apexart :: Conference Program :: Rubén Gallo


Conference 1, Wroclaw, Poland (June 1999)

Orientalism in Mexican Art
by Rubén Gallo

In this paper I will examine a curious phenomenon: The decade of the 1990s –– a time period which will go down in Mexican history as marking the entrance of the country into the North–American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada –– has not yet produced any art that addresses Mexico's increased economic dependence on the United States. Instead, art from the 1990s has been characterized by an intense and ongoing fascination with the culture of China, Japan, and other Asian countries.

Why Asia? I will offer two answers to this question. First, I will consider this recent explosion of "Orientalism" (as I have decided to baptize this phenomenon, echoing Edward Said's term) in the context of Mexico's historical perception of the "Orient." I will then propose a second explanation, which will consider the role of this phenomenon in relation to the artistic production of the last two decades.

In recent years a substantial number of young Mexican artists have dedicated their work to the exploration of Orientalist themes and issues(1). As a result, we have seen a proliferation of works referring to Far Eastern Culture: Eduardo Abaroa's tantric drawings, the Buddhist paintings of Rodrigo Aldana, Yishai Jusidman's series of sumo wrestlers and geishas, the sculptures of characters like "Hello Kitty" and "My Melody" by Edgar Orlaineta, Daniela Rossell's little Chinese-style fish and the rising sun and other Japanese symbols that appear in the work of Pablo Vargas Lugo. In the face of this wave of Orientalist allusions, it is worth looking into the significance of this curious phenomenon. Why have these Mexican artists decided to take up a culture that is so foreign to that of the country where they live? What is the meaning of this collective interest in Far Eastern iconography? Could this perhaps be a sarcastic commentary on the relationship between art and national identity?

Eduardo Abaroa, Facts of Sea-Monkey-Like Life, 1995, Epoxy Sculpture
Yishai Jusidman, Sumo VII, 1995, Oil on Wood, 49x49 cm.
Edgar Orlainata, LSD Trips and Auto-Parts Have a Lot in Common, 1999, Mixed Media Installation
Daniela Rossell, From the Series Pecados, 1996-98, Wheat Wafers, approx 20x15cm.
Pablo Vargas Lugo, Finale, 1995, Inflatable Rubber Installation

Part I: Mexico and its "Orientalist" History

To answer these questions, we should begin by situating this "Orientalism" in its historical context. Latin America, we should remember, was born out of a frustrated orientalist undertaking: Christopher Columbus stumbled upon the American hemisphere in his failed attempt to discover a new route to the Indies. In a prank of history, the Europeans were under the impression for a couple of years that Mexico –– and the entire continent, as well –– was the Orient. Columbus's ship's log –– the first orientalist work of Latin American literature –– is filled with wonderful descriptions of the lands Columbus assumed to be "Cathay" and "Cipango (the ancient names for China and Japan) but which were actually the islands of Hispaniola and Cuba.

The world eventually learned to distinguish between Orient and Occident and Mexico ended up being an occidental country that was to develop an orientalist tradition of its own. In art, the first sign of orientalism appeared at the end of the sixteenth century as the product of a curious incident that culminated in the canonization of our first martyr. In 1596, a galleon of New Spain was shipwrecked off the coast of Japan at a time when –– to the misfortune of the twenty–six passengers aboard – anti–Christian hatred was rife in that country. No sooner did the travelers touch land than they were made prisoner, mutilated, exposed to public torment, and eventually crucified. One of the victims was a Mexican friar who went down in history as Saint Philip of Jesus. This episode became one of the favorite subjects of colonial painting; innumerable canvases and prints were made over several centuries showing the young, defenseless friar attacked by the heartless Japanese. The murals in the Cuernavaca cathedral executed towards the end of the seventeenth century and the engravings of José Maria Montes de Oca in 1801 are among the most finished examples of the genre.

Representations of Saint Philip of Jesus's torture gave vent to one of the least praiseworthy aspects of our orientalist tradition: the picturing of the Orient as a dangerous place, a horrendous culture that represented mortal peril for Mexicans. This negative and paranoid outpouring of orientalism reached its most ominous extremes in the early years of the twentieth century, which was unquestionably one of the most aberrant and ignored in Mexican history: the anti–Chinese movement(2).

In 1888, the US. Government in an effort to halt the wave of Asian immigration to the State of California, decided to suspend work permits for Chinese immigrants. Immediately, the Chinese population in Mexico began to grow: hundreds and hundreds of Chinese workers settled near the border in the hope that the law of the United States would eventually change and allow them in. This is what gave rise to the huge Chinese quarters of Mexicali, Mazatlán, Tampico, and Chihuahua. By 1910, Torreón had the most numerous and prosperous Chinese community, many of whose members were proprietors of shops and enterprises that displayed signs such as, "Port of Shanghai," "Wing Hay Lum Groceries," "Oriental Laundry," "Wah Yick Bank:' Many of these shops were located on "Chee King Tong Street."

