The prospect of Mexican art being exhibited in Newcastle (specifically in Ouseburn) was interesting, and I was not sure what to expect. As an art historian educated in Britain, I have a little knowledge of Latin American art, and my knowledge of Mexican art tended to be limited to the social realist work of Diego Rivera, the more Symbolist José Clemente Orozco and, of course, Frida Kahlo’s paintings.
I went to the opening of Salvaje Mexica: Humberto Valdez at Northern Print on 10th June 2015, and on the next evening to the talks by Orietta Aguilar, an artist from TIR (Humberto Valdez’s community print project), about the work of TIR and Humberto Valdez.
There was the opportunity to choose a small linocut to print (with help) in the small print studio on the print bike. After much thought, I chose the monkey.
The pictures of the event by Northern Print give some glimpses of the exhibition: Northern Print’s Salvaje Mexica: Humberto Valdez album (the illustrations of his work here are from his Flickr page).
TIR is the abbreviation of ‘El Taller la Imagen del Rinoceronte’ (which I think translates as ‘The Image of the Rhinoceros’s Workshop’) takes its name from Durer’s print of the first rhinoceros to have been seen in Europe for over a thousand years. It was a present from the ruler of Gujarat to the governor of Portugese India who gave it to the king of Portugal.
News of this strange wonder spread throughout Europe and Albrecht Dürer created this woodcut without seeing it himself, possibly from descriptions (possibly both oral and written) and maybe using some sketches by others. Sadly, the rhinoceros died when the ship taking it to its next owner, the Pope, sank. Dürer’s print became a very popular image. For the next three centuries, artists continued to borrow from this image, even after they had access to see real rhinoceroses and knew it was inaccurate. This woodcut is a very strong image aesthetically, and the strong rhinoceros is strengthened further by being depicted as covered in plates of armour and scales. It looks more like a war machine than a mammal.
This 500-year-old print demonstrates the power of the printed image, of imagination, and of inspiration. It is a fantastic image to connect with a print studio, especially one that takes art to ordinary young people who could not afford to pay for art lessons, a print studio that needs to be strong to cope with the difficulties it faces.
Humberto Valdez’s prints exhibited at Northern Print indicate some of the social issues faced in the area in which he works where there is a lot of poverty. Violence bristles from the paper with direct and symbolic visual references to all kinds of combative situations.
The size of the prints is impressive. The strength of the monochromatic images and their fluid lines make an impact as soon as one enters the gallery. Looking at each print more carefully, I was fascinated to see the complex mix of iconography that he uses. There are images from his country’s ancient past, from historical Western art, from contemporary pop culture (some of which dates back 50 years or so), from religion, from contemporary everyday life, and mixed in with insects and animals, and references to politics and sport. The imagery is rich and layered in meaning. I wondered (but forgot to ask) what the literacy levels are like in the poorer districts of Mexico.
I spotted some of the Christianity references such as the INRI inscription in the image above and the more specifically Roman Catholic image of the Sacred Heart (but in the form of an anatomical drawing of a heart rather than the more traditional symbolic image). I could see the ancient Mexican imagery and assume they are images of gods or have some ancient religious meaning but have too little knowledge of these to recognise their meaning within the context of these prints.
The indication of the prevalence of violence in the everyday world around the artist seemed obvious in the pictures with the guns and knives which were rather uncomfortable viewing because they’re portrayed so vividly that the threat seemed real, even on a sunny evening amongst friendly, lovely people in Newcastle.
The images include portrayals of boxers and Mexican wrestlers as well as footballers. Mexican wrestling – lucha libre (freestyle wrestling) – with its showmanship, flamboyant masks, and more nimble and aerial style of moves looks more like a theatrical performance, turning fighting into a kind of performance art.
The use of masks dates back to at least the early 19th century and they have become one of the symbols of Mexico. The masked heads signify the wrestling without having to depict the activity.
Wrestling is part of pop culture, part of the everyday visual culture of Mexico. My grandmother watching wrestling on British television on Saturday afternoons in the 1960s and early 1970s. It was part of popular culture in the Britain then, and had something of the same entertainment element, with added drama (or comedy) provided by the audience around the ring who sometimes participated (occasionally, an older lady would batter with her handbag a wrestler who’d been thrown out of the ring). There was that sense of wrestlers having professional identities that were different from their private identities. The Mexican masks make these kind of public identities overt whilst concealing the private individuals.
