There is a large face without skin, just bare muscles and eyes wide open and staring. In a cavern-like lair are a group of naked cat-like women crawling seductively towards the viewer. A man who resembles an Aztec emperor has a thick beard and strange tattoos.
Milling about the room are a European man with a green Mohawk, several woman in fur and a swarm of gallerists and Mexican art aficionados. The setting is The Drawing Center, a cozy gallery off a cobblestoned side street in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood. It is opening night for a show by renowned Mexican artist Dr. Lakra, whose smorgasbord of influences include comic strips, anatomy text books, Mexican gangsterdom, tattoo artistry, the murals of Diego Rivera and the skeletons of Jose Guadalupe Posada.
Lakra’s diverse work shows the different ways death has blossomed in Mexican art, from mystical Aztec influences to more contemporary Day of the Dead images and the current fascination with gangster life. “Over the past two centuries, Mexican culture has kept up a unique dialogue with the fact of death, rather than defying it as most contemporary cultures are wont to do,” reads a review of Images of Death in Mexican Prints, a famous catalog of Mexican art.
The most well-known Mexican death-themed artist was Jose Guadalupe Posada, whose whimsical Day of the Dead skeleton drawings, called calaveras, are now reproduced the world over. Posada was born in 1852 in the Mexican state of Aguascalientes and moved to Mexico City in his twenties, where he penned drawings for newspapers and a publishing firm. He created images to accompany Mexican ballads about the death of bullfighters and the Mexican revolution and voiced his skepticism of the corrupt government by drawing political cartoons. Posada was the voice of the people, and helped make art a way to communicate the plight of the common man.
Despite his popularity Posada received just pennies for his drawings and upon death was buried in a common grave. His work has lived on though, inspiration for artists like Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. In his home city of Aguascalientas there is now a museum in his honor, the Museo Nacional de la Muerte (National Museum of Death). The tone of the place is more jolly than spooky. Visitors are greeted at the entrance by a life-sized calavera wearing an early 20th-century black gown and a large, lace-trimmed hat, a spoof of Posada’s famous, La Catrina, a drawing of a skeleton woman in an ornate hat decorated with feathers and flowers. Other skeleton drawings in the museum include bullfighters, brides, children, Mexican Revolution heroes and skeleton lovers in bed. “Joy is the essence of the portrayals of death,” the museum’s cultural promoter José Antonio Padilla Pedroza said in a recent interview. “Regardless of your cultural background, these representations give you a sense of joy.”
This joyful portrayal of death is seen in the work of modern Mexican artists like Dr. Lakra, but Lakra’s work also exhibits a more horrific type of death, that seen every day on the streets of Mexican cities, plagued by battling drug lords and an ineffective police. This violence has recently made the evening news across the US, just this week in Brownsville, Texas there was a funeral for a US customs agent gunned down in Mexico. The violence also has made its way into popular music, in the form of narcocorridos, Mexican drug ballads. The music is a danceable accordion-based polka that dates back to traditional Mexican ballads from the 1930s but the lyrics more resemble American gangster rap, referring to murder, drug smuggling and government corruption.
As I was examining Lakra’s work on Thursday evening a man with a low-slung gold necklace noticed me taking notes. His name was Oscar and seeing that he was a friend of Lakra’s I was happy when he offered his interpretation of some of the artists’ images. For example, he explained, the naked cat-like women in the lair represented a hallucination. The large face without skin may have referred to an Aztec ideology about the three parts of man; the mask man wears to cloak his true identity, the face beneath the mask, and what lies beneath the face, the muscle and sinew that are also man. The tattooed emperor represented Mexico’s history, but also present-day gangster life. “It’s about culture,” said Oscar. “It’s about the ghetto, and it’s about how life is on the streets.”