Embracing the Alien: Sci-Fi & Fantasy in Mexican Art

Pedro Meyer: detail from Batman and the Religious Procession (1991). A religious parade in Oaxaca
Something quite surprising lurks amid the sculpture and visual art showcased by the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago: the repeated incorporation of science fiction and fantasy themes. The museum has a rich collection, worth returning to several times, but on my first visit this weekend I was struck by the willingness of Mexican and Mexican-American artists to use sci-fi and fantasy motifs in serious pieces. And yet, there was something unflinchingly playful about how these were wielded.

Laura Molina: Amor Alien/Amor extraterrestre (2004). An unmistakable reinterpretation of “The Legend of the Volcanoes” of Mexican myth.
Why is there this ease with a cosmic vocabulary or fantastic backdrop when interpreting or reinterpreting daily life? As you can see from the pictures below (taken on an old smart-phone, sorry), the use of sci-fi and fantasy is quite self-conscious--but without being cynically ironic in a hipster way or overly precious and kitsch. I love the mixture of play, earnestness, and satire.

I have two theories.

Ignacio Montano: details from Assembling Energy Panels from the London Complex at Preference, Mars/Montando paneles solares del complejo de Londres de preferencia, Marte (1990). Floating astronauts with oxygen-packs at the Mars base—Just to be clear, this hasn’t happened, yet.
The Cosmic Race (la raza cósmica)

Deeply embedded in national imagery in Mexico is the concept of the "Cosmic Race." This is the idea, famously stated by Mexican statesman and philosopher José Vasconcelos in 1925, that the mix of European, Native American, and African races and cultures in Mexico would be the way of the future. He called this mixture la raza cósmica.

Now, I'm not claiming that the artists below ascribe to any of that. MY POINT IS THAT THE USE OF THE OTHERWORLDLY IS MAINSTREAM. This is not (merely) the domain of nerds and geeks.

Alfredo Arreguin: Ballads from My Land/Corridos de mi tierra (2004). Emiliano Zapata and the Virgin de Guadalupe, as well as other iconic figures of Mexican history and legend fill the night sky.
Reverse Gravity

Or, put more simply, satire. There’s something of satire in these appropriations of images originally created in the U.S. By treating Batman and Mars and the infamous sexy Green Ladies from Star Trek as supremely serious (when all involved are aware that there’s something playful about them), a critical inversion takes place. The somberness, the gravity of these incorporations veers towards the ridiculous, the way someone donning a top hat and tails (in a non-ironic way) to purchase stamps at a post office would strike us as entirely ridiculous. (Or the way this scene in Tombstone is the best ever.) And perhaps that’s the point.

Maybe by treating sci-fi and fantasy imagery as real, these artists (and I’m counting the young boy carrying the Batman saint as an artist) are, through gentle (and admiring) ridicule, taking the self-important cultural production of the U.S. down a notch. This is especially poignant given how the highly-problematic term “alien” is used by some people to describe things (and people) Mexican.

Pedro Meyer: Batman and the Religious Procession (1991)

Ignacio Montano: Assembling Energy Panels from the London Complex at Preference, Mars/Montando paneles solares del complejo de Londres de preferencia, Marte (1990).


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2 Responses to Embracing the Alien: Sci-Fi & Fantasy in Mexican Art

Melissa Zavala said...

I really enjoy that playfulness in Latin American art and literature you're highlighting! I love the mix of magic, the surreal, the absurd, weaved in with the banal, the tragic, and the obscure. It is very much a distinct trait in Latin American art and letters ... though I am saying this as someone not knowledgeable enough in either. As an anthropologist, it feels inappropriate to make blanket statements about culture, but I do find this je ne sais quoi about that mix of things I've listed in the works of artists and writers from different countries, and I am drawn to it. The satire and playfulness is always inspiring, and more than that, refreshing!

SJ said...

beautiful sci fi artwork

Thanks a lot!!


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