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Pre-Hispanic inspiration, struggle, and satire: The art of Mexico's Manuel Ruelas

“Mick and tecutli”. Woodcut 2017, photo used with artist's permission.

Manuel Ruelas is an artist and painter from Jalisco, western Mexico, better known as Fases, whose work lies at the intersection between consumerism, migration, and territoriality. His art, which displays satire and reflection, is also a mixture of pre-Hispanic art and everyday pop culture. Ruelas attended national and international events, such as the 6th International Szeklerland Engraving Biennial 2020 and the Second Edition of “Lumen Art Biennial” in Mexico.

His work is influenced by the TGP “Taller de Gráfica Popular” (“People's Graphic Workshop”), which is a landmark in Mexican contemporary art. This workshop has been a school for many engraving artists such as Leopoldo Méndez, Pablo O'Higgins, and Luis Arenal Bastar, and denounced class struggle through the use of Mexican symbols and popular elements.

Ruelas also alludes to the aesthetics of Chicano art, which is characterized by the use of religious, political, and indigenous symbols, and reflects social and identity issues in a Mexican-American context. Ruelas also acknowledges the stylistic influence of German Expressionism in his work.

Currently, he paints and makes prints within his Barranca Gráfica Workshop-Gallery, which currently has two offices and an art gallery. The office in Mexico is located in the Condesa neighborhood, one of the most relevant cultural places in Mexico City; the office in the USA is in Oakland, California, where he currently lives. He manages both spaces.

About a year ago, I had the opportunity to work in this Barranca Gráfica workshop in Mexico and to meet him. The following interview unfolds my recent talk with Manuel Ruelas about what influences his work and artistic vision.

“Misfortunes of faith.” Engraving on relief, 50 x 70 cm, 2019, photo used with artist's permission.

Alejandro Barreto: Your work is full of satire. What is Manuel Ruelas’ criticism directed against?

MR: El sentido del humor y la sátira es algo inherente en la cultura mexicana, crecemos, vivimos, y morimos con él, el humor ha servido de vehículo para atacar y sobrellevar las miserias y dolencias del país. En mi caso, este se dio de manera natural y casual, me dio la posibilidad de mantener una postura crítica y política ante los acontecimientos históricos. El contexto social, la mezcla de pobreza, violencia y corrupción se convierten en una realidad en México, una defensa constante en una ciudad que termina por volver rudos a sus ciudadanos. En México hay culto a las luchas y a la  rivalidad de todo tipo, la industria del deporte, la política, la religión y la televisión. Trato de captar un fenómeno del cual somos parte; el infortunio en la sociedad, que va desde enfermarse, o volverse más pobre, violento o corrupto dentro de ella, por ende, el límite del infortunio es la muerte, por eso siempre es recurrente este concepto en mi trabajo.

The sense of humor and satire is something inherent in Mexican culture, we grow, we live, and we die with it; humor has served as a vehicle to fight and cope with the hardships and ailments of this country. In my case, this happened in a natural and casual way, it gave me the possibility of maintaining a critical and political position regarding historical events. The social context, the mixture of poverty, violence, and corruption has become a reality in Mexico, [it is] a constant defense in a city that ends up making its citizens rough. In Mexico there is a cult of fighting and rivalry of all kinds, in the sports industry, politics, religion, and television. I try to capture a phenomenon of which we are a part: the misfortune in society, which ranges from getting sick, or becoming poorer, violent, or corrupt. And the ultimate misfortune is death, that is why this is a recurring concept in my work.

“Codex”. Woodcut 2019, photo used with artist's permission.

AB: In your opinion, what place does street art occupy in today's world society?

MR: Democratizó los escaparates, cualquier artista o persona que quisiera decir o pintar algo puede hacerlo, llevó el mensaje a públicos que quizá nunca habían ido a un museo o galería. El gran problema para mí en la actualidad, es que ahora los grandes capitales se dieron cuenta de ello y lo ha convertido en un producto comercial y elitista, un recuso  para la gentrificación, lo cual lo vuelve estéril y meramente decorativo, un fondo ideal para “selfies” y publicidad a gran escala. Aún así, hay grandes artistas de él, firmes y congruentes con su postura.

