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‘In Mexico, We Never Used to Speak About Racism’: Mariana Castillo Deball’s Home Truths

As her solo show opens at the New Museum, New York, the artist discusses the legacies of colonialism and art world privilege

Today, the Coatlicue statue is known as a prime symbol of the Aztec empire’s rich cultural heritage. But until it was proudly erected at Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology in the 1960s, the 2.7-metre sculpture of the Mother Goddess – adorned with its snake heads and floating hands – was seen as a historical burden. Indeed, after it was accidentally discovered in 1790 during the excavation of a water canal on the capital’s main plaza, the imposing artefact was kept out of sight at the University of Mexico, under the instruction of professors. They feared its presence would revive the indigenous worship which settlers had spent centuries eradicating.

‘It was lying on the floor, like this,’ says Mariana Castillo Deball from her Berlin studio, gazing at a maquette of her solo show, ‘Finding Oneself Outside’, which just opened on 22 January at the New Museum, New York. ‘And that’s how I like to display it.’ Her sculpture, No solid form can contain you (2010), is a cast from a mold of the original 15th century Coatlicue statue, made of greenish fiberglass and with its joints turned outwards – ‘a confusing shape’, she says, like a positive of sorts. It is one of a number of old and new works on display at the New Museum, showcasing the Mexican artist’s rigorous yet playful exploration into the histories of objects and their importance to both scientific and colonial discourse. 

Mariana Castillo Deball, Nuremberg Map of Tenochtitlan, 2013, installation view, Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin. Courtesy: the artist and Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie; photograph: David von Becker 

A writer and editor in her own right, Castillo Deball has often pointed to the influence of Roger Caillois, a central figure of the surrealist avant-garde. With his ‘diagonal sciences,’ the French theorist advocated for an interdisciplinary approach to knowledge, aimed at uncovering hidden relations between scientific fields, promoted in his canonical scholarly journal Diogenes, founded in 1953. Similarly, Castillo Deball’s interdisciplinary body of work has incorporated methods from varied fields across soft and hard science, including anthropology, archeology and mathematics. 

In her 2013 exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery, London, Castillo Deball presented a series of paper tree casts, using a papier-mâché technique known as ‘paper squeeze’, pioneered by the English archaeologist Alfred Maudslay in his fieldwork at Mayan sites. While the molds were originally disregarded by the British Museum as mere replicas, they went on to outlive many original artefacts – a paradox highlighted by the artist’s distortions of the ‘original’ work, challenging the notion of authenticity in art history. 

Mariana Castillo Deball, What we caught we threw away, what we didn't catch we kept, 2013, installation view, Chisenhale Gallery, London. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Andy Keate

For the New Museum, Castillo Deball continues her exploration of Maudslay’s legacy with an enlarged print of a damaged negative from his 1894 expedition at the ancient Maya archaeological site of Quiriguá in Guatemala. ‘It’s not an artwork,’ explains the artist, who has paid rights to the British Museum for use of the original. ‘It’s just enlarged source material.’ The corroded image appears to be a playful take on Walter Benjamin’s notion that authenticity be considered independently of a work’s technical reproducibility. Castillo Deball has also installed a new iteration of her floor map – first envisaged for her 2014 solo exhibition at kurimanzutto in Mexico City – this time composed of various types of wood (from American walnut to red cedar and poplar) and based on indigenous cartography. Between 1578 and 1584, Spain commissioned a survey to map local resources and geographical data from the New World. Collected with the help of tailored questionnaires, the contributions from indigenous communities, unsurprisingly, failed to meet the scientific criteria of Spanish officials. Instead, these maps of ‘relaciones geographicas’ materialized as abstract meditations on personal genealogy and narratives, rendering the fragmentation of indigenous culture in the wake of European colonisation. 

Mariana Castillo Deball, ‘vista de ojos’, 2014, installation view, kurimanzutto, mexico city. Courtesy: the artist

Marking the quincentenary of Hernan Cortes’s arrival in Mexico, the appropriation of these often-overlooked historical documents seems especially prescient, particularly at a time when the legacies of colonialism are being critically reappraised. ‘In Mexico, we never used to speak about racism,’ laments Castillo Deball, pointing to long-standing omissions in history books. But while a segment of the population is finally opening up to these conversations, another remains indifferent. ‘It has to do with privilege,’ says Castillo Deball, who left her native Mexico in 2001, ‘and people who are in high positions in the art world are privileged people.’ She is not fixated on the past, however. ‘I don’t feel like I work in a nostalgic way,’ she says of her historical research. The materiality of her works – from fiberglass to pigment and plaster – allow them to freely traverse time periods. 

As I leave the studio, I realise that I forgot to ask Castillo Deball about the title of her New Museum show. While the press release offers a rather evasive ‘possible description of a sensation that is central to both the study of history and the experience of encountering an unfamiliar culture,’ I prefer Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of ‘outsidedness’. The Russian theorist described the two stages of the creative act: a first moment of empathy or identification, followed by a reverse movement in which the author returns to their own position. Bakhtin called this return vnenakhodimost, or ‘finding oneself outside’ – a gesture Castillo Deball endows with both grace and criticality.

Main image: Mariana Castillo Deball, ‘vista de ojos’, 2014, installation view, kurimanzutto, mexico city. Courtesy: the artist

Benoît Loiseau is an art and design writer based in Mexico City and London. His series of short stories, We Can't Make You Younger (2017), is available from Antenne Books.

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