By Murray Paskin
An unusual exhibition that turned out to be in the spirit of pre-Hispanic art took place at the Arte de Oaxaca gallery on March 17, 2005. Painters from Oaxaca’s major galleries were asked to contribute paintings which would then be auctioned off in order to raise money for an organization that has begun a project to save the threatened jaguar population of the Sierra mountains above Oaxaca. Suffice it to say that the paintings were on the theme of jaguar.
The circumstance surrounding the project were as unusual as the exhibition. Farmers in the Sierra, unable to make a living from selling their crops, had turned to raising cattle. The cattle in turn fed on the vegetation in the Jaguar’s habitat. In order to feed themselves, the jaguars began attacking the cattle. To protect their cattle, the farmers began a wholesale slaughter of the jaguars in the area. As a result, the entire jaguar population of the area is now threatened with extinction.
The story becomes stranger. A few months ago, some farmers of the area were about to shoot a jaguar when, according to the farmers, a halo appeared around the jaguar’s head. This stopped the farmers in their tracks. The village elders, when hearing this story, advised the farmers to capture the animal. This they did, and contacted the group who had begun the project to save the jaguars. The group advised bringing the animal to a zoo in a village outside Oaxaca. The halo story, regardless of how one might feel about it, brought much needed attention to the plight of the jaguar population. The Oaxacan art community, always sympathetic to social causes, responded with the benefit auction.
The spirit of pre-Hispanic art that surrounded the exhibition was one of those delightful unplanned accidents that were inherent in the nature of the exhibition. For one, the theme and the circumstances of the threatened jaguar population seemed to have produced an explosion of creativity. You were struck not only by the unusual skillful and imaginative quality of the work but by a different and unique jaguar wherever you turned. The feeling for the jaguar had an intensity that was overwhelming. The magnificence of the animal grew as you proceeded through the exhibit. The varied nature of the work – distinctive abstract and figurative styles and a unique use of some of the materials was also impressive.
One of the outstanding pieces was the jaguar face carved, sculpted in relief, and painted on ceramic tiles by ceramic sculptor, Adán Paredes. The precision of the artistry and the use of the natural texture of the tiles not only give the work a unique beauty and expressiveness but also a larger than life dignity to the animal.
Another is the massive canvas of Gabriel Coto. Against a shaded green, with hints of brown, background, indicating a forest habitat, the animal walks. The massiveness of the animal, its expressive eyes, dominate the room. You can’t help but be moved by the magnificence of the creature. Although the animal is clearly recognized, the painting’s flurry of expressionistic brush strokes to indicate the animal and its colors give the work an intense expressiveness and power.
Yet, another is the Jose Villa-Lobos semi-abstract lithograph. Circular black ink brushstrokes in a calligraphic style suggest the jaguar’s body. Tail, stripes, and head are also subtly implied. There’s a certain beauty to the abstraction that gives us a jaguar in a completely different style.
In a semi-abstract Chinese ink landscape by Raul Herrera, the jaguar sits totally at peace with itself, as if meditating. The various shades of black ink, splashed and spotted suggest a mountain forest. The brush strokes of the landscape cover parts of the jaguar’s body. As a result, rather than a distinction between jaguar and environment, the painting becomes an environment that includes the jaguar.
The jaguar was considered a God in pre-Hispanic mythology. Uncannily, the exhibition captures this quality. You felt it was not only an homage to the animal but to a god manifesting itself in different forms.