In spite of their prosperity, the Chinese were not well liked in Torreón. The poor ones, willing to work for a pittance, were accused of undercutting Mexican wages and the wealthy ones of employing only their countrymen and of sending their profits back to China. Resentment and hostility mounted until the disorders of the Revolution touched off an explosion: on May 15, 1911, Madero's troops took the city by surprise. Amidst the confusion and chaos, the mob attacked the Chinese businesses. There was sacking, mayhem, and innumerable killings that culminated in a massacre that took the lives of three hundred Chinese. Anti–Chinese prejudice became one of the most terrible effects of the intense nationalism fostered by the post–revolutionary government: mass deportations of Chinese were carried out in the twenties; in 1930, a law was passed which prohibited marriage between Mexican women and Chinese men; and in the years that followed, ultranationalistic organizations were founded with names like the "Executive Committee of the National Anti-China Campaign" (composed of representatives of the legislatures of Sonora and Sinaloa), the "Anti–Chinese Committee of the Port of Veracruz"; and the Mexican Anti–China League" of Chiapas. José Angel Espinoza, one of the most violent of the anti–Chinese, published a series of pamphlets bearing such titles as "The Chinese Problem In Mexico" (1931) and "The Example of Sonora" (1932) which proposed strategies for the "deschinatización de MŽxico" [cleansing Mexico of Chinese].

The anti–Chinese movement is not, however, the ultimate manifestation of Mexican orientalism. Paradoxically, an intense Sinophillia came into being among Mexican intellectuals during the worst years of this ultranationalistic movement. In 1920, the poet José Juan Tablada published Li–Po in Caracas, an exquisite book of ideographic poems that includes the following composition (the original written by hand in the form of a waning moon):

Thinking/ that the/ moon's re/flection/was a
cup/of white Jade/ with au/reatic wine /upon reaching out/to
drink/it one night/ he drowned/ having gone out/ on the
river/ to row / LI–Po

In the decades after the Mexican Revolution, Post–revolutionary China was to become a kind of promised land to socialist intellectuals. The muralists peopled their paintings with Asian countenances in a world of freedom, abundance, and prodigality. In the field of letters, Vicente Lombardo Toledano, Our most renowned Socialist, did something similar: in 1949, he set out on an ideological pilgrimage to the recently proclaimed People's Republic of China –– a trip that prefigured another Sinophile adventure by French avantgardists of the Tel Quel group in 1974. Lombardo Toledano narrated the details of his trip in "A Travel Diary to New China" (1950), a curious pamphlet filled with ardent praise for the land of Maoism, whose great achievements were to inspire not only Mexico but all the rest of humankind. "Just as the sun travels from East to West," Lombardo Toledano tells us, "so, before long, will the Chinese Revolution bring light to the peoples of the West." Mao Tse-tung, our author goes on to say "is the leader of the greatest national anti–imperialist revolution of history, the liberator of the Chinese people who make up a quarter of the planer's population. Bedazzled by such achievements, Lombardo Toledano could only conclude that Mao's China had achieved nothing less than the elimination of suffering, thereby ushering in a new stage of mankind. "I have witnessed," he declared, "how a long past of man's exploitation of man, of ignorance, enslavement, and grief is dying, and how a new world of energy, creative spirit, social Justice, economic progress, popular education, and heightened political awareness is being born."

These examples mark the extremes between which the pendulum of Mexican orientalism swings: on the one side, the positive tendency to identify the Orient with the most fantastic and wonderful possibilities for human existence, as Lombardo Toledano imagined in China; on the other, a negative tendency to associate everything oriental with peril and death, as in the case of a murderous Japan imagined by the worshippers of the Mexican saint. Oddly enough, Mexican popular parlance appears to have preserved only negative connotations of the oriental. To this day, we say "Chinese torture" to describe something terribly painful, like the punishment which San Felipe allegedly suffered at the hands of the Japanese. Likewise, many "orientalize" certain annoying respiratory illness by calling it the "Asian flu." There are also pejorative little ditties that call up the worst moments of the anti-Chinese movement: " chino, chino, japonés, come caca y no me des" [Chinaman, Chinaman, Jap, hand me no crap, eat it yourself] -a refrain which, in addition, demonstrates the typically orientalist phenomenon of obliterating all differentiation between various Asian cultures, such as the Chinese and Japanese. "La china Hilaria" is another expression in which the word "china" has a negative connotation – a euphemism for "la chingada," the worst insult that exists in our culture. The same is true in the case of "la quinta china," another euphonic substitute for the same dreaded insult.

