SaĂşl HernĂĄndez-Vargas No queda nada para nosotros en la espesura (Nothing Left for Us in the Wilderness) Sept 21 - Dec 22, 2019
Saúl Hernández-Vargas No queda nada para nosotros en la espesura (Nothing Left for Us in the Wilderness) Cecily E. Horton Gallery In No queda nada para nosotros en la espesura (Nothing Left for Us in the Wilderness), Saúl Hernández-Vargas recalls familial intimacy and political resistance through his “Plates” series, which he created with distinct Oaxaca mud samples and wax repurposed from his grandfather’s (Alfonso Vargas Sánchez) jewelry practice. In this exhibition, Hernández-Vargas engages a deeply interpersonal narrative that invites viewers to interrogate the Mexican State’s usage of pre-Hispanic jewels to promote a homogenous identity and, consequently, a unified political and national identity. Public Program Only What the Wilderness Kept for Itself (Lo que la espesura conservó para sí misma) Saturday,November 9, 2019 1 - 3 PM A conversation with exhibiting artist Saúl Hernández-Vargas and Arden Decker, PhD, discussing explorations of history’s construction, the spectrality of indigenous Mexico, making past as available time, and resurrection. Saúl Hernández-Vargas is a Mexican visual artist, editor and non-fiction writer whose work operates in conjunction with his academic research and art practice. His current interests include speculative design, construction of histories, archives, and geology. He holds an MFA in Visual Arts from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and is currently working on his PhD at University of Houston. He was also an artist-in-residence at Nagoya University of Arts (Japan), Universidad Politécnica de Valencia (Spain), and FieldWork (Marfa, TX). For six years, he has served as an editor for numerous publications in México, founding projects as Yagular Magazine and sur+ Ediciones. Additionally, he also worked as a professional lithography printer in the Taller de Artes Plásticas Rufino Tamayo and Taller La Chicana, in Oaxaca, MX, his hometown.
Arden Decker is an art historian and curator. She holds a PhD in Art History from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her research focuses on modern and contemporary art of Latin America with a concentration on Conceptual art and artistic interventions in Mexico during the 1960s-1970s. She was a fellow at the Smithsonian Latino Museum Studies Program (2007) and recipient of a FulbrightGarcía Robles award for her dissertation research in Mexico City (2011-2012). In 2019, she joined the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston as the Associate Director of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA) where she leads the Documents of Latin American and Latino Art digital archive and other research-based initiatives. Irmgard Emmelhainz is an independent translator, writer, and researcher based in Mexico City. Her work about film, art, and culture has been translated into multiple languages and published in publications such as Afterall, Jeu de Paume Blog, The Funambulist, e-flux journal, Scapegoat Journal, Third Text, October, Horizontal, Furia Umana, Blog de Nexos, Orfeo Rosso, Campo de relámpagos, Lápiz, among others.
Saúl Hernández-Vargas No queda nada para nosotros en la espesura (Nothing Left for Us in the Wilderness) Exhibition Checklist
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01. Documents 1, 2, 3, and 4 (“Black Archive” series), 2019 Document written by Laura Vargas-Fagoaga and drawings on charcoal paper 11 x 8” each 02.
