The Intimate Witness: Art and the Disappeared of History




THIS IS THE 23rd in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with the Mexico-based painter and sculptor Chantal Meza, whose award-winning work — which can be seen here — has been exhibited widely in Mexico. The interviewer and artist are also partners, while continuing to collaborate in a professional capacity on a number of projects dealing with violence and disappearance.

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BRAD EVANS: Not only does your art capture in a compelling way the raw passions and emotions of life, it also shows evident traces of life’s pains, traumas, and its violence. As an emerging artist whose work is already being widely celebrated and recognized, why do these subjects command your attention?

CHANTAL MEZA: I turn my attention to what causes pain and suffering because I consider that life has to deal with these realities. Many things concern me as an artist. But I feel that when I paint, not only am I recognizing the pain, I am also able to expel it from me. It allows me to deal with the traumas of life. But I don’t try to deal with this reasonably or rationally. Such coldness is often the cause of so much cruelty, anguish, and human devastation on this planet.

Countering pain through art demands paying close attention to the sensations that life offers. As Byron once said, “The great art of life is sensation, to feel that we exist, even in pain.” It is to connect with something of the human in life, to absorb the world around us, and to master the explosion of emotions and to be able to download them in a pictorial way. Painting is a creative explosion as opposed to a devastating one.

But I have nevertheless still questioned my profession on many occasions. I am continuously burdened by the question of the usefulness of art. This has become more and more acute as I have tried connecting my work with realities in my country. Confronting injustice has brought about a dramatic change in how I see this land and the purpose of art. If I paint the horrors, the traumas, the violence, it is because I believe it hasn’t been given proper attention. Art can bring light to that which is somehow occluded. And it allows us to dwell on widespread problems that are affecting us, slowly, gradually, and yet surely. There is still a profound indifference to social problems in this country. I find it terrifying to witness people’s amazement when they see what is happening. It’s as if they have been living in some trance, which denies any mutual responsibility. In order to improve social justice, there is always a need for a constant commitment in battle concerning how we see and relate to the world around us.

The best resources I can bring to the realities of social injustice and ongoing suffering are through my paintings. And I then try to let the work speak for itself. I am not interested in producing propaganda. I simply want to change perception and feeling, which is the real revolution, is it not?

I do appreciate sometimes it is more comfortable to ignore the plight of others. We can even, as societies, reduce terrifying events to pitiful facts in ways that ultimately absolve us of any need to fight them. This has everything to do with individualism, which in contemporary Mexico is so deep in our subconscious, that when we are now faced with the suffering of others, it is removed from any sense of obligation. We know the pain is there, yet refuse to acknowledge it unless it becomes our problem and concern. This is a form of exclusion — a retreat into our own mental universe that leads to the greatest selfishness.

Like many countries, Mexico is a land full of contradictions. Why do you think the arts have an important political and social function for people there today?

In Mexico, as you say, the contradictions are so apparent, its pain and poverty, its love and terror, its color and despair. It can be beautiful and monstrous at the very same time. But Mexico is not unique in this regard. Certainly Mexico has its own distinct history and culture. And it retains its unique magical resonances. But humans are full of contradictions. And so the things they create can be contradictory. We can produce tanks and nuclear bombs and we can produce the most inspiring works of art and cultural outputs.

Art is a human creation. And it is something I like to consider as divine. I don’t mean divine here in an orthodox religious sense. Though it is certainly spiritual. I like to think of art as being something that allows us to tap into those human qualities that are often difficult to put into words. Hence, while the work might be abstract it is not abstracting. Just because something appears abstract doesn’t mean to say it’s not real or doesn’t connect in a meaningful way to people’s everyday lives. It is messy, complicated, and disrupting, because life is messy, complicated, and disrupting, especially once we factor in our emotions.

Let’s just take the human capacity for empathy, for example, which I would argue is one of the fundamental ethical values and qualities ​​of art. Art is about showing empathy for the suffering of the world. As a tool of expression, it confronts in its own unique way those intrinsic qualities that exalt and raise in an unusual fashion the events that have shaped our society throughout its history. Just as we might talk about Mexico being profoundly shaped by its wars and revolutions, we can also talk about its artistic transformations, from early indigenous artisans, the Mexican Baroque, the great muralists such as Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco, onto more contemporary forms of artistic expression that arguably began with Frida Kahlo.