All these phrases reflect the notion of Chinese thing as a menacing otherness. There is another less violent expression that nevertheless retains the association of the Chinese with extreme alterity. To say that something "está en chino" [itÕs in Chinese] implies that it is indecipherable and categorically unfathomable. Some years ago the kidnapping of a Japanese businessman in the city of Tijuana was reported in the scandal sheet Ovaciones with the headline "El secuestro del japonŽs. ¡Está en chino! [The kidnapping of the Japanese is in Chinese!] This expression embodies a comment regarding the inscrutable nature –– to the Occident –– of Chinese ideograms and, by extension, of many aspects of Asian cultures: not only the language but everything oriental is in Chinese.

It never ceases to amaze that all these popular references to things Chinese are indicative of negative aspects of orientalism –– the Orient as a dreadful menace –– and that, on the other hand, there should be no expression that suggests any positive association with things Chinese. The Enciclopedia de México tells us that the exclamation "¡Chino libre!" is used as an expression of relief at finding oneself freed of "obligations and inconveniences." The apparent upbeat tone of the phrase fades, however, in view of its origin as explained in the encyclopedia which tells us that "It is said that the expression originated with a Chinese who had been unjustly sent to prison and upon being released, expressed joy at being a free Chinaman." Despite the apparent jubilation of exclamation, the legend lurking behind it conjures up the darkest moments of the anti-Chinese campaign in Mexico.

While we lack expressions that refer to things oriental in a positive sense, we are overburdened with words that hark back to Columbus's initial mistaking of America for Asia. In colonial times, certain women of mixed blood who dressed in elegant and colorful costumes came to be known as "chinas." Some sources say that chinas disappeared in the capital but remained living in the city of Puebla for some years and for that reason their garb went down in history as "traje de china poblana" [Pueblerina china dress]. Another legend claims that the first china poblana was a woman named Catarina de San Juan, a slave who had arrived in Mexico from the Philippines aboard the Manila Clipper, erroneously known as the China Clipper. In any case, it is clear that the chinas poblanas had nothing to do with China.

"Chino" also means curly, as in reference to a person's hair. In this case, the word is even more paradoxical, since neither the Mexicans nor the Chinese have curly hair. By extension, "chino" also means a "curler" and a woman who goes out with a kerchief over head, is said to "trae puestos los chinos" [be wearing curlers]. However, among all the Sinological expressions that seem to relate neither to Mexico nor China, perhaps the strangest is "ponerse chinito;Ó which means to "get goose pimples" from the cold or a draft. In this case the word seems to refer to a rough surface and serves as an antonym for "liso" [Smooth, straight (hair)].

Part II: Orientalism in Recent Art

None of this background, however, –– not the torture of Saint Philip of Jesus, the anti–Chinese movement, Lombardo Toledano's Sinophilia, nor the persistence of cultural stereotypes in popular parlance –– can help to explain the orientalism in the young artists of Mexico City. What, after all, do these citations from Mexican history tell us about Yishal Jusidman's Geishas, Eduardo Albaroa's tantric drawings, Daniela Rossell's chinese cutouts? Clearly, these creations are as far–removed from the anguish expressed in colonial paintings of murderous Japan as from the misguided Sinophilia expressed by Lombardo in his travel journal. It is now time to turn to the second part of our argument: an examination of the relationship between recent Orientalist references and the history of artistic production in Mexico.

In art, the Orientalist tendency in question arose in the present decade, coinciding with the collapse of the pictorial movement that peaked in the '80s, Neomexicanismo. Neo–Mexicanism was an attempt to find a form of artistic expression that was as typically and authentically Mexican as the first "Mexicanism," the project of the Mexican School of Painting in the first half of the century. The Neo–Mexican painters, including the well–known figures of Nahúm Zenil, Julio Galán and Dulce María Núñez, wanted to use art to affirm and celebrate the Mexican identity. Not only were their enormous canvases crammed with all sorts of objects, foodstuffs and places that can be considered symbols of the Mexican soul –– bleeding hearts, the Virgin of Guadalupe, chili peppers and nopales, crosses and crucifixes, mountains and volcanoes, bull fighters and charro outfits –– but also they sought to construct a transhistoric myth of "Mexicanness" by defining a continuous thread running through the national culture from the pre–Columbian period through today(3).

