I have started doing design blog posts after our trips looking at artistic things that catch my eye. Here are some design photos from our two months in Merida Mexico.
Women’s heads and shoulders are fastened to wooden plaques displayed the way a hunter might exhibit an animal they have killed. On my first visit to the Nahualli Art Gallery in Merida I saw some sculptures titled Trophy that I couldn’t stop thinking about. Each of the Trophy sculptures featured women with different kinds of horns. Their faces were eerily similar. I was to find out later that artist Melva Medina used her daughter Aura Metzli as the model for each piece. Aura is a fashion designer and her jewelry inspired the items in the Trophy sculptures. The women’s jewelry looked like it might be giving them pain. In this piece one imagines the thorns from the roses jabbing into the woman’s skin and scarring it. As I looked at the trophy sculptures I thought about the message they sent. Although the feminist movement has tried to change the way we view women they are still so often regarded as possessions, as trophies to be hunted like prey, captured and displayed by men. Just think about the common phrase ‘trophy wife’ and the casual, crude way the current president of the United States joked on a recording, about the ease with which he could possess a woman’s body and take advantage of it. Think about his succession of ‘trophy wives’ each one younger than the last. While researching the Trophy pieces online I discovered they had been part of a 2016 exhibit at the Museo de la Ciudad de Merida. The exhibit was called Silent Prey or in Spanish Presas del Silencio. It included many of Melva’s sculptures as well as fashion and jewlery pieces by her daughter Aura Meztli. The Silent Prey exhibit was meant to draw attention to the ongoing physical and sexual abuse of women and young girls. There seemed to be little information about the exhibit online so one afternoon I asked my sister to return to the Nahualli Gallery with me so I could take some more photos.
I hoped I might even have a chance to talk to Melva or Aura, both of whom we had met along with their husband and father Abel on our previous visit to the gallery. As luck would have it Melva was at the gallery and genuinely pleased about our interest in the Silent Prey exhibit. Would my sister and I like to go over to her studio just a few blocks away and see the other pieces from the exhibit she had in storage there? As we walked to her studio Melva told us that prior to creating the work for Silent Prey she and her daughter Aura had spent eighteen months doing research by visiting and working at shelters and safe houses for abused women and children. When we entered Melva’s studio the first thing we noticed were these sculptures that certainly explained why the exhibit had been called Silent Prey. My sister and I stood mesmerized and moved as we stared at a dozen naked female torsos with shaved heads bowed and eyes and mouths shut. Their sorrow was palpable. The mantillas or prayer shawls on some of the women’s heads and the candles in front of them certainly implied the women were praying. Did they pray for healing because they had been the prey of the men who abused them? Were they praying for the courage to tell their stories? Later I saw some photos of the art installation when it had been on display at the Museo de la Ciudad de Merida.The women were arranged in a circle and all were draped in the mantillas traditionally worn by women to Catholic mass. The lighted candles in front of each sculpture flickered eerie shadows onto the women’s faces. The religious connotations of the exhibit made me think of the centuries of abuse women and children have suffered at the hands of clergy, abuse that has been allowed to go unpunished and unrecognized in so many churches.
Melva told us that all of the sculptures in the exhibit had been inspired by drawings her daughter had done. She then opened a portfolio of her daughter’s pieces and leafed through them one by one. The horrific story of the abuse of a young girl they detailed literally took our breath away. I almost wished Melva would stop turning the pages in the portfolio as one terrifying and tragic image after another was revealed. In many of the pieces the girl’s lower body was a cage. In others it was clear to see that the perpetrator of the violence had seduced the girl and covered up his deathly evil intent with beautiful words.In this image he appears to have used music to trap her and leave her heart and body a tortured prisoner unable to escape. After looking at her daughter’s sketches it was clear their vision had been directly translated into Melva’s work. I couldn’t stop looking at the sculptures like this one where the girl’s heart is hanging, dangling and damaged inside the cage her body has become. She holds a skeleton’s head in her hand. Is she contemplating death? Look at the hair ornaments which are obviously instruments of torture and pain. My sister and I were both moved to tears as we stood looking at Melva’s sculptures. My sister is a former nurse and I am a former high school teacher, and in those areas of work there is no escaping the fact that you will be witness to the stories of women and girls who have experienced violence and abuse. Later my sister and I would talk about how hearing stories of abuse and physical violence is difficult, but that seeing it in the visual way Melva and her daughter have portrayed it was in some ways even more disturbing.
