Nacho Alfonso: Memorials

at La Casa de Arte y Cultura, Calles y Suenos, through July 29

By Bertha Husband

“Memorias” is the title Nacho Alfonso has given his exhibition of 20 works on paper, mostly ink and acrylic, now showing at La Casa de Arte y Cultura in Pilsen. Of course memories can take two forms. The type that springs most readily to mind is the personal: recollecting the events that make up an individual’s life. The second is composed of collective memories of the distant past, and these lie at the root of all revolutionary movements: socialism, feminism, and nationalism all seek to forge the future by remembering the ancient past, a time of collective living, a time before alienation and individuation, a time before the unity of the tribe was destroyed by an increasing division of labor, a division into rulers and ruled, into those who serve and those who enjoy. In art as in revolution, however, the imagination is not concerned with a return to the past but with memory that speaks to the future.

Alfonso’s memories include personal recollections as well as collective political memory: he stitches the two together seamlessly. Masked Zapatista guerrillas are the subject of three of the works in this exhibition, all monoprints created at the Taller Mexicano de Grabado while on this visit to Chicago (Alfonso’s first to the United States). Yet the series also recalls the time the artist spent with indigenous tribes in Chiapas.

Alfonso is not only Mexican but a Zapatista supporter, so for him nationality and politics are inseparable. On January 1, 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect, an armed group calling itself the Zapatista National Liberation Army took over the city of San Cristobal de las Casas in the southern state of Chiapas, a rebellion that became an inspiration to all people on the left wherever they might live. The performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena, in an essay on the Zapatistas’ subcommandante Marcos, had this to say about the effect of the rebellion and its extraordinary spokesman: “In the confusing era of ‘the end of ideology’, his utopian political visions presented in a simple, non-ideological and poetical language went straight to the jaded hearts and minds of students, activists, intellectuals, artists, nihilistic teens and even apolitical middle-class professionals. In an era of ferocious neo-nationalism, he made sure to avoid nationalist jargon and dogmas.” What is striking about the Zapatista revolution is the way it fuses the two worlds: the world of modernity and the world of the indigenous tribe. The Zapatista army is made up mostly of indigenous men, women, and children, yet it makes use of the most sophisticated technological media: the Internet, faxes. This opposition of the modern city and the indigenous tribe could be said to be the Mexican condition, and overcoming this duality is central to Nacho Alfonso’s art.

Alfonso now lives and works in Mexico City, the world’s largest city, but he was born and grew up in Vera Cruz and draws inspiration from the societies and music of indigenous peoples. Despite colonial genocide, there are today approximately 50 indigenous tribes in Mexico, and many of them are pure, maintaining their own customs, music, religious and social structures, and languages; many do not speak Spanish. Although Alfonso, who is 40 years old, has been a painter and printmaker for many years and has in addition collaborated on multimedia performance events, he is also a musician who first played indigenous wind instruments and only much later learned to read music and play the classical and jazz flute. Alfonso told me that he’s explored the music and dance of 10 of these 50 tribes. And his recent monoprints and acrylic-and-ink works on paper reveal the rhythm and sensuality of music and dance, not so much in the subject matter as in the playfulness of his approach.

Dancing, singing, or making music puts people into a state in which they can transform the outside world. In places where art, life, and work are not separated, dancers themselves are works of art produced by Dionysian rhythmic release, bodies moving in a common, collective rhythm. The value of such a process lies not in any end product but in the joy of being. In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche speaks of the Dionysian magic through which “man is no longer an artist, he has become a work of art.” For an artist from Europe, where the unity of the tribe has long since been destroyed, achieving such liberation must depend on disinterring and reinventing the ancient past. But for a Mexican artist, such examples of unity might still exist in the nation’s indigenous cultures.

Alfonso works quickly and incessantly, never spending more than two days on one piece and often completing one or two pieces in a single day. And because he always works to music, the type of music he’s listening to often determines the development of his images and direction of his reveries. Possibly his immersion in music is what enables him to work anywhere–in strange apartments and faraway cities. Most of the works in this exhibition were created in the last few weeks in Montreal, where he was exhibiting last month, and some during his present stay in Chicago. All the works he’s made here are based on his memories of trips through Mexico, Guatemala, and Cuba (where he participated in the fourth Havana Bienale in 1991). However, these are not the usual travel-diary recordings of experience: these abstracted dream landscapes suggest mountains, valleys, skies, and water with an unusual intensity of form, color, and light.

Alfonso seeks to combine not only the past and present but the visual and the auditory, the static and moving image, the spontaneous and the planned. Whenever man-made structures appear in his work–for example, the quays, tower, and boats in El puerto de la Habana (“Port of Havana”)–they seem to blend organically with the sky, the sea, and the coastline. Similarly, where human figures are the subject, as in Mujeres de Guatemala (“Women of Guatemala”), they are indistinguishable from the land: human beings and their works are as much a part of nature as an ocean or a tree. Alfonso achieves this unity by insisting that any supposed opposition between the abstract and the figurative is false: the original subject somehow maintains its integrity, however transformed it might be. But in the series of Zapatista monoprints, the masked guerrillas are more naturalistically rendered. In Neo-Zapatista y su caballo (“Neo-Zapatista and His Horse”), the soldier and his horse dominate the foreground, but Alfonso’s technique makes the figures and mountains alike transparent, as if they were melting into each other.

A prolific painter like Alfonso, who uses a language of line and color often as enigmatic as the notes of music and who favors the rapid, spontaneous application of layers of thin washes of color, must inevitably produce many failures as well as successes. But of course Picasso produced work with a similar facility and compulsion. And with an artist like this, it’s not always clear, to the artist or to the viewer, which are the hits and which the misses. It can become a question of taste. For me, a work like Paisaje con nopales (“Landscape With Cactus”) comes close to being merely decorative, whereas El trauma (“The Trauma”), with its dominating hunched figure holding a glass, is expressive of deep suffering.

The best of these works seem to propose unity in the world, an impulse that recalls one brief moment in 20th-century European art, cubism: a seven-year period on the eve of the First World War that combined intellectual optimism with a sense of economic and political uncertainty. True, there’s no formal resemblance, and of course Alfonso is rooted in the cultural history and arts of the American continent; his major artistic influences are David Alfaro Siqueiros and Gilberto Acevez Navarro, both Mexican painters. However, despite their completely different approaches, Alfonso’s paintings and cubist works both seem to forecast a unified world, though that unity may be utopian, speculative. As critic John Berger wrote of cubism in 1969: “The term ‘unity of the world’ can acquire a dangerously utopian aura. But only if it is thought to be politically applicable to the world as it is. A ‘sine qua non’ for the unity of the world is the end to exploitation, the evasion of this fact is what renders the term utopian….Today we know that the world should be unified just as we know that all men should have equal rights. Insofar as a man denies this or acquiesces in its denial, he denies the unity of his own self. Hence the profound psychological sickness of the imperialist countries.”

Berger’s remarks also point to another issue raised by Alfonso’s exhibition, the insularity of our culture. Because the United States fails to give importance to contemporary art from other countries and cultures, an exhibition like this one is totally dependent on marginal support. One wonders how many other interesting, serious artists there might be who are unable to exhibit in this country. As a consequence, artists living and working here flounder in a cultural isolation belied by the kind of media hype that surrounds a few chosen mainstream “stars” from abroad. And this circular, self-perpetuating system may account for the impoverishment of the arts in the United States.