From the perspective of Mexico's national identity, the Orientalism of the '90s can be considered a critical reply to the Neo–Mexicanism of the '80s. First of all, the East, and especially Japan, which is the favored reference point for Orientalist artists, is the structural opposite of Mexico. Not only is Japan on "the other side of the globe," but its cultural values are the exact opposite of Mexico's. Japan is an island; Mexico is continental. The Japanese drink tea; Mexicans, coffee. Japanese food is based on the purity of its flavors and ingredients; Mexican cuisine on an incestuous combination of flavors and ingredients, like mole, a perverse sauce whose ingredients include hot peppers and chocolate. Japanese aesthetics emphasize emptiness and voids; Mexican aesthetics prefer a taste for the baroque and a medley of colors. Calligraphy, Zen and the tea ceremony are rituals of silence; the fiesta, bullfighting and the public market are celebrations of a glorious racket. Japanese wrappings are opaque, hiding the object behind an infinity of layers, papers and ribbons, whereas our packaging (peanuts served in paper cones and soft drinks sold in little translucent plastic bags) are above all transparent. In Japan, everything is ordered. In Mexico, everything is chaotic.

The Orientalist artists have done more than choose the absolute opposite of Mexico as their principal cultural reference. The Orientalist project goes further than that. It seems to refute the ambitions of Neo–Mexicanism point by point. If the art of the '80s was nationalist, the art of the '90s is internationalist. If the former emphasized painting, the latter rejects it in favor of media like sculpture and installations(4). If the former insisted on figuration, the latter favors abstraction. If the former wanted to firmly anchor its artistic project in Mexican historical continuity, the latter presents its images and figures within a completely ahistorical space. If Neo–Mexicanism sought to be the main expression of a cultural essence, Orientalism considers identity a game of masks in which there are no essences, only appearances.

Despite the tendency to reject the values and beliefs of Neo–Mexicanism and replace them with their opposites, it would seem that there is one point on which Orientalist artists share a basic strategy with their predecessors. The artists of the '90s have chosen a series of images and figures that are apparently just as much cultural stereotypes as those used by the nationalist painters of the previous decade. The Orientalists' subjects are nothing more than clichés, standing in the same relation to Oriental culture as chilis and nopales, pre–Columbian pyramids and banners do to Mexico. It seems that like the Neo–Mexicanist painters, the Orientalist artists practice a kind of reductionism, in this case, of Oriental culture, by presenting something complex by means of clichŽs and stereotypes.

But despite this apparent correspondence, Neo–Mexicanism and Orientalism use cultural cliches for completely different ends. In Neo–Mexicanist painting, the cultural symbol serves to root it in the myths, history and culture of Mexico. The images, whose significance is usually unmistakable, establish a close relationship between the artwork and the historical, political and religious discourses that make up "Mexican culture." Thus, images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, for example, can only be read as a reference to the Catholic religion whose presence is felt throughout Mexican life; a portrait of Pancho Villa is a symbol of the Mexican Revolution; a juxtaposition of Villa and the Virgin is a commentary on the tension between politics and religion. Clearly, then, Neo–Mexicanism creates an economy of meaning in which each image can be exchanged for one and only one specific cultural reference. The artworks resulting from this transaction are presented as an extension of the national culture, as an artistic elaboration on the various religious, political and historical discourses that constitute the Mexican identity.

If Neo–Mexicanism makes use of stereotypical symbols to integrate the production of art into Mexican culture, Orientalism seeks to use the same kind of symbols to produce the opposite effect: to liberate art from any reference whatsoever to national culture. Its purpose is not to promote a discourse on Oriental culture, but to demonstrate the impossibility of such a project. It is completely impossible to relate the Orientalist images to any real historical or cultural context. What do we know, after all, about geishas? Only what they are not–that they are not Mexican, that they do not have any historical or political relevance and that their appearance is unreal. Unlike the images of Pancho Villa and the Virgin of Guadalupe, a geisha can only complicate any kind of relationship we might try to establish between artworks and historical reality.

We are completely ignorant of the significance and connotations these mysterious figures represent. We know everything about the symbols used by Neo–Mexicanists, and absolutely nothing about those used by the Orientalists.

Thus we can conclude that there is an essential difference between the cultural stereotypes of Neo–Mexicanism and those of Orientalism: the bleeding hearts, crucifixes and Virgins of Guadalupe are closed symbols, while the geishas, sumo wrestlers and rising sun are open symbols. The significance of closed symbols is determined a priori, by an immutable law according to which each sign must clearly refer to a single referent. There is no place for ambiguity In this strict economy of significance; a bleeding heart can only represent the passion of Mexico; a pyramid, the presence of pre–Columbian civilizations. But open symbols, in contrast, lack any predetermined significance. They have no a priori association with any particular referent; above all they are ambiguous. In terms of signification, an open symbol is a wild card(5). Anyone who has one can give it any value or any meaning they like. Closed symbols are highly rigid; open ones enormously flexible.

