The Embassy of Mexico in Guyana continued its series of Mexican cultural events with a photographic exhibition outstanding for its show of images, colour and words as it was notorious for its under-representation and unexploited opportunity. There was also the showing of another Mexican film, the latest of several films from that country exhibited in Georgetown. These were hosted by Castellani House during September to October.
The Mexican Embassy has placed great emphasis on cultural exchanges and partnerships over the past five years, including the offer of scholarships for study in Mexico. There have been collaborations with the Department of Language and Cultural Studies at the University of Guyana and concentrated film festivals both on and off the Turkeyen Campus. Prominent in these exhibitions, apart from a festival of Mexican cuisine, were shows of the art of Mexico, specifically paintings with the most outstanding being annotated samples of the work of Frida Kahlo, Mexico’s foremost and most controversial female painter.
This time it was a photographic exhibition that made another prominent visual statement from the large, complex, varied and colourful Hispanic country that spans the whole area between Central and North America. It is well remembered in sports for the effects of Mexico City’s high altitude upon performance, for its intriguing contemporary politics and cross-border issues with the USA. But among the most stimulating features of this republic has to do with culture and history. Much more than the revolutionary wars and Graham Green’s fictional representation of the persecution of the Roman Catholic church in the novel The Power and the Glory, are the dominant ancient associations with pre-Hispanic and pre-Colombian civilizations and their powerful heritage in myth, art and archaeology.
That heritage is both present and under-exposed in the photographic exhibition. It is a show of pictures that has toured Jamaica and Barbados before coming to Guyana, and one of the remarkable things about it is the way it integrates lines taken from Mexican poetry into the show of the pictures. Each photograph is accompanied by a few lines of verse taken from several of the nation’s poets and attached as verbal enhancements. In the official opening, Curator of Guyana’s National Gallery of Art Elfrieda Bissember drew this to the audience’s attention asking them to note the role played by the display of words as they appreciate the display of images.
What is fascinating about this is that none of the poems from which the excerpts were taken was written for these pictures. They were selected and attached, but in many cases the connection is skin tight – it was as if the pictures were done to illustrate the lines. That said, this arrangement left many things unfinished as there remained much useful information that neither the lines of poems nor any other labels provided. There was no catalogue and something would have been lost for viewers who did not know Mexico. A travelling exhibition such as this could have told much more about Mexico, and the nation lost an opportunity to more emphatically broadcast both its power and its glory.
Yet, the show may be remembered for the power of its glorious images. Its strength was in its images often fortified by the accompanying verses. And yet still, they made statements about Mexico, ancient and modern, and one could come away having seen something of the Mexican heritage even if information about it was missing. There was great variety in the wide range of subjects shown covering sights, traditions and places. It moved from realistic pictures of everyday life to genuine art to traditions and magnificent ruins.
There was for example a photograph of a fruit vendor in a market – straight realism of the seller and a bounty of countless different tropical and temperate fruits, overflowing in colour as it was with fruit. It was accompanied by lines from a poem by Margarita Michelena which virtually describe it – “Great city of vibrant palaces, season of abundant and gracious fruits.” There were pictures of the ruins that remain of ancient buildings showing off what remains of the majestic architecture of antiquity. One of them could have been an imposing temple, and the camera was so aimed that it captured a huge gap on the mighty arch of the ceiling through which can be seen an open blue sky. The labelling verses by Juan de la Cueva make a comment:
I weep for your desecrated
Sacred temples made despicable stables,
Without sacrifice; death, the
Priests and prelates
However, the piece de resistance, the most impressive exhibit, was one that could have been an abstract composition were it not obvious that it was a photograph of a remarkable scene. Of course, photography is an art and this was artistic photography at its best. Two colourful structures are depicted – actually highly decorated floating barges bearing the words “Mexico Xochmilco” carved out on them amidst patterns of traditional motifs. It is a most interesting and mystifying landscape with what looks like a beam of light radiating from the sky and revealing clear reflections in the water and an almost supernatural mist covering land and water. Again, the poetry is an exclamation, a remark and a description:
I cannot believe my eyes:
The sky walks on the land
Those lines are from Octavio Paz (1914-98), perhaps Mexico’s greatest poet who served his nation well. The zenith of his career was the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990, but it was a roller coaster career marked by political militancy, resistance and a consistent proletarian leaning. On different occasions he was a diplomat and served as ambassador to different countries, but on more occasions than one he resigned in protest over harsh actions taken by his government. Like so many other writers of the time he fought for the republicans against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. The lines used to illustrate the picture are highly poetic in the way they see “the sky walk[ing] on the land” but no words could better express the abstract image of what is shown in the picture.
But the verses do not tell what the picture is really about, and this is one of the main observations of the exhibition. Although the exhibition does not explain it, the picture was taken from Xochimilco or what may be the Floating Gardens of Xichimilco, both a tourist and local attraction and world heritage site in old Mexico City. It is a system of canals and a lake with the barges sailing on them and has a very rich history and existence since pre-hispanic times.
The next most impressive prized exhibit was a picture of a masquerader, masked and dressed in traditional costume as if performing in a festival dance. This one is accompanied by the lines “The mask of contradictions of / birth and death” (Oscar Oliva) which touch on the theatre contained in these masques. The dancer in the picture wears a typical Central American traditional masquerade mask made of wire mesh on which is painted European facial features. This is brought off by elaborate, flamboyant costuming including a colourful headdress. Novelist Wilson Harris dramatizes this birth/death contradiction mentioned by the poet in his novel Companions of the Day and Night which focuses the Posada ritual of Mexico.
This type of traditional festival with its links to the Catholic Novena is closely related to another picture in the Mexican collection. This shows the interior of a cathedral with a dominating image of the crucifixion. There is a Christ hanging on a cross, but he is half-draped in Mexican traditional garb and this depiction could be an intuitive wood carving by the way it looks.
There are, however, two others showing vestiges of ancient traditions, including the poetic lines accompanying them. One is of another traditional headdress in bright primary colours with suggestions of pre-Colombian costume. But the lines of poetry might well be of greater interest. The verses
Like a painting, we are fading
like a flower, we are drying up
here on the land
were written by Netzahualcoyatl (1400-72), a prince, warrior and poet of pre-Colombian Mexico who was credited with great wisdom and strategy in war and statesmanship and bringing about the unification of historical regions.
The other is a picture of the most identifiable Mexican folk or peasant dress – a man so outfitted is shown in a portrait wearing yet another traditional headdress. In this one too, the accompanying lines are from a pre-Colombian poet. Cuacuauhtzin de Tepechpan (1410-43) seemed to have been a contemporary and colleague of Netzahualcoyatl. He was an Aztec poet and lord said to have reaped great benefits for his people.
The photographic exhibition, therefore, was one extremely rich in treasures of the Mexican heritage. For the most part all of these several aspects of the heritage could be extracted from a remarkable display of vivid colourful images.