous depictions of death to turn relatively easygoing norteamericanos into the cultural equivalent of stiff-upper-lipped Brits. All this raucous emotion is just so . . . foreign.

The first section of the five-pronged exhibit covers Life. That's a pretty tall order, and the milestones we usually associate with life—particularly in a Catholic country, where those milestones are generally aligned with the holy sacraments of baptism, marriage or the taking of holy orders, and the last rites—are absent. There are no gaudily happy portrayals of weddings, quinceaeras or women giving birth to sticky babies. But there is an almost kitschily sentimental Tina Modotti photo that shows a faceless mother and her faceless fat baby, its bottom squish-jiggling precipitously.

There isn't much sex, but there is a lovely large panel by Jesus Guerrero Galvan depicting Mother Earth naked and wanton on her back, as solid-bodied as a Gauguin.

And there's Nahum B. Zenil's giant papier-mch heart that looks as if it could have been plucked still-beating from beneath some unlucky Aztec's ribs. At first glance, and with the recent media deluge, it's easy to associate it with British art twat Damien Hirst's grim, meaty organs, sans the carnage and formaldehyde. But one quickly dismisses the association in favor of something altogether healthier and less in need of a rhetorical punch in the throat: a comfort and ease with life's more grotesque necessities and blessings.

It's the celebration of those necessities that informs the sections on Fiestas and Death, which are remarkably similar, though Death neglects to include cockfights and rodeos, and Fiestas has no dead babies. But the fiestas shown here are almost all dark in tone, filled with rituals as macabre as Shirley Jackson's “The Lottery.” Men parade through town under giant skulls as Chinese people would march under a dragon for the New Year. Huge papier-mch effigies are built, to be burned at a later time. Even the innocent piata will be sundered and devoured, like Catholics eat the body of Christ. Shiny, painted tin roosters are shown in their pre-fight finery, not in their postfight wreckage. To an American (even a Catholic one like me), it all seems creepy, as if things could go awry and a person fallen upon and consumed.

But I've been ignoring the dead babies. The exhibit's serene fatalism is belied by photo after photo, from the 1910s through the '40s, of mothers standing guard over their dead babies. Some are surrounded by mounds of flowers; one tot is dressed like Jesus with a cross in his little arms. The exhibit's wonderful catalog even seeks to bring the fiesta into the mourning parlor. But while it may be true that after a baby dies, the adults play certain games and are not supposed to weep lest the little one have trouble getting into heaven, it's not likely these mothers were able to keep from keening. Their faces are immobile, but it's from shock, not peace. One pretty-faced mother with downcast eyes is surrounded by her own mother and seven other children, her baby lying in a bower of blossoms. She looks to be about 25 years old. It may be the only family portrait they took for years.

Frida Kahlo gets into the act, too. A 1937 painting has a 3-year-old crowned in a papal-like hat, clutching a scepter of gladiolas. His body, too small for his heavy head, is strewn with a few marigolds and daisies. And his eyes and mouth are open.

I'm of the opinion that the sections on the Mythic and the Sacred could have been combined. Each is inundated with Virgins, though the Mythic also has lots and lots of portraits of Emiliano Zapata (several of which are scrumptiously tactile, notably German Venegas' The Death of Zapata, a desert scene in primary colors that reeks of garage-sale art. It is wonderful). The Sacred, meanwhile, has lots and lots of people whose heads are covered in white shrouds even as they go about their daily business. It's rather Magritte-y. The most shocking picture—and the most potent—is a photo of a middle-aged woman holding a knife in her teeth and bending some poor animal's leg bone free from its hide. She uses her bare foot as a fulcrum, and her skirt and leg are slicked with blood. It's that vision, of the sacredness of everyday life and the terrible grimacing beauty of the blood we let, that the exhibit seeks to distill. And while it often meanders and repeats itself, there are these same small miracles littered throughout.

“Visual Voices of Mexico” at the Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach, (562) 437-1689; Through Feb. 6. $3-$5.

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