Because the person telling the story is not right there you aren’t intent on helping them and listening to them. The artwork has in some way more permanence than an oral story, and lets you focus and think and contemplate the horror of the womens’ experience. It transforms their stories into another medium that speaks to people in different ways and allows you to almost viscerally access the emotion the women feel.In this sculpture the young girl is literally split in two. Melva said when it was exhibited a pendulum hung between the girl’s legs illustrating how she vaccilated about whether to choose death as a way to end the torture and escape her abuser.
Melva told us after Silent Prey was intially exhibited she tried to look for other opportunities to display it but that has been difficult. She believes people would still like to ignore the reality of physical and sexual abuse.
While I was thinking about Silent Prey and preparing to write my newspaper column about it, Pope Francis was meeting in Rome with the heirarchy of the Catholic Church to discuss the issue of endemic abuse and violence against women and children by priests and clergy in his denomination. I kept wishing Silent Prey could have been on display at the Vatican during that meeting. Artwork like Melva and Aura’s needs to have an important place amongst the masterpieces in the Vatican’s twenty billion dollar art collection as a visible sign the church is taking sexual abuse seriously.
There is a spiritual dimension to the work Melva and her daughter did to create Silent Prey. Melva believes the exhibit is the result of divine inspiration and guidance from God. She feels she and her daughter are part of something bigger, a worldwide effort to protect the innocent. Their stunning artwork inspires the viewer to support that cause in any way they can.
“MaryLou. The Last Supper.” My sister pointed out a traditional print hanging on the wall near the table in a private home in Merida Mexico where she and I we were participating in a cooking class. I immediately took a photo of the print. My sister knows I collect photos of artworks depicting the Biblical Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples. I have found interesting versions in all kinds of places.I found this one in the city museum in Sydney Australia in 2010. It was created by aboriginal artist Linda Syddick. The U shapes at the bottom represent the twelve disciples. The one for Judas who betrayed Jesus stands out from the rest since it is a different color and facing a different way. Jesus is serving the disciples billy tea instead of wine and damper a kind of Australian soda bread. I photographed this Last Supper made out of sand in Sedona Arizona on a family visit there in 1990.Steffi Lee one of my grade five students in Hong Kong in 2004 made this version of Da Vinci’s Last Supper for a project I assigned when we were doing a unit on the Renaissance in our social studies class. I found this wooden engraved one in a Catholic Church in Tamarindo Costa Rica.
Parfleches for the Last Supper is a series of twelve artworks by Robert Houle that is part of the collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Houle has designed a traditional parfleche (a bag for sacred objects) for Jesus and each of the twelve disciples who were present at the Last Supper. Note the black one for Judas and the white one for John in the bottom row.I photographed this colourful wool tapestry version of the last supper at the front of a small church on Waya Island in Fiji where we attended services one Sunday morning in 2011. I saw this copper version of the Last Supper by Albert Gilles on a visit to a gallery in Quebec City in 2015. This one was discovered on the wall of a noodle shop in Kyoto Japan. Jesus and his disciples are enjoying some ramen noodles.
Melva Medina and her husband Abel Vazquez are artists who live, work and teach in an lovely restored colonial mansion in downtown Merida, Mexico. It serves both as their home and their gallery. Their studio and workshop is just two blocks away. We visited the Nahualli Casa de Artistas on a walking tour organized by the English Library in Merida.
Melva told us about her work which centers on themes of female strength and empowerment.
She also talked about the work of her husband Abel which explores the connection between human beings and nature. Some of Abel and Melva’s pieces reminded me of similar works that are part of the Inuit art collection at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and show people transforming into animals and animals into people. When I mentioned this to Melva she told me that it was exactly that idea that inspired the name of their family’s gallery. On the gallery website she explains that the origin of the word nahualli means unseen, the hidden, what is deep within. She says that many first peoples in North America from the Inuit in the north to the Mayans in the south believe that every person at birth already has the spirit of an animal(nahual) that is responsible to protect and guide them through life and help them accomplish their mission. I was enthralled by Abel’s life- like sculptures of women that graced the pool area of their home. This one reminded me of a piece we have at the Winnipeg Art Gallery called Linda by Elizabeth Wyn Wood. The colorful and provocative work of Melva and Abel’s daughter Alma Citalli was also on display. My very favorite piece was near the front door. It was called Pensamiento or Thought. From each angle and at different distances you were captured by yet another aspect of the sculpture’s beauty. Thoughtful or thought provoking would be a great way to describe many of the pieces at the Nahualli Casa de Artistas. In fact on their website they say they hope their House of Art will be charged with energy, inspire deep thought and foster a spiritual experience.
