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Mexican artists confront violence with song, brush

Dozens of plastic foam heads rain onto the stage. Four drug traffickers in fringed jackets and sparkly pink cowboy hats bat them into the audience with toy AK-47s. All the while, the cast croons, "Let them slit our throats, let them pack us up ... let them not ask any questions, let them not investigate."
Ricardo Delgado Herbert
Painter Ricardo Delgado Herbert shows an image of Jesús Malverde, sometimes known as the "generous bandit", "angel of the poor", or the "narco-saint", in his atelier in Mexico City. Alexandre Meneghini / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Dozens of plastic foam heads rain onto the stage. Four drug traffickers in fringed jackets and sparkly pink cowboy hats bat them into the audience with toy AK-47s. All the while, the cast croons, "Let them slit our throats, let them pack us up ... let them not ask any questions, let them not investigate."

This is cabaret, Mexico style. Las Reinas Chulas, or the Beautiful Queens, parody drug violence in a show the women first produced in 2005 and that still fills nightclubs around Mexico, including a performance in the tourist town of Taxco this weekend.

Like other aspects of Mexican society, violence now pervades the arts. From paintings to movies to opera, the killings and kidnappings that dominate headlines are now the topic du jour for artists trying to process what's happening to their country. Many artists say they also hope their work helps to spark change in a society that seems to be growing numb to the daily bloodshed.

Dead bodies, blindfolded and hands tied, blot bucolic landscape paintings. Pieces of a car window shattered in a shootout provide material for glittery bracelets that are part of an art installation. A famous narco-ballad about a female drug trafficker who kills her lover becomes an opera.

"Art always tries to talk about where we are heading," said Ana Francis Mor, a performer with Las Reinas Chulas, who have been invited to perform in the U.S. and Europe. "It's a thermometer for society."

Even as the art flourishes, audience reaction and public support have been mixed, mirroring Mexico's ambivalence about how to cope with the wave of violence that government figures show has so far taken at least 35,000 lives. Other estimates peg the body count at around 40,000.

"Every day we hear about the corruption, the killings, the impunity, and it feels like all of that is closer and closer to us, yet no one does anything, no one says anything" said Semiramis Huerta, a cabaret actress in another show, "The United Narcos of Mexico," which closes with corrupt police and drug traffickers dancing in a chorus line.

Mexican art has long reflected the country's violent history, from the murals of Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros that dramatized the horrors of the Mexican Revolution to novels and narcocorridos detailing in word and song the entrails of the drug trade.

'Hell' and Herbert
Narco themes have been showing up in visual arts for at least a decade, especially in states such as Sinaloa, home to a powerful cartel of the same name, where violence long predated President Felipe Calderon's late 2006 crackdown on organized crime. But in the last two years, more exhibits have gone national and even international, and the sheer amount of such art has climbed.

A movie, starkly titled "Hell," about a town overtaken by a drug lord who is also the mayor, swept the Arieles, the Mexican Oscars, this year. A Mexican art installation that reached the 2009 Venice Art Biennial in Italy includes a person mopping the bare floor with a mixture of water and blood.

Painter Ricardo Delgado Herbert showed his portraits of monster-like hit men holding handguns or automatic rivals at an exhibit of Latin American art in Miami Beach in March. The title of the collection, "Glorious Pistols from A to the Zetas," refers to the Zetas drug cartel, which is notorious for its gruesome violence.

Now the 36-year-old artist from the city of Tampico is working on a series of paintings depicting drug traffickers and soldiers as both saviors and executioners in the Stations of the Cross. It's his way of expressing how Mexicans are trapped in the crossfire between two forces that are neither completely good nor completely bad, Delgado Herbert said.

The artist grew up in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas listening to corridos and watching low-budget movies about cowboy detectives who chase after narcos.

He began painting the characters with crooked teeth and popped-out eyes in the aftermath of a 2004 shootout between soldiers and gunmen in Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas. He said that's when he realized "those characters I heard about growing up were among us and were confronting us."

"My work has been my constant complaint," he said. "I paint what I don't like."

'An outlet'
A similar sense of disillusionment drives painter Gilda Lorena Martinez, whose series, "City of Sand and Blood," hung in the halls of the Mexican Congress in April.

Martinez has called Ciudad Juarez, Mexico's most violent city, home for 20 years and she started putting her feelings on canvas in 2008, as murders in the city were soaring.

She had to shut down her art school, moving it to her home, after a neighboring business received a bomb threat. One of her art students was killed outside his house. Conversations about who was leaving the city or where mothers were sending their teenagers to study outside of town became common.

In her series, ghostly figures with anguished faces are captured in beige and gray, the hues of the desert that surrounds Ciudad Juarez, accented with blood-red brush strokes.

"I was simply painting what I was feeling, as an outlet," she said, adding that for five months she became seriously ill from the stress of the insecurity surrounding her. "It's my way of saying, 'Look how fractured we are as a society.'"

While some artists say working with violent themes has helped them process how the lives of Mexicans have changed, others have a more political message. They say they're chronicling the complexity of the country's security situation and how it's tied to the insatiable demand for drugs in the U.S. and other first-world countries.

Artist Lenin Marquez Salazar, who was born and grew up in the Sinaloan town of Mocorito, paints the rich landscapes of his agricultural state, but with a macabre twist. Into the pastoral frame, he adds bodies of blindfolded men with their hands and feet tied or wrapped in blankets, duplicating the daily images of drug trafficker victims.

"We forget we're a global society and that what happens somewhere else is affecting us here," said Marquez Salazar, 42, who has exhibited his work in the United States and Colombia. "I want to create awareness about this, not as a complaint, but as a way of expressing what I'm seeing."

Another Sinaloan artist, Teresa Margolles, included the floor-mopping piece in her installation at the Mexican Pavilion of the 2009 Venice Art Biennial. She collects artifacts from crime scenes, which are rarely secured in Mexico, unlike in the U.S., such as pieces of glass or cloth dabbed with mud and blood.

Margolles, who's based in the Sinaloa capital of Culiacan and has long worked violent themes, created the art show to fulfill "a social function of mourning, of marking the disappearance of a generation," said Cuauhtemoc Medina, who curated Margolle's 2009 exhibit.

"Theresa and I were guided by our disbelief that the 8,000 people killed nationwide by then didn't count," added Medina, one of Mexico's top art curators and critics. "There is such a social blindness that they need 35,000 dead people to realize this is a total disaster."

Eliminating 'blood'
In some cases, artists have been asked to exhibit their work at government-run museums, only to have them blocked or edited for being too violent.

Medina said Margolles' installation titled "What Else Can We Talk About?" was supported by federal and private funds, but Mexico's Foreign Relations Department pulled out of the exhibit's organizing committee two weeks before the inauguration at the biennial. He said the government didn't want to be associated with the themes of the work.

The Foreign Relations Department didn't respond to a request for comment.

In Ciudad Juarez, officials at the city's Archaeology Museum of the Chamizal edited the name of Martinez's series down to "City of Sand," eliminating the world "blood," when it premiered in February.

The Reinas Chulas have resisted softening their work, and the change in their audience's mood has been palpable as real-life violence has grown, said Mor, one of the group's founding performers.

The crowds used to laugh at the group's antics, which include political satire and outlandish costumes. Now, many of the narco jokes elicit an awkward silence.

"In the last two years, the jokes began to take on a different meaning," Mor said. "Some people do seem shocked, but in the end we all laugh, because what's happening hurts us too much."