Plate #3, 2017 Clay from Santa María Atzompa (Oaxaca, México) and wax pieces made by Alfonso Vargas Sánchez 59 x 59”
Plate #2, 2017 Clay from Santa María Atzompa (Oaxaca, México) and wax pieces made by Alfonso Vargas Sánchez 59 x 59”
04. Plate #1, 2017 Barro negro (black clay) from San Bartolo Coyotepec (Oaxaca, México) and wax pieces made by Alfonso Vargas Sánchez 59 x 59”
The Past is Ahead of Us: Saúl Hernández-Vargas’ Forensic Poetics An essay by Irmgard Emmelhainz According to Lebanese philosopher Jalal Toufic, the long-term effects of material and social destruction remain in the depths of the body and psyche as traumatic latent effects that become genetic codes. Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) activist and academic Winona LaDuke has explained how her people—after suffering colonization and living as third class citizens in the United States, resulting in PTSD—are subject to corrupt leadership and epidemics of addiction, depression, and domestic violence. With the highest suicide rate in the United States, La Duke’s community is one of many across the world struggling to survive with the genetic memory of catastrophe. Other consequences of displacement, dispossession, and military and colonial occupation include eradication of identity and cancelation and destruction of a world of moral belonging. There are, thus, entire communities surviving the end of their world in conditions of senselessness and solitude, trapped where intolerance is considered an everyday banality, not a serious injustice. How can these populations reject the conditions under which they live? How can they elect a life worthy of being lived? How can they become strong in order to rise up? In No queda nada para nosotros en la espesura (Nothing Left for Us in the Wilderness), Saúl Hernández-Vargas seeks to invoke the energy of his Oaxacan ancestors and the life-world that was destroyed by colonization and the Nation-State’s official history. Through a decolonizing effort and false memory archive, Hernández-Vargas uses a specific case study to unveil the way in which Mexico’s nationalist narratives have implanted succeeding mestizo identities on the Oaxacan peoples to transform them into “Mexicans.” Although in the nationalist narrative the Mexican independence of Spain meant liberation from the colonial yoke, colonial patterns are still present through the racialization of originary peoples who exist merely as a tourist attraction as opposed to potential political entities (which are unfailingly criminalized) and whose lands are being targeted for destruction as transnational resource extraction and tourist sites. In tandem, the progressive de-indigenization of Mexico’s originary peoples has been executed through the ideology of mestizaje,1 which has meant the hispanization, Christianization, homogenization, and modernization of originary peoples and has transformed them into folklore, cheap labor hands, and consumers subject to “development.” Mixe writer Yásnaya Elena Aguilar explains that originary peoples are not the mythical root or origin of Mexico, but that their role in national consciousness as archeological curiosities means their constant negation. Moreover, for Aguilar, mestizo is not a racial category but a political project by the Mexican State, and the fact that originary people identify as mestizos means the triumph of the colonial the Nation-State over them.2 In the Mexican official narrative, every mestizo is the inheritor of the great archaeological patrimony safeguarded by the Nation-State. This homogenized material indigenous heritage is found and preserved through the national science of archeology, thus one of the main mestizaje tools used by the Mexican State. This is why the starting point of
Hernández-Vargas’ exhibition is the mise en scène of the 1932 discovery of Tomb 7 in the archaeological site of Monte Albán, Oaxaca, by archeologist Alfonso Caso. Taking up this historical event as a case study and prime matter, Hernández-Vargas creates a counterarchive against the politics of official “memory” that captures the past as something inexorable, which can only be told from a singular and hegemonic perspective. This, by effect, reiterates the truth of colonial violence as the imposition of a given universe that conceals non-hegemonic realities. Through varying means, Hernández-Vargas’ counterarchive reveals that the jewelry discovered in Tomb 7 was a shrewd fabrication by an astute governor in cahoots with the elites as major players to turn attention to Oaxaca. The relevance of Caso’s finding, however, must not be underestimated: in the classic prehispanic era, Monte Albán was a flourishing Zapoteco city, but the findings of the tomb reveal historical, sacred, and cultural links to the Mixteco culture. The burial had taken place after the Zapotecos had left Monte Albán, which was then ruled by a Mixteca tribe (1325-1521) who were highly skilled artisans based in Zaachila, near Monte Albán. Tomb 7 is one of the greatest discoveries and the most important tomb in American archaeology. The way in which the objects and human remains were found, neatly arranged, analogically speaks to a complex cosmic order at the center of which was a gold disk representing a human