In a time of extreme social and political polarization, it is urgent to examine the historical narratives on which these ideological differences rest. In Mexico, colonial nationalist rhetoric takes on a mythic quality, and results in the homogenization of Indigenous identity and material culture. Yet art can introduce cracks and fissures to hegemonic histories and excavate the stories concealed beneath them.
For Saúl Hernandez-Vargas, an artist from Taller de Artes Plásticas Rufino Tamayo, Oaxaca, this excavation is literal. I first encountered the artist through the 2017 works Plate #1, #2, and #3 and through documentation of the exhibition No queda nada para nosotros en la espesura (Nothing Left for Us in the Wilderness). Three large-scale slabs were distributed through the gallery, each in its own distinct colour and finish, made of clay samples from different sites within Oaxaca. There was something deeply elemental and geologic about these slabs, broken into irregular puzzle-like pieces, in rich terracotta, mossy green, and washed black. They recalled cobblestone streets or oversized roof tiles, but upon closer look, revealed small and precious pieces of wax laid upon them — casts from the material remnants of Hernandez-Vargas’ grandfather’s jewelry practice. Fragments of abstract forms and figures moved the eye across the otherwise level planes.
Through this intervention of material history, the artist invited viewers to interrogate the Mexican state’s use of pre-Hispanic jewels to reinforce a homogenous national identity. In our conversation, we dive into Hernandez-Vargas’ critical artistic interventions, which also include interweaving archaeological case studies and family history, and experimenting within the realm of speculation, fiction, replicas, and copies.
I really think we should pay attention to cultural patrimony to understand important changes in both the official narrative and, because of that, changes in the national state formation. Cultural patrimony reveals these changes, perversely hiding its internal mechanisms. Cultural patrimony also points at the emergence of a new common sense, a new sensibility.
Thank you for taking the time to share your practice with me, Saúl. I feel especially grateful to remain connected to artists during this time when many of us feel isolated, and hope that readers will similarly appreciate the opportunity to engage with your work. A thread I’ve noticed is an engagement with the colonial and nationalist Mexican narrative that plays with fact and fiction. I am thinking in particular of your solo exhibition No queda nada para nosotros en la espesura (Nothing Left for us in the Wilderness) which centres the 1932 discovery of Tomb 7 in the archaeological site of Monte Alban, Oaxaca, by archaeologist Alfonso Caso. Could you speak to your research on Tomb 7, and its connection to narratives of national identity in Oaxaca?
Many thanks for your questions, Katie. I've been interested in the politics of cultural patrimony, and the modern Mexican State, as a Mestizo visual artist of Zapotec descent, and now as a Mexican migrant living and working in the U.S.
From the 19th century on, the Mexican government started a collection of movable and immovable pre-Hispanic assets, such as the Teotihuacán pyramids, the massive Aztec calendar, and the Tlaloc monolith, which they branded as the Mexican nation’s origin objects. Different state agencies were in charge of identifying and selecting what a national patrimony was. I use "select" somewhat ironically here, more as a euphemism that conceals different processes of appropriation and dispossession of Indigenous communities. Mexico selected and then exhibited those assets with the explicit aim to generate political legitimacy among the Indigenous majorities. According to this official narrative, Mexico and all its citizens shared the same "Indian”, “mythical” and “magnificent” origin. But this is a carefully constructed lie.
For these reasons, restoration and rehabilitation of cultural patrimony have been deeply symbolic activities. When a building listed as patrimony is restored or rehabilitated, this practice also polishes and recuperates the very image of the nation-state. As a college student, I found these activities deeply disturbing. As an artist, I understood the notion of cultural patrimony as a space for questioning both the construction of the official history in Mexico, and the violence on which the nation-state rested. This material violence transformed the organic connection between the objects and the actual people who produced and used them on daily basis. Ultimately, we have no way of reading these objects without using the rhetoric of the state, a phenomenon that Lebanese filmmaker Jalal Toufic described as a “surpassing disaster.” In this sense, the birth of the modern Mexican state not only involved the material destruction of Indigenous infrastructure and cultural artifacts, but above all, the meanings and social relations that gave them life. Mexican modernization has been a continuous disaster for Indigenous communities throughout Mexico.
