Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"HOLY DEATH', THE VIRGIN OF JUQUILA AND MY PAINTING





My friend, photographer and teacher Mari Seder, first introduced me to Mexico, its incredible colors and fascinating folk and religious art when I visited her in Oaxaca many years ago.

Several years ago I traveled with her to the isolated Church of the Virgin of Juquila on the mountainous road from Oaxaca to Puerto Escandido. Pilgrims come here by foot from all over Mexico to ask for a miracle from this tiny, dark-skinned figure of the Virgin who is housed in a massive church.

The pilgrims walk for days, sleeping in village squares, fed by pious Mexicans, until they reach Juquila. They often approach the saint on their knees. The tiny figure (who is considered Indian because of her dark skin) has a white train which stretches out of the church and far into the distance. Pilgrims leave on the train gifts and hand-made wooden crosses either specifying the favor they need or thanking her for favors received. My photo above shows two Indian women on their knees approaching the Virgin , one with a blond baby on her back.

Three years ago on March 21 my daughter and I were on a tour led by cooking guru Susanna Trilling (www.seasonsofmyheart.com). We were at El Tajin – a pre-Columbian archeological site in Veracruz, composed of multiple pyramids. It was the Spring Equinox and hundreds of Mexicans, all dressed in white, came there to be cleansed by the Sun God with the aid of cueranderos (healers).

On the way into the pyramids, among the many objects on display on the road outside, I noticed the skeletal lady dressed as a Spanish Senorita. I had never seen anything like her … she was like the many Guadalupe virgins seen everywhere, but she was Death So I took her photo, but no one could tell me exactly what she was for. They told me she was Santa Meurte and I could see she was available for some kind of religious ceremony (for a price) but I couldn’t get any other kind of information. Everyone seemed reluctant to talk about her.

Last year in February in Oaxaca I attended a class sponsored by the Worcester Art Museum called “Expanding Your Vision -- Painting and Photography in the Magical World of Oaxaca, Mexico”. It was taught by my friend Mari Seder and Oaxacan artist Humberto Batista. (They’re doing it again in Feb. 2009 --- www.worcesterart.org) Humberto strongly encouraged the students to think outside the box and to paint something unlike their usual style.

At his urging (although I am VERY literal – usually painting just what I see) I incorporated the figure of Santa Meurte from El Tajin into my painting of the interior of the Church of Juquila. The result is the painting above which is now on display at the Worcester Art Museum in a show of art done by students during their off-site classes.

I was surprised and excited when I recently picked up the New Yorker dated Nov. 10 and found an article by Alma Guillermoprieto called “Days of the Dead, The new narcocultura.” She wrote about the narcotics trafficking that is causing such bloodshed in Mexico and she investigated the role of “The Holy Death” – especially as she is celebrated in a mass every day in a troubled neighborhood of Mexico City called Tepito where the drug dealers and addicts collect.

The author suggested that there are two thousand shrines in Mexico to Santa Meurte and that she is the saint of drug traffickers (although the woman who established the large shrine in Tepito denies that it is only for drug traffickers.)

When I painted the watercolor above, showing a woman crawling toward the Virgin of Juquila , I imagined that she was going to ask the Virgin to heal her baby and was encountering Santa Muerte blocking her way to salvation. If it’s true that Holy Death is the saint of narcotics dealers, that adds another dimension to the painting. Perhaps the baby’s health and safety are threatened by some version of the narcocultura (maybe not now but when he grows up.)

The thought gave me a shudder, appropriately enough at this season which celebrates the Days of the Dead. And it adds a layer of unexpected meaning to the painting

Tell me what you think.

3 comments:

Vicky said...

Hey Joanie,
I love the new painting and the story behind it. What a talented lady! When do you leave for India?
I can't wait to see your next work with that trip's influence.
Have a blast! I'm still working but slowing down to play Nanny for Mini Van and wedding planner for Vanessa.
Take care,
V

Robin Paulson said...

Joanie,
What a wonderful painting with so many opportunities for interpretation. Keep on blogging and painting.
Robin

Marina said...

Joanie!!

I love love love this painting. It's amazing. Possibly my favorite piece of your work thus far. See you in a few days.

-M