It all dates back to those first years of extraordinary force in the sixteenth century. Hernán Cortés ran rampant through the Mexican fields and, after some quite historical battles, the 'Conquistadores' had won the final battle. What would later be known as Mexico was at that stage called New Spain. With the Spaniards, the cult of a new God came. A monotheistic religion and culture had to be built over one of the bloodiest, polytheistic religions and cultures of all time. After three centuries of blending in the colonial times and quite a forceful evangelisation, a unique culture was born. The ancient gods were to be seen in some features of the saints and archangels within catholic churches. The face of the Madonna was slightly tanned as the skin of the natives. But, most importantly - and that is what I am writing this article about, the blood and gory traits of the sacrificial rites of the Aztecs and Mayas were to be translated deep into the cult of religion and, in that same way, into the newly born Mexican culture; eventually, even into the conceptualisation and interpretation of art.
A Few Small Nips
Oil on metal
15 x 19 in
Collection of Dolores Olmedo Foundation, Mexico City
The blood stains within Mexican contemporary and modern art, as well as the cult of the death, is a rather interesting characteristic to observe. The work of more than one painter, photographer, or artists in general have been impregnated by this relationship with the death. This relation between blood and art has evolved in such a way that it has reached very different states. For example, a very celebrated Mexican artist such as Frida Kahlo
always showed this gory characteristic in her art. Her life and the condition she was left in after the notorious accident she was unfortunately involved in turned the use blood in her paintings into a narrative element, a way to express her feelings and sadness. I might better clarify that this was not on every image, but definitely in quite some. For instance, in A Few Small Nips
Obrero en huelga, asesinado
Manuel Alvarez Bravo
8 x 10"
Plata / gelatina
Another very interesting trait to observe is the direction in which some photographers evolved. Manuel Alvarez Bravo
and Enrique 'El Niño' Metinides
, two of the biggest names in Mexican modern and contemporary photography, followed suit and produced thousands of images of the dead. Probably more present in Metinides than in Bravo's work but, even so, both are worth mentioning. Together with other photographers such as the Italian Tina Modotti
, Bravo was one of the narrators of the post-revolutionary Mexico and probably the best photographer of his time. He dedicated his artist production to the bloody deaths with images such as Obrero en huelga, asesinado
Adela Legarreta Rivas is struck by a white Datsun on Avenida Chapultepec
29 April 1979
As far as Metinides is concerned, the artist went all the way. He worked for Alarma
, the sensationalist newspaper of Mexico. Alarma
dedicates each of its pages to reporting the day's bloodiest, goriest crimes and deaths in Mexico. And there can be quite a few. This paper is one of the best-selling, most wide-spread papers in the Mexican territory. The work of Metinides is fascinating. Exhibitions around the globe and the one, last year, in London at The Photographers' Gallery
made him a very seen and followed photographer. The image known as Jesus Bazaldua Barber, a telecommunications engineer, fatally electrocuted by more than 60,000 volts whilst installing a new phone line
(1971) is one of the best examples of the voyeurism characterising Metinides' work.
Many more modern and contemporary images produced in Mexico and dealing with the bloody stains can be shown. Still, a more interesting example is the installation of Teresa Margolles Sierra Instalación con Vapor
in which the visitors breathed the cleansing vapour of the water used to wash corpses in Mexico's Forensic Service (SEMEFO, Servicio Médico Forense). The relation is there and some Mexican artists are forcing the viewers to experience the relation with death. Sometimes unaware (like with Teresa Margolles), sometimes after a shocking experience (like Metinides' images), sometimes in highly praised images (like Frida Kahlo's). It might not always be very obvious, yet - and with carefulness - one can follow the path of the praised blood stains of murder, pain and suicide throughout all Mexican art.
As already said at the beginning of this article, it is all about the praising and cult of the death in the ancient cultures of the Aztecs and Mayas, the forced and mixed evangelisation with bloody Christs and suffering saints, and the simple fascination of the death in Mexico. Young artists find their way to translate all these influences into images and installations just as the past artists did before them. The bloody stain of Mexican art is, then, just waiting to be observed.
Enrique 'El Nino' Metinides
Text: Guillermo Rivero