Riven by disagreements involving education policy, migrant rights, and a Supreme Court emboldened by a new balance of power, the United States is living some seriously disquieting times. The present moment again challenges us to evaluate the place of historically marginalized peoples—their culture, their language, and their knowledge—vis-à-vis a globalized society given over to the vicissitudes of capitalist modernity. Recently, even “wokeness”—once an accolade conferred in recognition of historical perspicacity—is bantered about as a smear. To what extent does society dictate that we purge history of all racial, economic, or environmental strife? As Walter Benjamin cogently noted in his remarkable essay “On the Concept of History,” “not even the dead will be safe from the enemy if he is victorious.”
In this way, an exhibition that just recently closed at Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art—Los huecos del agua, Recent Indigenous Art from Mexico—was amazingly timely. Curated by Itzel Vargas Plata and previously having been exhibited in two Mexican cities (Puebla and Mexico City), the show’s titular reference to “holes in the water” is explained as a nod to philosopher Edouard Glissant’s concept of “archipelagic thinking,” which proposes an epistemology influenced by hybridity, irregularity, and diversity—allowing oneself to think in patterns reminiscent of, say, a coral reef’s arborescent ornamentation. Vargas Plata’s powerful curation has been a testament to how profoundly our southern neighbors have examined these crucial debates. Perhaps it is our side of the border that needs to catch up with history.
Los huecos del agua, which opened in March 2023 and closed last month (August 2023), gathered a diverse group of artists from Southern Mexico, a region deeply associated with indigenous peoples. During the exhibit’s previous stints in Mexico, it was praised by various media outlets and in particular, hailed by GACETA UNAM.
The exhibit foregrounds a diverse set of political issues: indigenous identity within the Mexican nation-state, the environmental destruction of native lands, and epistemological violence against native peoples—each of these being directly alluded to on the National Museum of Mexican Art’s webpage. Less noted however, was the artists’ sophisticated engagement of education: formal versus informal learning, who teaches whom, and the language of instruction. The issue feels particularly salient in our current political climate, when debates continue on models of bilingual education and where state legislatures have taken aim at Critical Race Theory and so-called “divisive concepts.” With Los huecos del agua, education was front and center: simultaneously represented as an ideological apparatus mobilized in the service of authority, as a means of preserving traditional values of original peoples, and as an inroad to self-actualization. In short, education is a source of pain but also, joy. Such richly ambivalent sentiments are more than appropriate, given that education after the Mexican Revolution (1910-17) constituted both an invitation to national life as well as the erasure of the linguistic, cultural, and artistic heritage of original peoples.
Upon entering the exhibit space, visitors encountered various works that set the tone for subsequent rooms—pieces representing a cosmos particular to original peoples in Southern Mexico and specifically, the region of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a locale recognized within the collective consciousness of Mexico to be the area of the country deeply associated with native cultures. Directly facing the first room’s doorway was Ana Hernández’s 2019 Nisaguié Yaachi (lluvia dorada) or, as rendered in English, Golden Rain. Hernández’s work consists of a curtain of gold, metal beads, hung from the ceiling and reaching down to the floor; squarely in the visitor’s eyeline when entering the exhibit, the piece suggested a portal to another realm—a kind of transcendental space with an alternative episteme. Throughout Mesoamerica, water and rain have been understood as a life-giving gift to humanity; even today, Tlaloc, the god of rain, remains one of the chief deities in the region. This sense of mythical elements in the everyday was also seen with the three pieces by José Ángel Santiago and displayed in this first room: there depict houses, the sky, and snakes. The artist’s expressionist brushstroke and dark palette are reminiscent of some of the work from Mexico’s three great muralists—especially that of José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Santiago is interested in homes as shelters, as places of protection for besieged inhabitants. His rustic, rough-hewn abodes thus symbolize a point of interface between nature and humanity, between the heaven and the earth, between that which is real and that which is fantastic.
