Wednesday, October 31, 2012

El Día de los Muertos

Nicolás de Jésus and students, October 2012, NVCC, Annandale, VA, right side
The day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos) is a starting point for Mexican artist Nicolás de Jésus, who visited and demonstrated his work in my Art Appreciation Class on October 17th. Since today is Halloween, it's a good time to explore how Nicolás de Jésus uses this theme. A mural he completed with students has been hung on the second floor of the CM Building of NVCC's Annandale Campus.  Is it a coincidence or not to discover this past weekend that someone near and dear to me turned out to be in an art exhibition on the El Dia de los Muertos theme?

Nicolás de Jésus, Fiesta de los Muertos, etching and aquatint
Nicolás de Jésus mesmerized the class as he explained his prints, impressive for their beauty, meaning and the textures. The skeletons of his prints are very animated and life-like. His art dips into memories of his childhood in the Amayaltepec region, where he learned to make art at a very young age and his father was among the most notable folk artists.  At first his art seems immersed in imagery of Día de los Muertos, but closer examination reveals that the holiday becomes a means to an end. His meanings go much deeper, because the subjects of the vernacular, folkloric tradition apply as well to other themes.

Dia de la Muerta, etching, aquatint

The celebration of the Day of the Dead recalls our own Halloween, but it is celebrated on November 1 (for deceased infants and children) and November 2 (for elders) in Mexico. Typically families go the cemeteries where deceased members of their families are buried.  In some parts of the country they dance in the graveyards. They build altars to the deceased and present offerings of food, like sugared skulls, and decorations such as trinkets or flowers, preferably orange marigolds.  They bring toys to the children, essentially blurring the boundaries between life and death.  The celebration combines aspects of an ancient Aztec celebration with the Catholic feast days. The lines between the living and the dead become blurred, as I had recently witnessed in an exhibition at the National Mexican Fine Arts Museum in Chicago, where there were installations with food offerings to the dead, Hanan Pixal.  Art is life and the art of this theme is for both the living and the deceased.

But in the art of Nicolás de Jésus, the skeletons can be powerful metaphors for the living.  The skeletons dance and celebrate, taking on the qualities of living people. They act out the human comedy, or, at times they partake in the human tragedy and satirize human behavior. His meanings can be critical and provocative. He is concerned with the lives of Mexicans on both sides of the border.



Left side detail with skeleton in NVCC/Annandale's new mural


Maicidio refers to the death of corn, a gift
from Mexico, through modification




Nicolás de Jésus prints his works from amate bark, native to his Guerrero region of Mexico, which is west of the Yucatan peninsula. Though he did not demonstrate in our class how to do his  technique, it is a combination of etching and aquatints.  In etching, the artist sketches the lines of an image into a waxy substance over the metal plate.  For broad areas of shading, aquatint is used. Aquatint is a printmaking process that uses rosin, a natural lubricant produced by from tree sap, melted on a zinc plate to give a grainy quality to the tones. A acid bath 'bites' the images into the metal plate in both etching and aquatint, before the scene can be inked and printed in reverse of the drawn image. De Jesús uses the aquatint process frequently to create the grainy, textural backgrounds of many works. 


One print that really strikes me is Maicidio, suggesting death to corn, one of Mexico's great gifts to the world. The United States has now changed the nature of corn, overproducing it and turning it into cattle feed or high fructose corn syrup, things it was never meant to be. Its by-products become additives in almost all processed food. With American corn now is 85% genetically modified, it's no wonder the skeletons attack and pull it apart.  Let us remember this fact next Tuesday, when Californians go to the polls and vote on Proposition 37 which will require labeling for genetically-modified food (GMOs).   As our industrialized US agricultural system is dominating and killing corn, people in the US become increasingly disconnected to land.


En El Tran recalls when the artist lived in Chicago. 
Nicolás de Jésus lived in Chicago from 1989-1994, and he has at least 60 works of art in the Mexican Fine Arts Museum in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. En el Tran brings his familiar skeletons into the elevated train of Chicago's mass transit system, while skyscrapers are seen out the window behind. He implies a deeper truth behind the scene, the fate that awaits all of us in the end. Although not mentioned, Mexico has a tradition of Surrealism and de Jésus also seems to be connected to Surrealists.


In many ways his prints follow in the tradition of socially and politically active artists from Mexico in first half of the twentieth century: Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros.  A full-blooded Nahua Indian from a small village in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, he is an advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples. Themes of struggle meet the themes of celebration in his work.  Though he is critical of much in society, he is above all a humanist who recognizes our foibles but understands our humanity.