MR: [Street art] made the showcases more democratic, any artist or person who wants to say something or paint can do it, and in this way they took their message to audiences that perhaps had never been to a museum or to a gallery. The main issue for me today is that the big capital cities realized this and have turned it into a commercial and elitist product, a resource for gentrification, which makes it sterile and merely decorative, an ideal background for ‘selfies’, and large-scale advertising. There are still great artists who stand firm and consistent in their conception of art.

AB: Currently you live in the United States. Has this changed your perception of Mexican-American culture compared to when you lived in Mexico?

MR: El punto de partida y la conexión con la cultura méxico-americana para mí fue el concepto de Nepantla, una palabra indígena náhuatl muy importante para nosotros los mexicanos que significa “en el medio” “entremedio”, entonces, la experiencia de vivir en Estados Unidos, me ha llevado indagar por los caminos de la añoranza; la propia y la colectiva desde “en medio”, ese concepto está muy presente en mi trabajo. Al mismo tiempo voy recolectando historias sobre segregación, xenofobia y racismo, pero también de la superación personal, organización, colectividad y lucha.

MR: For me, the starting point and the connection with the Mexican-American culture was the concept of Nepantla, a very important Nahuatl indigenous word for us Mexicans, that means “in the middle”, “in between”. The experience of living in the United States has taken me to investigate the paths of longing, my own and the collective “in the middle”, so this concept is very present in my work. At the same time, I am collecting stories about segregation, xenophobia, and racism, but also about overcoming, organization, community and struggle.

“Smoking Black Mirror”. Linoengraving, 15 x 20cm, photo used with artist's permission.

AB: There are many references to pop culture and territorial discourse in your works. How do these two concepts work for you as an artist?

MR: Funcionan partiendo del mito antiguo de la migración de Aztlán de los “Mexicas” o “Aztecas” [hacia donde queda la Ciudad de México hoy], la migración y la construcción de la identidad-territorio. La gente de Aztlán, los Aztecas, tuvo que abandonar su hogar en busca de la tierra prometida por los dioses. Por órdenes del dios de la guerra y el sol, Huitzilopochtli,  iniciaron una peregrinación hasta encontrar un águila devorando a una serpiente, posada sobre un nopal para fundar México-Tenochtitlán, [la actual Ciudad de México]. Esto para mí, es un valor cultural transfronterizo y de migración, con el que quise construir puentes entre lo propio y lo ajeno, la mezcla de la iconografía de los signos aztecas pero idealizados por la cultura de barrio o popular y reinterpretada a la luz de la nueva cultura de consumo de masas. Los elementos consumistas populares y los de culto en el imperio Azteca. Nombres, personajes comunes y marcas presentes en nuestra cultura colectiva. Estos ejercicios de apropiación y e hibridación me han hecho buscar nuevos significados a los iconos, reformulando sus narrativas y dándole nuevas maneras de representación.

MR: They are based on the ancient myth of the Mexicas or Aztecas migrating from Aztlán [to where Mexico City is today], and the construction of identity-territory. The people of  Aztlán, the Aztecs, had to leave their homes in search of the land promised by the gods. By orders of the god of war and sun, Huitzilopochtli, they began a pilgrimage until they encountered an eagle devouring a snake, perched on a prickly pear cactus, and they founded México-Tenochtitlán [present-day Mexico City]. This story for me has a cultural, cross-border, and migration value, with which I wanted to build bridges between the self and the “other,” the mixture of the iconography of Aztec signs, but idealized by local or popular culture, and reinterpreted in light of the new culture of mass consumption. The popular consumerist elements and those that the Aztec empired worshipped. Names, common characters, and brands present in our collective culture. These exercises of appropriation and hybridization have made me search for new meanings of the icons, reformulating their narratives and giving them new ways of representation.

“Duality”. Linoengraving, 15 x 10cm, photo used with artist’ permission.

You can see more of the artist's work on his Instagram account.

 

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