It seems, then, that these state-enacted processes drive your curiosity and it is the very enactment of systems of displacement, dispossession, and colonial occupation that has led you to particular historical references. I wonder if you too are adopting these processes (of appropriation and dispossession, for example) to see how the very same methods may produce different narratives. This leads us to Tomb 7.
Tomb 7 is a paradigmatic case in the history of Mexico. In 1932, noted archeologist Alfonso Caso “discovered” the remains of a burial site in Monte Alban, Oaxaca. The quantity and quality, as well as the beauty, of the objects there immediately attracted public attention. Similarly, these objects soon became part of a nationally and internationally showcased state collection. This finding propelled the federal government to establish an institution in charge of investigating, restoring, and rehabilitating the cultural patrimony in Mexico: the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), connected to the powerful Ministry of Public Education (Secretaría de Educación Pública, SEP). It was thus clear that archeology was a key science for state-formation.
But my relationship with Tomb 7 has strong family ties as well. As you know, my maternal grandfather, Alfonso Vargas Sánchez, was a noted local goldsmith who dedicated himself to reproducing replicas of the jewels found in Tomb 7 from 1964 to 1985. Those replicas were shown in national museums and in the tourist window shops in Oaxaca city. My grandfather’s artisanal work kept alive the meanings attached to Tomb 7, objects in contemporary Oaxaca and beyond. It is rumored that Jackie Kennedy bought pieces of jewelry from him, and so did Queen Elizabeth herself.
Disappropriation, rather than mere appropriation, is an important component of my tactical repertoire as a visual artist. It has always been. “Xipe Totec Que Llora” (Weeping Xipe Totec), a mockumentary I made in 2017, is a good example of this. Based on found footage from the internet and popular gossip around the archeological discovery, I perform as a Mexican-American investor cajoling his Mexican audience to take advantage of the reconstruction created after the 1931 earthquake. Through blatant use of humor, this piece strives to make the state’s actions transparent. I am appropriating neither the footage nor the gossip, but rather I am exposing the making of a foundational fiction at the root of the discovery. As Mexican writer Cristina Rivera Garza puts it in regards to disappropriation, I am disrupting the symbolic economy of the state by desecrating it.
I can imagine that these familial oral histories provide you with different entry points to thinking through the case of Tomb 7, or perhaps to recognize some of the repercussions of a constructed anthropological history.
There are many rich and interesting anecdotes around the story of my grandfather, starting with the social relationships that linked him to Lorenzo Gamio, a high-ranking local bureaucrat in the establishment of the ever-important National Museum of Anthropology and History. According to the national archives and my family’s oral history, he commissioned my grandfather to make replicas of the Tomb 7 findings in order to exhibit them at the museum, one of the most important sites for official state narrative. My grandfather gained access to the original jewels, and reproduced and venerating them for the rest of his life.
That’s how my family history came to be entangled with the production of cultural patrimony through Tomb 7's jewels. While this oral history does not diverge much from the official one, it adds an important nuance: the presence of the Indigenous artisan. The story of the Indigenous artisan pushes back against state-making narratives.
I have wondered about the repercussions of the reproduction of these jewels in my grandfather's life: What did he feel when he began to make Mixtec and Zapotec jewels, knowing that he, as a Zapotec, had to erase or silence his story? How was this process inscribed in his body? And I have to implicate myself in this story as well, as I learn Zapotec and embrace the Indigenous legacy of my grandfather. What does it mean for an Oaxacan migrant in the United States to replicate the replica, to showcase the showcases? The veneration of the dead Indian, in the context of the continuing repression of living Indigenous communities, lies at the heart of a highly selective mestizaje process pushed forth by the state itself. My work attempts to unpack this basic paradigm of Mexican society. As well, this body of work helps me to interrogate my situated brown body in the United States.
Am I correct in thinking that there are other members of your family that have played an integral role in your work over the years? There seems to be strong ties to ideas around kinship in your methods.
There was a fundamental person in the development of my work: my uncle Camerino Jiménez, a jeweler and artist who died recently. He gifted me my first book on Dadaism, taught me my first art history classes, and passed a large collection of my grandfather’s objects onto me. This may sound cheesy in this context, but he used to say, and rightfully so, that art’s mission was to unveil what was underneath surface appearances. That’s how I came to understand art as both creative practice and as an intellectual research strategy. As an artist of colour, my work is bound to the struggles of my own communities both in Mexico and the United States. But my uncle Camerino Jiménez teachings, and the stories surrounding my grandfather Alfonso, preceded these analyses.