Several of the prints in the show at Northern Print had thin, long, white lines across the images that suggested skin scarred with knife cuts. It made me think of gang culture and fights. Even a single line can be so expressive in a linocut.
Perhaps the images fascinate me even more because I am unable to ‘read’ them completely. It’s perhaps like trying to read a novel when one has only learned 300 or so words of a language. I recognised that the cockerel was probably a reference to contemporary cockfighting which I think is still legal in Mexico (it became illegal in England and Wales in the early 19th century) so it has a more violent meaning than it probably would in a British artist’s work. I wondered if the image of the cockerel also symbolises the swagger and ‘look-at-me’ attitude of some men, especially young men, as in the countries that don’t allow cockfighting.
The size of Humberto’s prints made some of us think of some styles of street art. I was thinking of a couple of Gaia pieces that had been pasted up a few years ago, one – Phoenix – on the wall opposite the Northern Print building. The Phoenix was an appropriate one for Ouseburn, an area regenerating after being heavily polluted by its 19th and early 20th century industry (including a lead factory), industries which then declined and ended.
Humberto’s prints also brought to my mind the work of social realist artists in Britain in the 1860s and 1870s. Their drawings were produced as printed illustrations in newspapers and periodicals. Such prints became the art of the people, cut out and stuck up on their walls.
The social realists depicted scenes that highlighted social issues, particularly in The Graphic and The Illustrated London News. These illustrations had to work as black and white prints and to have instant visual impact. Depicting the homeless and those living in poverty in this way was regarded as shockingly radical at the time. Although not obvious in this image of the Casual Ward illustration, I see the same approach to use of lines to describe form, albeit on a different scale of image and using different kinds of plates.
Social realism was even more in my thoughts when I viewed the Mujeres Mexicanas exhibition at 36 Lime Street. This was an exhibition involving the work of many Mexican women artists, and the work was as powerful as it was fascinating. One brought tears to my eyes. I can’t remember the last time a work of art communicated so vividly to me another human being’s experience of life.
These works told me a bit more about how life was for Mexican women. They used the same paper as Humberto Valdez, mostly the same black ink. This work made me think. I would have liked to be able to return to see it several times over two or three weeks but it could only be on display for a short few days and I only had the opportunity to see it once.
I am sorry that I did not get information about the titles and names of the artists and connect it to images of the exhibition, but the artists from Mexico who showed their work were:
Elizabeth Carrillo, Beatriz Santollo Espinosa, Maria Eugenia Quintanilla Silva, Jainite Silvestre, Diana Morales Galicia, Ana Maria Merino, Vanessa Fenton, Monica Romo Rangel, Violeta Juarez, Isabel, Gaspar, Julieta Cano Mejia, Mariana Ochoa, Immelda Angelica Rodea Samano, Jimena Noemi Ramos Garcia, Beatriz Galvan, Triana Parera, Monica Contreras, Miriam Puente, Macarena de la Parra, Orietta Maria Aguilar Santo, Alejandra Canseco, Priscilla Vallejo, Norma Isabel Millan, Cynthia Sains Figueroa, Karina Teran Landin, Elisa Urias, Martha Franco, Georgina Montez Varela, Marina Pallares, Adriana Gonzalez Lopez, Cynthia Martinez, Dulce Chacon, Orquidea Noguez, Carmen Rossete, Gabriela Morales Cruz, Jazmin N. Galvan, Nancy Valdez, Gabriela Gutierrez, Brenda Castillo Contreras, Julieta Granados Garduno, Monica Munoz, Natalia S. Armijo, Maria Teresa Olmedo Zavala – and Erika Servin who lives and works in Newcastle upon Tyne.
I wished I could have met all of them. It felt such a privilege to see their work in England.
I kept thinking about all of this work for days after seeing the exhibitions. I have rarely been so moved and excited by exhibitions. It made me think about art history. It made me think about art theory. It made me think about my own practice as an artist. My first thoughts were that my prints looked very insipid, far too polite and timid in comparison, and generally inadequate. I looked at some more of Humberto Valdez’s work online and noticed that in some areas of some prints he used exactly the same kind of patterned lines as I have doodled since I was in my teens. I thought of the linocuts I did a while ago, especially the hen and cockerel and realised I had achieved stronger lines in those. I am continuing to think – and aiming to get some bigger pieces of lino.