Guatemalan Art Exhibit Visually Stunning, Politically Charged

Abby Hawkins, Staff Writer

Anyone who has strolled into Mudd Library since last Sunday cannot have helped but notice “La Mujer Maya: Contemporary Indigenous Art from Guatemala,” the aesthetically vibrant and politically charged exhibition co-curated by College sophomores Kenny Ludlow and Britt Higgins. With two cross-sectioned partitions forming an X, the display invites passersby to wander in and make their way around the three walls forming the structure. The setup is small enough to fit comfortably in the Academic Commons, yet spacious enough to allow viewers to walk among the 26 total paintings and transport themselves, if only for a moment, away from Mudd’s grim New Brutalist architecture.

In the exhibition, patrons are surrounded by works rich with saturated color and the raw emotional expressiveness characteristic of the arte naïf (“naïve art”) movement. Pioneered in 1929 by a plantation worker intending to depict everyday Guatemalan life, the style is still prominent among Mayan artists today. These artists, who are targeted as national threats by the Guatemalan government and forced into hiding, rarely receive formal training and therefore learn from one another. The stylization and bold paint colors conjure a jarring emotional response in the viewer: Each expression of helplessness, concern and serenity is crystalline, the Technicolor scenes of village rituals humming with the excitement they depict.

Higgins and Ludlow also organized “Uncovering Guatemala’s Past, Understanding its Present,” a discussion panel on Feb. 7 that illuminated the historical and social context for these evocative works, especially as they relate to gender roles. In the talk, Professor of History and Chair of the Latin American Studies department Steve Volk delivered a history of the United States’ bloody involvement in Guatemala, from the 1954 CIA-orchestrated overthrow of President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán to U.S. support of Efrain Rios Montt, the dictator responsible for the country’s most violent genocide ever. Montt was elected president of Guatemala in 1999 and remains in power, which makes a foreseeable end to violence difficult to imagine. His mass killings under the premise of anti-communism led to the annihilation of over 200,000 Mayans and began Guatemala’s brutal legacy of violence against women, chronicled by several paintings featured in the exhibition.

Paula Nicho Cumez’s Crusando Fronteres (Crossing Borders) depicts a winged woman gliding over scorched earth, transcending physical and political boundaries to flee to Canada, where thousands of Mayans flee to seek jobs and refuge from ongoing violence. Mario Gonzales Chavajay’s Mujeres Revolucionarias (Revolutionary Women of Todos Santos) shows several women clutching machetes and rifles, attempting to protect their families after guerillas murdered their husbands.

Professor of Anthropology Baron Piñeda discussed the Guatemalan military’s U.S.-endorsed practice of placing civilians in situations where they had to kidnap and kill members of their villages, which Chavajay depicted in Nos Obligaron a Patrullar (They Forced Us To Patrol). This forced patriotism has created Mayan resentment toward the U.S., but Piñeda was quick to point out that “there is a tendency … to forget that there’s a lot of joy in today’s Guatemala.” He added that not all of the paintings on display are violent, that there are “beautiful, positive images of hope and joy, so this is a beautiful mix that you can see.”

Panelist John Gates of Oberlin Santa Elena Project of Accompaniment detailed the struggles that Mayans who flee to Mexico, the U.S. and Canada face upon returning to their home country. After helping 25 families immigrate from El Salvador and Guatemala to Canada as part of the Oberlin Underground Railroad in the 1980s, he saw how refugees who returned home were often resented for being better-educated and better-connected than their neighbors, a phenomenon Gates called “struggling to return, return[ing] to struggle.” Moran, the fourth panelist, noted that this return was especially important for women. Their goal is to make it known that the state of women’s rights will change in the near future of Guatemala, that expanding opportunities and civil rights will lead to effective peace accords.

In Proceso y Visión de los Acuedos de Paz (Process and Vision of the Peace Accords), Paula Nicho Cumez paints a nude woman facing a body of water, spinning silk, an abstract pattern of interlocking swirls and peacock feathers adorning her back. Like many of Cumez’s paintings, the dignity and sacredness of the Mayan woman, her indigenous connectedness to the natural world, practically glows from the canvas and instills hope: Mayan women are so regularly raped, tortured and mutilated that they are considered a persecuted group, and about 98 percent of these crimes go unresolved. Information in the exhibit notes that female Mayan artists only learn their skills from their husbands and male relatives, which silences many potential voices of, and ideas for, change.

Higgins and Ludlow expressed the hope that the images and information in the exhibit will provoke dialogue about how to address the current political and gender-based injustices in Guatemala. “We hope people will take this discussion and these images beyond Oberlin and think about how they can influence change, specifically a change in U.S. policies regarding Latin America,” Higgins said.

La Mujer Maya” will be on display in Mudd Academic Commons until Friday, April 8.