How does the archive of personal memory comes to inform the strategies of intervention that you have practiced in contending with the heritage of Oaxaca? I’m particularly interested in your use of speculation on the one hand, and the production of the fake, or replica, on the other.
My first training is as a printmaker, with an emphasis on lithography. And I think as a printmaker — this is my starting point, always. As you may know, in printmaking we use esoteric concepts, such as "multiple original”, to refer to prints we want to be identical. Based on a notion of piracy linked to the informal economy of tourism, which in Mexico constitutes 50% of the economic activity, I have made different pieces, such as artists books, flip books, and photocopy art. From that moment on, about 2004, I started reflecting on strategies and aesthetics of informal economies, understanding them as examples of what political scientist James C. Scott calls the "weapons of the weak."
Going back to the project related to Tomb 7, the strategies you mention emerged as a sort of double-branched river. When my grandfather made replicas for local or national museums, those pieces were exhibited as original — such originality, however, rested on a belief shared between state-funded museums and their visitors. “The jewels exhibited here," museums suggested, "are original." In some cases, museums indeed showed original pieces, but that doesn't detract from my point. The museum restored the dignity of the replica, turning it into an auratic object once again. This underscores the fictional nature of history, maintained by preservation and management of an archive that includes, among other things, jewels like the ones in Tomb 7.
Official history has a great infrastructure that includes museums, history books, study programs, and so on. Furthermore, it’s written by the state and defended by its army.
This connection between the processes of reproduction in printmaking and history writing are incredibly striking — I can’t help but think that with each copy made, a narrative or even broader ideological belief is reinforced. Both printing and writing are rich with possibilities for exploring speculative strategies. How has your approach to printmaking translated into working with sculptural forms of reproduction such as jewelry, molds and casting?
In 2013, I began searching for jewelry and other tools and objects that belonged to my grandfather. For different reasons, usually economic in nature, my family did not preserve all his equipment and belongings. Or so I thought until my uncle Camerino Jiménez, also a jeweler and artist, gave me both a collection of molds and other more shapeless objects, such as wax debris that comes out of the jewelry making process. This collection included molds in the shape of a black box, made with cheap, common materials such as rubber soles and nails. From the beginning, these boxes recalled a concept coined by Bruno Latour to elaborate a complex critique of science and technology. For the French thinker, black boxes are opaque instruments that conceal the physiognomy and rationale of its internal mechanism. And for me, history was precisely that: an opaque, authoritative black box. Something we have to hack, to open, to radically rewrite. If history is a fiction, I have to use similar strategies to make transparent the complexity of its internal mechanisms.
Lithographers and printmakers always work with inverted, mirrored images, which is fascinating in and of itself. For example, if you want to draw the left hand, you would have to draw the right hand. If you want to write NO, you would have to write ON. Printmaking necessarily implies an indirect process, one involving the mediation of a stone or an aluminum plate. In clay sculptures in my 2019 exhibition at the Lawndale Art Center, I carried out a similar indirect operation.
Working with two artisans Omar Fabian (black clay) and José Villanueva Velasco (green and red clay), I made three 1.5-meter squares of clay that were left to dry naturally on the ground. Time produced the cracks and cuts that opened up the piece. I then placed the minuscule wax debris from my grandfather’s jewelry workshop that my uncle had given to me. While the dimensions of three clay pieces were the same, they dried in very different ways, contracting and even arching in some cases. This indirect process was useful to underline the "agency" of the clay from two different towns (San Bartolo Coyotepec and Santa María Atzompa) near the vicinity of the Zapotec city of Monte Albán, where Tomb 7 is located. In that series, I understood the clay sculptures as magic objects imbued with the energy of the mountains and valleys from where they come. In this way, the clay sculptures attempted to bring back to life (to “resurrect”, as Touffic would say) the wax pieces (replicas of the Tomb 7 jewels) in a radically new context outside of the rhetoric of the state.
