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Contemporary Mexican art represents a one-sided conversation

Potland State’s Littman Gallery (Smith 250) is currently exhibiting “Dissolutions/Di-soluciones,” a collection of paintings on amate paper by Mexico City resident Beatriz Ezban.

The traveling exhibition, which is sponsored in part by the Mexican consulate, is the artist’s attempt to reinvoke the spirit of the dying amate papermaking tradition. In practice, Ezban attempts to utilize the paper in a new way while helping to keep the art form alive.

The native Otomi people of San Pablito, a village high in the Sierra Norte mountain range of southern Mexico’s Puebla state, are Mexico’s best-known amate papermakers. The paper is pounded from the inner bark of mulberry and fig trees and is used by shamans in traditional healing rituals.

These days though, most of the amate is sold to artisans from the states surrounding Puebla. These artists paint bright and lively scenes on the paper and sell these paintings to tourists in places like Acapulco and Mazatlan.

While some make a decent living selling amate works to tourists, the villagers of San Pablito remain entrenched in poverty. Amate is now the main source of revenue for a village that saw the arrival of its first private telephones in 1999 and whose children sleep three and four on straw-mat beds.

To make matters even more complicated, as some of the last practitioners of the amate tradition (which began centuries before Columbus’ arrival in the Americas) the Otomi of San Pablito have stripped much of the surrounding forest’s trees of their bark.

Ezban’s use of amate brings the paper a step closer to its original state. A step back, that is, from the colorful paintings sold to tourists to a more earthy, restrained style of work. Gone are the colorful patterns and what is left seems informed by far-Eastern design – often the work resembles traditional Chinese or Japanese work composed on rice paper. The paper medium makes this an obvious comparison, but beyond that, there is a flowing quality to Ezban’s work that brings to mind Zen Buddhist painting, with all of its understated and subtle, yet business- and narrative-like qualities.

Ezban, who normally works with abstract forms, finds new abstractions in the fiber of the paper itself. She sees the abstraction in the paper’s texture and goes to work from there. A line of fiber is traced, an edge is highlighted. Or an underlying pattern within the visible membrane and texture of the amate is brought to the fore by watercolor brushstrokes. Ezban has a lot to work with here – each sheet of the paper is different, demands a new approach and poses a new riddle for the artist to solve.

Ezban is not the first artist to incorporated amate into her work. In 2000 California artist Enrique Chagoya exhibited codices fashioned out of amate similar to those made by pre-colonial Mexican people. These books include images like Superman in the same scene as an Aztec warrior. More politically motivated, Chagoya’s amate works do something Ezban’s do not: stretch the limits of the traditional form while questioning the culture that is slowly putting an end to the papermaking practice.

In her artist’s statement, Ezban writes that she is “attempting a dialog [sic] with native traditions of Mexico.” But as art – as a comment on and reflection of society itself – Chagoya’s work is more affecting.

Why? Because Ezban’s “attempts at a dialog” read, unfortunately, like a one-sided conversation. Ezban writes that amate papermaking is a dying tradition, yet she neglects to explore why.

There is a subdued sadness to the paintings, but we feel we’re missing something. Eventually the question arises, and is conveniently left out of the viewer’s dialogue with the work; should Ezban be working in this medium? Is she not contributing to the poverty of San Pablito? As the art form moves into extinction, it is obvious that the demands of artists are outstripping the supply of amate. And of course a living wage for the Otomi would be nice as well.

The paper should be made, but like so many others of the world’s workers, the Otomi should get more compensation. Ezban claims to work to raise awareness of this dying art form, and this is all good and fine, but nowhere is it written that a portion of the proceeds from any sale of art would go back to the Otomi – not in the form of sustainable agriculture training nor general public works improvement nor anything.

Whether this speculation is valid in the face of the art itself is another question. Ezban does remain close to the San Pablitos in spirit by including representations of figures worshipped by the Otomi. Village shamans hold large cut-outs like those in the Littman over burning incense to release their spirits in healing ceremonies.

Figures here include “El presidente del inferno,” or “The President of Hell.” The title is telling of the natives’ use of language – the deeming of a political title on an entity westerners see as a spiritual figure.

This is where we see cultures divide. First-Worlders see a division between the spiritual and political worlds, often viewing them – or at the least wishing them viewed – as separate from each other. The title of the piece invokes the notion that the Otomi’s view is a more holistic one: one in which politics, spirituality, and the real, the day-to-day, are intertwined.

More simply, “The President of Hell” may also be seen as an effect of the Otomi’s alienation from the rest of Mexico – to an Otomi a president is a figure just as mythical and fantastical as the devil himself.

Another of these figures, “El aguila de dos cabezas” (“Two-Headed Eagle”), is intricately cut in mimicry of the paper itself. The feathers are the size and shape of palm fronds, reminding the viewer where the paper originated.

These are impressive examples of native artwork. But of course they were done by a contemporary Mexican painter, not a native Otomi.

With this traveling exhibition Ezban makes us aware of a dying tradition, and invokes the spirituality of the Otomi people, but we are left wondering if her work does a fair job of representing them. Perhaps a traveling exhibition of Otomi folk art, rather than a contemporary interpretation, is what is called for.

Dissolutions/Di-soluciones is on view through July 28 in the Littman Gallery (Smith 250).