heart. Surrounding it was found an extraordinary ensemble of gold and other precious objects like beautifully-carved crystal rock cups, thousands of shining beads, gold pectorals and bracelets, a human skull covered with turquoise plaques, a translucent alabaster urn, ear pieces, rings and fake nails, and more than 3000 pearls scattered in the area; additionally, there were many loose bones that do not constitute full skeletons or primary burials but that were probably part of sacred bundles. Tomb 7 was built on top of a classic Zapotec tomb which was probably reused by the Mixtecos in the post-classic era as underground sanctuary for the cult to the ancestors. Among other findings are engraved pictorial texts on bones of jaguar and eagle which tell the story of the Mixtec people.3 With a great sense of humor, Hernández-Vargas unveils that, in 1931—a year before the discovery of Tomb 7—an earthquake had shaken Oaxaca to ruins, resulting in hunger and cholera epidemics. Shock doctrine-style, the fabrication of the discovery was therefore designed to turn national and international attention to Oaxaca as a site rich in unknown cultures and thus as a main tourist destination and investment site. A twist is added to Hernández-Vargas’ false memory archive through his personal connection to the story: his maternal grandfather Alfonso Vargas Sánchez was a goldsmith who in the 1960s began to fabricate copies of the jewelry found in Tomb 7 to be exhibited at site museums and sold as souvenirs for tourists to promote the treasure. Vargas Sánchez modified the scale and graphic vocabulary of the pieces for circulation in the widest range of markets as possible. According to Hernández-Vargas, Tomb 7 became a brand. Furthermore, Hernández-Vargas writes, “my grandfather turned those objects that touched the inert body of the Mixtec elites into delicate pieces especially designed for the bodies and tastes of white tourism
roaming Oaxaca.”4 The molds of the pieces and wax detritus in the goldsmith’s workshop became part of the family archive, and Hernández-Vargas decided to use them as a means of instilling life back into the prehispanic pieces, away from their branding by the Mexican Nationalist narrative. Hernández-Vargas began his investigations with a Wikipedia intervention: the artist added to Tomb 7’s entry a paragraph speculating that Caso may not have been responsible for the colossal archaeological discovery but, in truth, a mere collaborator with Oaxaqueño politicians who staged the discovery with political intentions. Then, Hernández-Vargas made two fake-found videos5 in the tradition of Walid Raad’s Atlas Group’s work. The first video—XipeTotec que llora (Crying XipeTotec), fake-found at the Geisel Library at UCSD— shows Cornado Martínez (played by Hernández-Vargas) discussing the discovery of Tomb 7 as a political montage directly related to the earthquake that devastated Oaxaca exactly a year before the archaeological discovery with the aim to rebuild the city and give the state an economic boost. In the second video, we see the spokesperson from the Clandestine Revolutionary Committee Angry Xipe-Totec announcing his future project NineWind. Zapatista-style. The Committee addresses the “Fourth Transformation” and the INAH6 rejecting the findings of Tomb 7, and it is conformed by third-generation Zapotecos living in Los Angeles who claim the patrimony of Tomb 7. Therefore, the NineWind project contemplates the creation of “authentic replicas” of the Monte Albán jewels approved and legitimized by their own peoples. The Wikipedia intervention and videos could be understood as prequels for HernándezVargas’ work exhibited at Lawndale, which includes the “Archivo negro [Black Archive]” series comprised of carbon paper drawings and a note from Hernández-Vargas’ mother Laura in which she names the people that allowed his grandfather to make replicas for the Tomb 7 jewlery at the National Museum in Oaxaca. Hernández-Vargas’ Lawndale exhibition also features clay plates intervened with the wax molds of the jewelry pieces Saúl collected from his grandfather’s workshop. The clay plates function as taongas, or amulets that store the energy from the Oaxacan Valley adjacent to Monte Albán. In HernándezVargas’ narrative, there is agency in both the earthquake for Tomb 7’s discovery as well as in his clay plates to potentially resurrect the Tomb’s jewelry, invoking the life-world that gave them a sense of being through their direct contact with his grandfather’s wax molds. Hernández-Vargas’ clay plates, which were created with local craftsmen and allowed to naturally crack and fragment before cooked, embody–not represent–a live connection with the past-present and bring to the fore the true life-world that is materially alive in them despite the mestizo identities that have buried this connection. Again following Yásnaya Elena Aguilar, identity traits are determined in a complex network of power relationships. The Mexican Nation-State was erected by monopolizing originary peoples’ identities determining an ensemble of “normal” traits in terms of languages,