The veneration of the dead Indian, in the context of the continuing repression of the living indigenous communities, lies at the heart of a highly selective mestizaje process pushed forth by the state itself. My work attempts to unpack this basic paradigm of Mexican society.
Irmgard Emmelhainz wrote a beautiful essay to accompany your exhibition at the Lawndale Art Center (Cecily E. Horton Gallery), and within that, I was struck by the invocation of Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) activist and academic Winona LaDuke who writes about the continued traumas tied to colonization for Indigenous peoples in the United States. I know that your doctoral work has you splitting your time between Oaxaca and Texas, whereas I am connecting with you from Toronto where conversations around repatriation, reconciliation and reparation continue with sustained urgency. Despite the difference in context, I felt resonances between your work and the conversations happening in Canada. What might the case of Tomb 7 tell us about patterns of colonial violence enacted both in Oaxaca and beyond?
This is a very complex question. Taking up a thread from a previous answer, two years after the discovery of Tomb 7, the president of Mexico founded the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, an institution that until recently, was in charge of all regulations related to cultural patrimony. The discovery of Tomb 7 marked a turning point in the country’s cultural policy.
From the very beginning, Tomb 7 became a great tourist attraction soon aligned with the late-1980s neoliberal policies that generated two different kinds of publics. On the one hand, there was the so-called national audience, which comprised all Mexican citizens. On the other hand, the jewels found in the burial site were mostly meant for an international, tourist audience. Narrated by the state’s rhetoric, Tomb 7 greatly contributed to the branding of Oaxaca as a tourist site par excellence. This is why I echoed the logo of I [love] NY at the end of “Xipe Totec Que Llora.”
In the oral memory of my family there are many anecdotes about these national and international publics. For instance, many family members remember both: the tourist buses visiting my grandfather's workshop, and a series of TV stars (such as Mexican pop singer, Angélica María, or even Jackie Kennedy Onassis) guided by the state governor to meet one of its most outstanding artisans,
Francisco López Cortés, who was the governor of Oaxaca in 1932, created the first roads that connected Oaxaca city with the Zapotec village of Monte Albán. From that moment on, an important tourist infrastructure emerged in most of the city. This infrastructure prefigured a demand for the performance of Indigenous identity as a tourist attraction. But when those Indigenous peoples raised their voices, demanding autonomy and territorial rights, they were brutally silenced.
I can't stop thinking about the ferocity with which tourism has settled in the city of Oaxaca, reconfiguring the uses and users of space. And the same ferocity, atrocious and clumsy, with which tourism itself has continued to spread COVID-19 in many Latin American cities. Neocolonial violence has also had the beautiful and friendly faces of tourists.
This is a strategy that we see throughout the history of our country as well — the exploitation and appropriation of the culture and bodies of Indigenous people as a part of the glorified celebration of national identity, while the communities themselves continue to lack autonomy and rights, or even clean drinking water. The state profits at the expense of those made most vulnerable by the violence of colonialism.
Looking at Tomb 7, we learn how the neoliberal state and the welfare state can get along very well. The site has responded to both logics in a blatant way: exalting the national narrative and promoting the free-market economy sensibility. I strongly believe we should pay attention to cultural patrimony to understand these dynamics.
I may divert here slightly, but in thinking about the different mediums through which you explore these strategies, how does the virtual figure into your explorations? I know that you have made repeatedly edited Wikipedia pages tied to Tomb 7 and to Alfonso Caso, which have susquently been erased. These efforts are engagements with a space that is defined as a kind of “knowledge commons,” yet are also spaces of fabrication, censorship and erasure. During a previous conversation, we had discussed the ways in which the pandemic is changing artistic practice, and that you were exploring video and radio broadcasting, and I am curious if you will continue to work with the internet and new media.
Since the start of the pandemic, I have seriously reconsidered the exhibition routes of my work. In Houston, where I live, some spaces re-scheduled their exhibitions, and others canceled them completely. I decided to work with other media and formats: radio, which is a new format for me, and printed matters, which I have been working with for ten years. The questions these media and formats raise are related to the formation of publics and, more generally, to the engagement of the public: whom do we want to talk to? And if we are already talking, what kind of dialogue are we looking for?
These are the foundational questions. Thank you Saúl, I will look forward to seeing where your work takes you in the future.