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Reclining nude
Oaxaca de Juárez2018 © Pieter Hugo courtesy Huxley Parlour Gallery

Pieter Hugo’s latest exhibition rejects media-spun narratives of Mexico

The photographer speaks about his latest book and exhibition, La Cucaracha

In 1910, protests against Mexico’s then long-term dictator Porfirio Diaz – who tried to replace local and regional leadership for a systemic government – added to wider social issues and accumulated in the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Civil unrest and conflict was rife and swept Mexico for almost 10 years. But the repercussions lasted much longer. 

Revolutions are often defined as a civilian’s call for change. By nature, they don’t offer solutions. Instead, they embody a passing of time – months, years, sometimes decades – and in that passing new ways of being are born.

Beginning with this seed – of communal response to societal struggles in Mexico – South African photographer Pieter Hugo developed a body of work titled, La Cucaracha. Rejecting the global media’s misrepresentation of Mexico as a place defined by affiliation with the narco-state, Hugo visited Iztepec, Hermosillo, Sans Cristobel, and Mexico City to show that the country’s culture is far from one-dimensional.  “Violence has been normalised, but it’s not the only story”. He adds: “The people of Mexico have found new and creative ways of dealing with conflict.”

La Cucaracha, comes to London’s Huxley-Parlour Gallery later this month, and explores “the extremes of Mexican life”. Eschewing traditional purpose-built studio space, Hugo makes his work on the street describing it as his way of “making sense of it all”. Is he any closer to “making sense of it?” we ask. “Not really”, he laughs, “the opposite actually. Stepping out into the world and asking questions often leads to even more, but asking them relieves something, right?” 

Inspired by a Mexican folk song used to mock political figures during the revolution, La Cucaracha translates as ‘The Cockroach’. On his deliberately figurative title Hugo says: “The cockroach in popular culture is something we both admire and detest. Detest because it scares us, it’s an indication of rot and lacking hygiene. Admire because cockroaches are said to be one of the few creatures to survive the nuclear Holocaust. There’s something about this image of an animal that has been thwarted by life but remains triumphant all the same. That’s what this project is about”.

Featuring a mix of portraits, landscapes and interiors, La Cucaracha acknowledges the consequences of conflict but its narrative is not constrained by it. “There’s an acknowledgement of death. Mexico has a deeply complicated connection with mortality. It can be felt in depictions of art, stories, music and in rituals like the Day of the Dead. However, the emergence of the narco-state has accentuated this and taken it to a whole other level”.

Media-spun narrative threads can be swift to position Mexico as a country controlled by the narco-state: Hugo’s work is a visual rebuff to that. “Depictions of Mexico are either really cliché – sugar skulls, vibrant colour blocks etc. – or truly terrible images of a country living under a narco-state. You know, images of people hanging suspended from bridges, heads decapitated and disfigured beyond recognition”. 

Hugo’s photographs are far from sensationalist, instead portraying the civilians and their environments in a sensitive and intimate manner. The photographer’s depiction of one of his images titled “The Lovers” seems to encapsulate his approach and intent: “‘The Lovers’ is an image of a couple in embrace. In Iztepec, there’s a train station where a lot of people switch over to go to the border of the United States. There’s a continuous transient community of people there from Central America, Guatemala, El Salvador and also Mexicans just trying to reach the United States – some as economic refugees. I saw this couple while I was working there. They were always touching and making out. They were from El Salvador, they were refugees. I approached them and asked if I could take their photo and told them why – because I found their tenderness in such a tumultuous context so endearing.”

While a narco-state struggle rages on, La Cucaracha reminds viewers that the people of Mexico live their lives, create lasting rituals, and have multi-faceted stories to tell. 

La Cucaracha is on show at London’s Huxley-Parlour from 19 February 19 to 14 March 2020