All of these artists have changed the inner and outer qualities of Mexican life. They have also shown the extent to which art talks about social and political issues. It can put on the walls issues that are lived on a daily basis, and in doing so expose people in alternative ways to problems that can generate dialogue. Knowing problems exist is one thing. Talking about them is another. And this is the challenge modern Mexico faces.

You’ve mentioned having self-doubts about the relevance of art when confronting violence. How would you counter criticism of art as being self-indulgent or complicit in the logics of power? And can art truly lead to profound political transformation?

It depends what we mean by transformation. It is difficult to see art changing established structures of power. And I am not so naïve to think a painting can solve crimes against humanity, whether they take place in Mexico or anywhere else on this planet. But let’s not forget the importance of art in documenting historical atrocities. And let’s not also forget that painting is a language, it is my language, through which I am able to think and rethink, to criticize and propose, to question and reframe difficult social issues and their legacies. Art in this context is not about retreating into one’s studio or exhibition hall, as much as writing is not about simply being sat at a lonely desk or to be subsequently read quietly in the peaceful and tranquil setting of a library. If art has any meaning, its presence must be felt on the streets and in the homes.

In this regard, I would argue that what art can reflect, at its best, is the awareness we have an enormous potential to transform without doing harm and that we have the real and tangible capacity to recreate this reality. Art can be the counterweight to violence. It is the poetry of nature. In order to change things for the better, we need to believe transformation is possible. This can only be achieved by overcoming states of inertia, which paints us in an image of mere nothingness, helplessness. Art shows the human in a state of elevation, where its potential rises, and spreads through its creations something as amazing as nature itself. This is why the natural world so illuminates me.

But going back to your question, I would also say it’s not about whether art can help overcome injustice. This is too reactionary. It is more compelling to ask: What might a world without art actually look like? Well, it would be uniform, dull, gray, suffocating, and unimaginative. And now ask what this would mean for our understanding of politics.

Your work is noted for bringing together contemporary abstract styling with very traditional methods, which are local to your area of birth. Can you tell me more about the methods you use and why you feel it’s important to retain these older artisan techniques when you paint and sculpt?

I am fascinated by the rich history of artisan culture in this country. My father was an artisan. I come from a family of artisans and I have grown up among many local artisans and craft-persons, whose unique regional skills date back to the pre-Hispanic period. My methods have incorporated these skills, from subconscious memories and direct family participation, learning to apply them in novel ways. I like to think I offer a synergy of styles that represents both a marriage and crossover between the old artisan techniques, which include the direct use of hands, and materials such as Onyx, and more contemporary ideas about the need for sensual abstract engagement with the world. I like to think my art provides a visual memory of experience.

That is why the methods I use are linked closely to these more traditional crafts. I often paint with the hands and not with brushes. This gives me a certain freedom, to feel free in my expression, in a contradictory peace with my surroundings and lived environment. I would however like to say that this didn’t start out as a conscious choice. But I think having not gone to an art school was perhaps an advantage. Or at least I was forced to use what was already in me. Having no pictorial influences as such I took the forms, which were already registered, in my memory, coupled with past generations, to express myself.

I think it is important to make a connection with these crafts, because in Mexico we have an immense amount of artisans who are underappreciated and yet give us huge creative wealth. It is incumbent upon contemporary artists to collaborate more with the craft-persons, because then I think we could create a better language that is more reflective of the artistic heritage of this country. While the importance of artisans has diminished, they can and should be a great source of inspiration, not only in terms of how we see our history, but also reimagining the future of Mexico. To achieve this, artists need to show more humility toward the artisan, allowing us to forge now collaborations with that cultural wealth and learn to build expressive partnerships.

This would also allow us to connect better with our natural environments. Artisans have always appreciated the beauty of nature and its resources. Inspired by this tradition, my natural influence has always been the charm and mysticism of the stone; its streaks, colors, the way its textures melt. Maybe it is right to say that nature is the greatest artist of all!

As you have already mentioned, when we think of the history Mexico and its art, it’s difficult not to be drawn back to the work of the great muralists such as Diego Rivera or José Clemente Orozco or the more intimate and yet no less political work of Frida Kahlo. Can you tell me about the artists who have influenced your work and its direction?

