Known for photographing communities on the periphery of society in Africa, Pieter Hugo similarly immersed himself in Mexico City and in regions of Mexico including Hermosillo, Oaxaca de Juárez and Juchitán, during several month-long trips in 2018-19. Prompted to make work in Mexico for an exhibition on the theme of sex and death, the resulting photographs embody Mexican attitudes on the subjects in both deliberately staged vignettes and in raw, vibrantly colored images of everyday people, landscapes and objects. As the artist describes his obsession with the country.
Intimate, powerful portraits of diverse subjects, including a young bride posing with an iguana, a dwarf couple dressed as revolutionaries Emiliano Zapata and Adelita, a police officer disguised as a sex-worker, a local amateur theater troupe, and an older generation of Muxes (Zapotec culture’s “third gender”, who are male by birth but dress as and fulfill roles more associated with women) are depicted in the candid and direct manner that is Hugo’s signature style. Often drawing on Mexican history, cultural icons, art historical and literary references, the literary figure Don Quixote and stories from the Bible, the artist and his subjects collaborate to investigate the culture’s complex reconciliation of the celebration of life with the realities of violence and death. Hugo has observed of the Mexican people, “...humor, ritual, a strong sense of community and an embrace of the inevitable make it possible to live with tragic and often unacceptable situations”.
As a metaphor for the ethos in which the extremes of life and death reside comfortably, Hugo chose to title his series after the Spanish folk song, La Cucaracha, about a cockroach struggling to walk with its two hind legs missing. While the origin of the upbeat song is unknown, it has, over time, been coopted and embellished since the 1800s by groups as diverse as rebels and dictators, marijuana users and Looney Tunes cartoons. The heroic creature ideally symbolizes perseverance in spite of hardship and, along with the many nude portraits in Hugo’s new series, reflects the artist’s long-standing interest in how history, the environment, and the passage of time inscribe themselves on a culture, and on a physical body via tan lines, scars, tattoos and wrinkles.