All the Orientalist artists uses open symbols. The purpose of their work is to give a highly subjective meaning to an image characterized by its opacity. The reason why these artists choose symbols that lack political, historical or religious connotations is precisely in order to fill them with a new significance. Rossell's 1997-98 work Pecados ("Sins," but also a pun on Ã’fishÓ) for instance, uses highly stylized fish shapes whose outlines evoke the delicacy of Japanese paper cutouts to examine aspects of Mexican Catholicism as it is practiced by the people. Like the sacramental host, these Pecados are made of wafer. In this work, the open symbolism of the fish is infused with meaning: the perfectly round shape of the host contrasts with the elaborate and uneven outlines of these fish, the holy sacrament of communion with the pagan consumption of wafers bought on the street; the purity of the host with the stench of the fish; purification with "sin." In Jusidman's work, the open symbol of the geisha is turned into a pretext for a series of investigations and experiments with monochromatic painting (which means, like the geisha, applying white on white). And Vargas Lugo's collages take as their starting point the form of the rising sun––another open symbol––to produce a series of games with the colors and patterns formed by the sun's rays.

At the end of the day, Orientalism should be seen as an effort to give significance to whole series of open symbols in a way that avoids the rigidity and referential monotony of Neo–Mexicanism. In their installations, sculptures and paintings, these artists are carrying out an operation very similar to what Roland Barthes did in The Empire of Signs. Barthes confessed that his little book had nothing to do with Japan or Japanese culture. Although its pages were full of references to the tea ceremony, sumo wrestlers and kabuki actors, Barthes explained that it was inspired not by a geographical place but an imaginary space. Japan was nothing more than an idea, an open symbol that the French serniologist wanted to fill with a highly subjective significance. "I can also–though in no way claiming to represent or analyze reality itself [ … ] isolate somewhere in the world (faraway), a certain number of features (a term employed in linguistics), and out of these features deliberately form a system. It is this system which I shall call: Japan.Ó(6) For Barthes, Japan was a system, a collection of open symbols to be filled with a highly personal interpretation.

These young Mexican artists have done the same in their Orientalist exercise: they have opened a space of imaginative freedom, a terrain filled with open symbols that are about to be filled with significance. In these pieces, we find no references to the cultures and traditions of the Far East, but simply a utopian space that exists outside of history and cultural references, a non–place that is transformed into the setting for investigations and experiments that range from the role of the host in Catholicism to the texture of monochromatic painting: a true rising sun in Mexican art.

1. In his influential study, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978), Edward Said analyzes Orientalism in terms of European colonialism. I do not think this can be applied to the situation in Mexico. I use the term to refer to artworks that allude to elements of Far Eastern cultures, such as geishas, sumo wrestlers, the rising sun, as well as disciplines like calligraphy and Buddhism. In these cases, "Orientalism" has more to do with stereotypical symbols than with a serious comment on Far Eastern cultures as such.
2. For a more detailed history of anti-Chinese prejudice in Mexico see: Humberto Monteón González, Chinos y antichinos en México: documentos Para su historia (1988); Jose Jorge Górnez Izquierdo, El movimiento antichino en México (1871-1934): problenas del racismo y del nacionlisino durante la Revolución Mexicana (1991); Juan Puig, Entre el río Perla y el Nazas: la china decinionónica Y sus braceros emigrantes, la colonia china de Torre—n y la matanza de 1911 (1993).
3. I should emphasize that this effort by the Neo–Mexicanist artists to create a trans–historic national myth coincided with the official cultural policy of the '80s. The most outstanding example is the exhibition México: esplendores de treinta siglos (from Olmec heads to the abstract paintings of Rufino Tamayo). In 1990 it traveled very successfully to New York, Los Angeles and San Antonio. The show did not include Neo–Mexicanist works, but did share their vision of the history of Mexican art and culture as an unbroken continuity. (See cat., Mexico: Splendors of 30 Centuries, New York: Metropolitan Museum, 1990.)
4. While some Orientalist artists do practice painting, their conception of the medium is completely different from that of Neo–Mexicanists. For them, painting is not a vehicle for expressing passion, but rather–as in the case of Jusidman's geishas and sumo wrestlers–a conceptual exercise.
5. Or even a profane version of the mu, the generative nothingness of Zen.
6. Roland Barthes, The Empire of Signs (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), p. 3.

©1999 Rubén Gallo