symbols, hymns, dances, history, folklore, and gastronomy. Patriarchal, racial, and capitalist systems have hierarchized these traits, generating artificial identities that are monopolized by the Nation-State. Originary peoples’ stories were silenced through mestizaje and their transformation into “Mexicans.”7 In the context of this history of relentless pillage, newly elected Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has declared that, under his government, indigenous peoples will receive “special attention” and that the Mexican narrative of mestizaje pride will be pitted against an allegedly pernicious mestizaje.8 As the State has announced the Mayan Train project in the Yucatan Peninsula as well as other megaprojects that destroy life-worlds and means of originary populations’ life throughout Mexico, skepticism abounds on the expressed State’s “pro-indigenous” stand. Against the nationalistic grain, the premise of Hernández-Vargas’ forensic poetics in this exhibition is that the past cannot speak through the objects (that is, the jewel, the mold, and the wax detritus), but that they require artists to invoke the specters from the past in them because these objects are sensors in which complex relationships operate, granting them agency. Operating as forensic poet-artist, Hernández-Vargas thus rejects hegemonic historical discourse to recuperate the past as the future, that is, reclaiming the past as ahead of our present alive in the material and immaterial heritage of Zapotec peoples in Oaxaca and beyond. Essay copyedited by Emily Fens. 1 Or “hybridization” between Prehispanic and Spanish cultures 2 Pablo Ferri, interview with Yásnaya Elena Aguilar, “Los pueblos indígenas no somos la raíz de México, somos su negación constante” El País, September 9, 2019. https://elpais.com/cultura/2019/09/08/ actualidad/1567970157_670834.html 3 Maarten Jansen, “El oro en la Tumba 7 de Monte Albán. Contexto y significado,” Arqueología Mexicana No. 144 (March-April 2017) 4 In an unpublished text by Saúl Hernández-Vargas, “Alfonso Vargas Archive: Specters of January 14th, 1931” 5 Xipe-Totec que llora: https://saulhv.cargo.site/xipe-totec & Nine Wind: https://saulhv.cargo.site/ ninewind 6 The “Fourth Transformation” or “Cuarta transformación” is the name given to elect president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s anti-corruption and pro-indigenous policies. “INAH” is the acronym for Mexico’s National Institute for Anthropology and History. 7 Yásnaya Elena Aguilar Gil, “Ëëts, atom. Algunos apuntes sobre la identidad indígena,” Revista de la Universidad e México, September 2017. https://www.revistadelauniversidad.mx/ articles/f20fc5ef-75e2-44d0-8d5b-a84b2a87b7e3/eets-atom-algunos-apuntes-sobre-la-identidadindigena?platform=hootsuite 8 Entrevista con Mardonio Carballo de Alida Piñón del 10 de mayo de 2019, “El mestizaje que creó el nacionalismo es pernicioso,” El Universal, May 10, 2019. https://www.eluniversal.com.mx/cultura/ el-mestizaje-que-creo-el-nacionalismo-es-pernicioso
Image courtesy of Saúl Hernández-Vargas Exhibition Acknowledgements Special thanks to Lawndale staff Stephanie Mitchell, Emily Butts, Emily Fens, Jonathan Clark, and David Cobb; Lawndale Advisory Board Members Pete Gershon, Nick Barbee, Andy Campbell, Jamal Cyrus, Natilee Harren, and Autumn Knight; Abinadi Meza, John Reed, and Rex Koontz, professors of the School of Art at the University of Houston; Ricardo Domínguez, Mariana Botey, Rubén Ortiz-Torres, and Julie Burelle, Hernández-Vargas’ MFA professors at University of California, San Diego; Omar Pimienta, Andrew Sturm, Sindhu Thirumalaisamy, Yásnaya Aguilar-Gil, Tajëëw Díaz Robles, Luna Maran, Marina Azahua, Irmgard Emmelhainz, Rosa María Vargas, Camerino Jiménez; Hernández-Vargas dearest mom, Laura Vargas Fagoaga; and Matías Rivera de Hoyos and Cristina Rivera Garza, Hernández-Vargas’ beloved family. Mission Lawndale is a multidisciplinary contemporary art center that engages Houston communities with exhibitions and programs that explore the aesthetic, critical, and social issues of our time. About Lawndale believes in the role of art and artists to inspire and inform the world around us. By serving as an intimate gathering place to experience art and ideas, Lawndale seeks to foster connections between communities in Houston and beyond. Lawndale presents a diverse range of artistic practices and perspectives through exhibitions and programs, including lectures, symposia, film screenings, readings, and musical performances. Through exhibition opportunities, the Artist Studio Program, institutional collaborations, and the engagement of an advisory board comprised of artists, curators, and scholars, Lawndale seeks within its mission to support all artistic and cultural communities of Houston. Support Lawndale’s exhibitions and programs are produced with generous support from The Brown Foundation, Inc./Nancy O’Connor; David R. Graham/Felvis Foundation; the John R. Eckel, Jr. Foundation; Houston Endowment; Kathrine G. McGovern/The John P. McGovern Foundation; The National Endowment for the Arts; the Texas Commission on the Arts; The City of Houston; and The Wortham Foundation, Inc. Additional support is provided by Benjamin Berg/Berg Hospitality, Illuminations Lighting Design, Lindsey Schechter/Houston Dairymaids, Saint Arnold Brewing Company, and Topo Chico.
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