Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa Conjures the Ghosts of Guatemala’s Civil War

In the artist’s survey exhibition at The Power Plant, Toronto, surreal references to the decades-long conflict blur the lines between bodies and objects, dreams and reality

The spirited sound of a marimba wafts through the entrance to ‘Asymmetries’, an exhibition of work made over the past decade by Guatemalan-Canadian artist Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa. ‘Cinco Pesos’ (Five Pesos), a traditional Achi-Maya folk song, is the score for the performance A Brief History of Architecture in Guatemala (2010–13), documented here in a looped video. Dressed in white, corrugated-plastic models of historic Guatemalan buildings (a Mayan pyramid, a Spanish colonial church and the National Bank of Guatemala), Ramírez-Figueroa and two collaborators perform an animated dance, crashing into each other until their costumes fall apart, leaving them naked.

In Ramírez-Figueroa’s work, surreal worlds are haunted by ghosts both personal and collective. When the artist was six, he and his family fled the Guatemalan Civil War (1960–96) for Mexico and then Canada – a traumatic experience that undercuts the slapstick comedy of A Brief History of Architecture in Guatemala. The clash of colonial and indigenous architectural styles on parade suggests the different ways power has been expressed over the country’s long history, while also pantomiming its disintegration. 

Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, Asymmetries, 2020, installation view, Courtesy: The Power Plant, Toronto, 2020; photograph: Toni Hafkenscheid

Three monitors set on the floor screen videos from another performance cycle, ‘Requiem for Mirrors and Tigers’ (2015–17). In Illusion of Matter (2015), Ramírez-Figueroa walks down a corridor flanked by bright red, orange and yellow panels, holding a skeletal mannequin against his body. Later, children carrying polystyrene animals with exposed pastel-painted innards follow his stage directions, eventually destroying the set. The video concludes with the mannequin glowing under UV lights, a vision of carnivalesque horror.

There is a similar undercurrent of violence to Life in His Mouth, Death Cradles her Arm (2016), a performance from the same series. In the video documentation, the artist cradles a block of ice swaddled in a baby blanket, rocking it hopelessly as it melts. Mimesis of Mimesis (2016), meanwhile, depicts an antique sofa stripped of upholstery, followed by a shot of Ramírez-Figueroa asleep on its cushions, his nude body pierced with pins and bound with string. The artist has become part of the furniture, in an act of mimesis that, evoking an S&M scene, doubles as one of painful objectification. Ramírez-Figueroa sublimates violence into corporeal and spiritual transfiguration. While Mimesis of Mimesis blurs the line between bodies and objects – like the ‘collateral damage’ of war – the artist’s beatific expression casts him as a martyr, invoking the many homes destroyed or deserted during the conflict, as well as their absent inhabitants. 

Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, Asymmetries, 2020, installation view, Courtesy: The Power Plant, Toronto, 2020; photograph: Toni Hafkenscheid

The exhibition’s centrepiece, the 32-minute film Corazón del espantapájaros (Heart of the Scarecrow, 2020), commissioned by the Power Plant, was inspired by a 1975 theatre production at the Universidad Popular in Guatemala City modelled on Hugo Carrillo’s eponymous 1962 play. The 1975 performance, in which student activists played police and politicians wearing clown makeup, was shut down and several participants were forced into exile. Ramírez-Figueroa’s stylized production was filmed in the halls of the Universidad Popular; drawing on visual tropes of camp and Carnival, it foregrounds the absurdity of claims to moral and political superiority by agents of the state. Co-written with poet Wingston González, it incorporates fantastical costumes, displayed in the gallery on sculptural wood armatures, which emphasize the decadence of the ruling class.

Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, Asymmetries, 2020, installation view, Courtesy: The Power Plant, Toronto, 2020; photograph: Toni Hafkenscheid

Though the Guatemalan Civil War provides the specific historical backdrop for most of the works in ‘Asymmetries’, Ramírez-Figueroa filters his own experience through fantastical references that resonate broadly. The colourful, often darkly comic dream states he conjures recall memories of a war – of which the facts may have grown hazy but the emotional charge is as powerful as ever.

Main image: Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, Asymmetries, 2020, installation view, Courtesy: The Power Plant, Toronto, 2020; photograph: Toni Hafkenscheid

Natalie Haddad is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA.

Issue 211

First published in Issue 211

May-June 2020

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