The exhibition’s second and third rooms expanded upon the theme of alternative epistemes even while interrogating the role of formalized education in indigenous communities. There, José Chi Dunal’s El sol sale para todos (The Sun Rises for Everyone)—somewhat like pieces by the conceptual artist Mel Bochner—explored the tensions between words, reality, and identity. This particular work replicates the phrase “el sol sale para todos” not only in Spanish but also, in the artist’s native language Tzotzil, still spoken by many communities in the artist’s native state of Chiapas.
Equally noteworthy was Humberto Gómez Pérez’s roughly 20-minute documentary from 2018 titled Jbovtik or “Nuestra música”—that is, “Our Music.” The short film, projected onto one of the museum’s walls, felt musical both in terms of form and content. The first half of the film is devoid of dialogue, thus suggesting a type of visual and sonic poem depicting the measured rhythms of rural life (rainstorms, cattle, clouds moving atop mountains). The second half of the film depicts a young man taught by his grandfather to play the guitar, while the latter, in turn, plays the harp. Subsequently, the broader community in Chiapas joins in to preserve and transmit knowledge by preparing for the festival. In the film’s final minutes, imagery cuts back and forth between these two narrative threads—the landscape and the celebration—thus suggesting a type of symbiosis between humanity and the environment. The film constitutes a dalliance of man-made melodies with the harmonies of the natural world.
This second room also featured a large found object piece by Andy Medina titled LII QUI GANNALÚ (2020), a phrase in Zapotec meaning “ignorant.” The saying was painted across the wall in bold, black, and all-capitalized letters—as if it were the subject for the lesson of the day. A single, tablet-arm student desk faced signboard at close proximity, positioned as if it were in a classroom. One of the desk’s legs, shorter than the others, was propped up by four books, each of whose titles referred to the education of native peoples. Íñigo Aguilar’s El problema de la educación indígena [The Problem of Indigenous Education], placed atop the other three, was the text most prominently displayed. The piece thus queries whether those in power learned Zapotec for the sole purpose of indoctrinating pupils. Is education central to the emancipation of indigenous communities or is it, rather, an ideological apparatus of the oppressor? To what extent is “enlightenment” tantamount to epistemological violence? What cultures, communities, and languages have been systematically erased in order to consolidate the Mexican state and its cultural nationalism? Tellingly, Medina hails from Oaxaca, city in southwestern Mexico where a 2006 teachers’ strike, although initiated as a peaceful demonstration, was brutally suppressed with state violence. Numerous humanitarian organizations subsequently condemned the authorities’ harrowing use of force.
Education was also explicitly alluded to in one of the show’s three massive paintings by Tlacolulokos, a Oaxacan art collective composed of Dario Canul and Cosijoesa Cernas. With 2021’s Hazlo tú Mismo (that is, “Do It Yourself”) a young indigenous woman appeared poised to “break out”—both literally and figuratively. Holding a pair of wire-cutters in one hand and a diploma in the other, the figure’s wardrobe suggests willful border-crossing and a hybrid identity. The larger-than-life girl, tattooed with Mesoamerican glyphs and wearing the traditional huipil dress, concentrates on clipping asunder the chain-link fence which separates her from the viewer (or constrains her?). The bottom half of her face is hidden under a bandana which stretches across her face, while a glowing mortarboard sits atop her head and a graduation stole falls across her shoulders. Ultimately, the painting suggests that education can serve liberatory ends, but only when the whole person—their background, their heritage, and their culture—is recognized.
Los huecos del agua was more than appropriate for a city as profoundly Mexican as is Chicago. The exhibition spoke to the city’s deep tradition of renowned American educators such as John Dewey, Jane Addams, and Madeline Stratton Morris. Indeed, just this past year, Chicago’s mayoral contest saw a run-off election between two educators: the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Paul Vallas, and Brandon Johnson, a former middle-school teacher from the city’s West Side. Ultimately, the latter was triumphant.
Like a broader vision of the city itself, Los huecos del agua proved a testament to the fact that education cannot be examined without a serious consideration of both politics and identity.