“Art as Redemption” by Karen vanMeenen

ART AS REDEMPTION
Mexico in your Senses
By Willy Souza
Mexico City
March 4–April 23, 2010

Mexico has recently suffered from negative media attention due to its social and criminal problems. With a major new touring exhibition of his work, “Mexico in your Senses,” Mexican filmmaker and photographer Willy Souza aims to counteract these stereotypes and encourage Mexicans to regain pride in the myriad strengths and positive strong cultural heritage of their country.

From 'Mexico in your Senses'
From ‘Mexico in your Senses’

This extensive exhibition, sponsored by the federal government of Mexico and offering free admission, was recently on display in the Zócalo (the main plaza) of Mexico City. It incorporates nearly one thousand photographs in the form of prints and video (culled from the 1.5 million photographs Souza has taken across the country in the last eight years) housed in a specially built traveling venue intended through form and hue to look like a Mayan temple. Designed by noted architect Javier Sordo Madaleno, the 13,000-square-foot exhibition space includes a snaking main gallery and an exhibition and video room, representing the traditional pyramids of the sun and the moon found at such archeological sites as Teotihuacan.

The first room in the exhibition is floor to (20-foot) ceiling close-up color photographs (20 x 24 inches) of eyes of Mexican citizens, interspersed with mirrors of the same size. This opening is a statement suggesting that visitors immediately engage in a process of self-reflection. Souza is asking us to consider what we “have stopped seeing,” to “stop accepting preconceived notions and interpreting without seeing.”1 The next four rooms of the first building house images of “things representing the human condition,” as Souza notes.

The vast halls and ceilings of the main rooms are covered with images: still, color, glossy photographs, unmated and unframed, printed large; a few are backlit or printed on scrims hanging from the ceiling. Photographs from across the country are arranged thematically in such categories as masks, landscapes, markets, and tradespeople. Interpretive panels at the beginning of each theme offer background on the subject and smaller keys at the end offer a few identifying details and in all cases in which Mexican state each image was created. Plasma screens throughout the exhibition hall show series of still images, often offering brief visual narratives.

willycolor

In “Fiestas” there are colorful costumes, gold jewelry and a stunning ground-view, close-up of a pair of aged, brown, cracked feet. “Architecture” displays structures ranging from Mayan ruins to colonial buildings. “Religious iconography” focuses on details of lit candles, crucifixes, figurines of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and bleeding Jesus statues. “Children” work and play across the country. The “Cycle of Life” begins with a Madonna figure of a young mother bathing a baby in a river as if in baptism and concludes with celebrations of the Day of the Dead, in a series of images teeming with the vibrant orange of the cempasúchil flower, which is traditional for this celebration.

Visitors are led from the “Cycle of Life” down a hallway (the “Path of the Dead” that connects the pyramids of the sun and the moon) to the large open final room where a seven-minute video showcases the moving image work of Souza, replicating many of the same scenes and faces of the still photography. There are thematic and aesthetic ties in the video, as well as visual connections such as flowers cascading from an apron transitioning to beans falling from a spoon and the twirling lasso of a charro segueing into the flapping circle of a tortilla. It is a dramatic effort with an overtly patriotic ending as the people previously seen engaging in singular activities each unfurl a full-size Mexican flag. This, with its crescendo of music and the dramatic lighting of hitherto unseen photographs of these same flag-infused images on the walls, are to an outsider’s eye and ear overdone, but for natives this is a poignant moment.

Overall it is a simply and busy display but effective as an immersive experience in color, in faces, with music audible above the mostly quiet, even reverent, visitors. Souza said about the exhibition planning, “What we are going to show is a country so we have to do it in a spectacular and monumental way.” Souza, who earned a Master of Fine Arts in Filmmaking from New York University, is an exquisite technical photographer with enviable access to high-tech gadgetry. He uses a “cable-cam” as well as helicopters for aerial landscape work and in addition was able to purchase a new “phantom” camera. He is the first photographer to use this camera for other than scientific purposes and the result is stunning slow-motion shots capturing movement and detail and color in high definition.

The exhibition in its initial venue surpassed expectations, receiving more than six million visitors in its 52 days on display. During the closing night reception, along with speeches by such local luminaries as the exhibition’s producers and the country’s first lady, Souza shared a short video of visitors’ reactions to the exhibition. Dozens of headshots revealed both Mexicans and international visitors praising the show, with many (male and female, young and old) moved to tears. The exhibition is a singular vision of a complex culture, but Souza succeeded in reaching his goal of providing the people of his native land with a source of pride and connection to their history and heritage. The work highlights the beauty and diversity of this unique country but also the redemptive power of art.2

Karen vanMeenen is Editor of Afterimage.

NOTES 1. All quotations by Willy Souza are from an author interview with the artist, April 23, 2010, in Mexico City. 2. “Mexico in your Senses” will travel to the major cities of Mexico, then to numerous destinations in Central and South America, as well as to several cities in the United States. For more information visit www.ifstudios.com.mx or Willy Souza’s Facebook page.

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