Pieter Hugo’s latest series, “La Cucaracha,” looks at sexuality and death across Mexico. Created during several month-long trips over the last two years to Mexico City, Hermosillo, Oaxaca de Juárez and Juchitan, the photographs will be on display at Yossi Milo Gallery beginning January 10.
Known for photographing communities on the periphery of society in Africa, the South African artist didn’t depart from this tendency in Mexico. In this series, however, his photos are deliberately staged, and vibrantly colorful. Diverse subjects including a young bride holding an iguana in front of a chain link fence, a dwarf couple dressed as revolutionaries, a naked snake charmer, nude sisters, a pot-bellied representation of a Don Quixote—disrobed and slumped atop a donkey, and older Muxes (Zapotec culture’s “third gender”), are captured in unexpected and intimate tableaux.
“One could say, albeit reductively, that my work has always been about the outsider,” Hugo writes – “and in the Trump era, Mexico is definitely the outsider.”
Hugo first traveled to Mexico at the invitation of curator Francisco Berzunza, who prompted the photographer to make work in the country for an exhibition on the the theme of sex and death. A unique relationship with death exists in Mexico, explains Hugo: “If one looks beyond the clichés of dancing skeletons and sugar skulls, there’s a deeply complicated connection with mortality.”
The series embraces cliché symbols of Mexico, but interprets them through optics of sex and mortality: Burning cacti, religious effigies and first communion dresses, flowery headware à la Frida Kahlo atop a fleshy woman dripping from the heat, a bloodied wrestler, and cowboys both drunk and mirthful. “La Cucaracha” marks the first series in which Hugo has chosen to use descriptive titles, highlighting the literary and art history references that are a standard part of his practice. Examples include “After Siqueiros” and “Zapata and Adelita.”
The title of the series is a metaphor for Mexico’s “ethos in which extremes of life and death reside comfortably,” writes Yossi Milo Gallery in the press release. Named after the Spanish folk song, La Cucaracha, about a cockroach who must learn to walk without its two hind legs, the photographs reflect Hugo’s take on Mexico and its people. “There is an acceptance that life has no glorious victory, no happy ending,” observes Hugo. “Humor, ritual, a strong sense of community and an embrace of the inevitable make it possible to live with tragic and often unacceptable conditions.”
Though working far from familiar African land, Hugo’s admiration and appreciation for Mexico are evident in the photographs’ bold colors and surprising frankness. “Mexico’s anarchic, visceral energy got under my skin and sucked me in,” writes Hugo.
– Sarah Stacke