Note: I was so taken with Nahualli Casa de Artistas that my sister and I went back to visit it another day and were privileged to be given a guided tour of Melva and Abel’s studio and learn about a very special exhibit Melva created with her second daughter Aura Meztli Vazquez that addresses the issue of sexual abuse. I will need some time to process that experience and will write about it in a later post.
Since I am spending two months in the Yucatan I wanted to learn a little more about the history of the area. What better way to do that than through art?
On previous visits to Mexico I had been at two different Mayan archelogical sites and learned about the early history of the Yucatan. Last Thursday I went to the Governor’s Palace in Merida and walked through a room full of huge murals by Fernando Castro Pacheco that provided a window into the country’s history from 1500-1900. It is a bloody and violent story indeed.
The Yucatan was ‘discovered’ in 1517 by a Spanish explorer named Cordova. A decade later a fellow named Fancisco de Montejo arrived to conquer the Yucatan but was sent packing after a bloody conflict with the local people. He would need to make two more military forays before he could successfully establish a capital city at the site of present day Merida in 1542.
Of course once the military have established ground in a conquered country the religious folks are sure to follow close behind. Meet Franscican monk Fray Diego De Landa who build thirty convents in the Yucatan and tried to convert the Mayans to Christianity. In 1562 he ordered all Mayan books and artworks and statues destroyed. The oppression of the Spanish caused starvation amongst the natives and the diseases the Spanish introduced to the Mayan population killed nearly two million of them by the mid 1600s. The Mayans tried to fight back repeatedly. Jacinto Canek led an indigenous rebellion against the government in 1761. He and his supporters fought fiercely but were defeated and Canek was ordered quartered and burned with red hot knives and pokers in the center square of Merida. A demand for inexpensive binder twine in the United States and Europe in the 1800s created a huge demand for the sisal plant which grows in the Yucatan. Employing the Mayans as slave labourers Spanish families made fortunes. During the 1800s the Yucatan struggled to remain independent from Mexico and the native Mayans continued to revolt against the Spanish ruling class in a fifty year conflict known as the Caste Wars. In the 1900s reformers like Salvador Alvarado who was the governor of the Yucatan from 1915-1918 began to make important changes. Alvarado became known as the ‘liberator of the Mayan slaves’ and tired to bring about reforms in education, treatment of women and strict class distinctions.
Visiting the governor’s palace and seeing the art there was a good way to get a crash course in some four hundred years of Yucatan history.
The jaguar is an important symbolic animal here in Mexico. Archeologists have discovered stone and jade carvings of jaguars that are more than 3000 years old. Mayan rulers showed their power by wearing jaguar skins, claws and fangs. Images of jaguars appear in ancient Mayan hieroglyphic texts and there is a Temple of the Jaguar at the Mayan ruins in Chichen Itza.
In Mayan mythology the jaguar was the ruler of the underworld. Mayan sorcerers could transform into jaguars to face their fears or confront their enemies.
After the Spanish take over of Mexico the local Mayan people used the jaguar as a symbol of their fight against colonization. Because of all that history and symbolism I see jaguar images everywhere here in the Yucatan and I mean everywhere! In the last few days I have even found jaguars in bathrooms in two different places.
The Folk Art Museum in Merida is located in an old home. Each room of the house features artists from different provinces of Mexico. There happens to be a bathroom in the section of the house featuring artists from Chiapas and so two jaguars created by artist Alberto Bautista Gomez are on display there posed just in front of the urinal and toilet. On Friday I was on an art gallery walk in Merida and asked to use the washroom at the Soho Art Gallery. I was sitting on the toilet and looked up and lo and behold there was another jaguar looking right at me!
If you visit the Yucatan province in Mexico be prepared to see jaguars everywhere! Including in the bathroom!
While touring the Governor’s House in Merida, Mexico I saw this painting showing the Mayan story about the creation of human beings. I discovered there are many versions of the story called the Popol Vuh but each recounts how the gods of the sea and sky first created mountains to separate their realms. Then they filled the world with animals and birds and fish and plants. They tried to make people from mud and then from wood but neither attempt worked out. Finally the world experienced a great flood and after it was over the gods managed to successfully fashion people from corn.
Although Mexico’s famed artist Diego Rivera is more well-known for his large murals I found this water-colour illustration of the Mayan creation he did in the Library of Congress collection. The gods of the sea and sky are shown as serpents. You can see the mountains and animals and fish and birds and plants the gods created each depicted in separate sections of the painting. Most, like the jaguar and palm and lobster are native to the area in which the Mayan people lived. I am wondering if the two figures lying down beside the man and woman are the unsuccessful wood and mud versions of human beings the gods tried first.
It is always interesting to learn new creation stories and compare them to the one in the Christian Bible which I grew up knowing.