Each of the artists you mention is important because they are very marked with political speech. I think it is important what they did at the time, but there are many others who are less known in other countries. As I said at the beginning, I didn’t have a real influence from other artists, as I never studied the history of art even though I knew of their work. We need new forms of expression that connect to the life of this nation. But I also see how historical works and painters come to mean something to you at different stages in your life and your work. I can look at the same painting on two separate days, and its meaning and relevance can be altogether different. I also feel the same when I paint. The work lives and breathes, like we live and breathe.

At this new stage of my work, I am touched by the art of Francisco Goitia, Rafael Coronel, and Francisco Toledo. I admire the force with which they can transmit the desolation, the loneliness, even the black humor so representative of our country. They also address the darkest parts of the human being, its more disturbing inner psyche, powerfully expressing the emptiness of the people and places that were lived in those times. But I also can see that relationship with the time I am living in. So, I am still learning and looking at their work every now and then, which not only shocks me each time knowing things haven’t change that much, but allows me to rethink the present moment.

There is a particular piece by Goitia called The Witch, which for me expresses our current living and emotional state of mind we are living in Mexico. The painting is small, dark, rough, and simple. In the middle is the face of a woman, whose features give the impression of a cave, which opens into a place you wish you didn’t have to enter. Her other features, such as the nose, cheekbones, and eyebrows, are indistinguishable due to her disfigured face, which looks like it has been attacked by fire, emphasized by the use of thick oils.

But it’s the witch’s eyes that capture your attention, though not in a simple way. She has the eyes of a fallen woman, and yet they see you. Her eyes look lost in the wilderness; but despite the horror, they do not yell at you, they do not implore you, they do not demand or judge you, they are holding your gaze. This for me invokes the most intense contradictions. One of the most surprising things for me is that despite the truly horrible aspect of this image, it continues to demand your attention. I cannot look away. And yet, what is also disturbing is that you can not distinguish what this woman asks of you — it is only a representation that causes you anguish because you cannot really decipher its call.

And so, thrown into this stream of confused emotions, when you walk away and observe it from a distance, you feel and hear a devastating shriek that comes from the image, from eyes that no longer look down but appear exorbitant, and in that moment you can feel the madness on display, like you are observing the unbearable. Such madness, which Goitia captured as a testimony for his time, I see happening and being continued in my country today. Where the image of that woman is being reproduced in our society, over and over, screaming in silence.

To conclude, I’d like to ask you about the current State of Disappearance project, which we started developing (as a result of numerous conversations about your work) and which invariably addresses violence head-on. Why do you think it’s important for artists to deal with disappearance and what message do you hope the work will communicate?

If art is to deal with the question of violence, then it must confront the kidnappings, femicides, repressions, clandestine graves, enforced disappearances, the murders of journalists, extrajudicial executions, as well as the indifference to such horrifying crimes. More insidious than state brutality, this type of violence I find truly terrifying, especially as a woman who lives in a society where such violence is endemic. I really believe it is essential to generate a critical discussion and insist upon new approaches to these pressing issues.

The main concern for me is to deal with the relationship between the viewer, the perpetrator, and the victim. How can we witness something that is beyond witnessing? And through this we might ask: How do people end up in that position of vulnerability? Are we only spectators to these crimes in the absence of their physical presence? And to what extent could we help by trying to recover something of the memory of the victims by producing new visual testimonies, which dignify their existence?

Elena Poniatowska recently said, “Maybe you want to write a love novel with lots of kisses and you wake up with a lot of enthusiasm to do it, but you find that last night 43 students were disappeared, or they killed people in a colony, etc. There is such a terrible reality that also pulls you to the street, that you feel that reality comes to your house and annihilates you.” Daily violence insists that you have to address these issues. It requires turning your gaze and looking no matter how horrifying that reality is, because then we can offer solidarity with those people who have needlessly suffered. Once we are aware of these states of terror, it is possible to ignore the circumstances or deny their existence. I want to convey the thunderous cry, which echoes the devastation many are feeling, and try to awaken others with its call. This is where I truly believe art can do something positive. For what is art if not an ethically and empathetically considered testimony to the idea that we are born as collective individuals, who, forced to confront the pain of existence, still retain something magical in how we make sense of the world.

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Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.


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