Daily demons and fabulous animals: In which the author finds her craftswoman but loses her cat 🎓

Tessa Laird

11 September 2018

I had three objectives in Mexico, and three weeks to fulfil them.

My first engagement was a week’s immersion in Spanish, in San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Then I had a conference to attend in Mexico City. Finally, I was planning to meet Lucero Ibarra, a lawyer specialising in Indigenous arts and intellectual property. I had met Lucero via email in the course of writing an article about a piece of pottery from Ocumicho, Michoacán, which I had purchased in San Antonio, Texas. I knew the artesana’s name, Adelaida Pascual, and I had written the article as a series of letters to her, never entertaining the possibility that I could actually meet her, since her popular name, and my limited Spanish, made for frustrating online searching. Lucero wrote me that if I was ever in Mexico, she would take me to Ocumicho to look for Adelaida, but I didn’t hold out much hope. Lucero was a busy academic; I doubted she would have the time to take a foreigner on a road trip of artisan villages in Michoacán.

My first morning in San Cristóbal I woke up to a surreal and unspeakably painful text message from my house sitter: my cat had been run over and killed in Melbourne while I slept. The irony was not lost on me: the conference I would be attending in Mexico City was called Minding Animals. The title was intended to conjure a plethora of meanings—looking after animals, to be sure, but also having animals on one’s mind, as well as being attuned to animal consciousness. So it was that for all three weeks of my Mexican sojourn I had Ninja on my mind, a black cat shadowing me, superimposing his feline visage over all the sites I visited. Palenque, Teotihuacán, Tzintzuntzán, already full of their own ghosts, made room for one more.

The French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari propose in their final collaborative book, What Is Philosophy (1994, 183) that “art begins with the animal” (To be fair, they preface this concept with a “perhaps”). Birdsong provides the philosophers with their concept the refrain via repeated musical patterns. As they demonstrate by discussing an Australian bowerbird, refrains also exist in the manipulation of colour and posture, and in the demarcation of territory. The tendencies of this tiny bird along with infinite numbers of animal subjects are writ large across the continuum of human cultural production, including, but not limited, to song, dance, architecture and painting. As Deleuze and Guattari concur, “art is continually haunted by the animal”.

The use of such spectral terminology conjures everything from Australian Indigenous “x-ray” kangaroos, painted on the walls of caves in Arnhem Land, to Grosse Fatigue, (2013), an experimental film by the French artist Camille Henrot, in which taxidermied animals are fondled by a pair of human hands. That animals haunt human cultural production seems eerily appropriate since most of our relationships with animals occur after their death, when they have been transformed into meat, leather, fur, and other materials that make up our daily lives, except for the strange beings we coexist and coevolve with, our “pets”. Yet pets are only ever a reminder of the wild animality we have all but extinguished in nature, and subsumed into what Michael Taussig dubs the “second nature” of our art, stories, and songs (Taussig 1992, xiii). The wild animals’ absence is their presence, since they continue to exist as ghosts in popular culture—contorted into cartoons and toys. Meanwhile, the term “haunted” has become devastatingly apt, in a way that even Deleuze and Guattari may never have dreamt, given that we are now officially in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event, one which is being caused by humans. This era has come to be known as the Anthropocene—an epoch of geological time in which the deleterious effects of our occupation of the planet have become irreversible.

I knew all of these issues, and many more, would be on the (vegan) table at the weeklong Minding Animals conference. I also knew that I had conflicting interests, as my passion for Mesoamerican artefacts and contemporary Mexican folk art was going to be a serious distraction from the panels on animal advocacy. What I didn’t realise was that no matter where I went, all the art I swooned over in museums and markets would be haunted by spectres of animals, fabulous and otherworldly, or earthbound and chthonian—full of powers—and all of them, seemingly, bearing messages from my dead cat. The real animals in Mexico, however, were less present, apart from street dogs or the occasional crow. In his essay “Why Look at Animals?” (Berger 1980, 1–28) John Berger poignantly suggests that the fewer animals exist in the world, the more they take up residence in our minds, hence Minding Animals. Then again, some cultures never envisaged a dichotomous split between nature and culture. As Margarita de Orellana, one of the editors of Artes de México puts it; the publication has “stubbornly and enduringly” promoted the belief that “nature is culture” (de Orellana 2016). This immediately brings to mind the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s coinage “multinaturalism”, in order to summon an Amerindian worldview in which all animals and entities in the natural world are seen to possess their own cultures, rather than culture being the exclusive domain of the human (Viveiros de Castro 2014). In the following essay, I hope to demonstrate that each place I visited in Mexico has its own specific entanglements of naturecultures, as Donna Haraway would say, including naguales or animal spirits lurking in the local imaginaries, finding their way into artistic production and discourse. These natural and supernatural animals guided me and kept me company throughout my trip and beyond.

Land of the Jaguar (with a detour into the Place of Bats)

San Cristóbal de las Casas is the cultural hub of the state of Chiapas, where Indigenous women from the region come to sell their textiles, including hand-embroidered blouses, bedspreads, and strings of bright pompoms. Animal imagery is everywhere, and the colour is intense. Women from Zinacantán wear floral embroideries from head to toe. Yet the women from nearby San Juan Chamula are exclusively dressed in shaggy black wool skirts and sarapes, while their men wear shaggy black coats. They look like humanimal hybrids: bears with hats and boots, or sandals and plaits.

The grand Chamulan church, built in the early 1600s, stands proudly in the central plaza, so far avoiding the fate of many other buildings in this quake-prone land. Inside, there are no pews, and the bear-like people stand or sit on the ground, which is covered in sacred pine needles, in a fog of copal incense. My tour guide explains that Chamulans still practice Mayan belief systems, and that here, Catholicism has been interwoven with Indigenous practice. The Chamulans have maintained their belief that each of them possesses an animal spirit (my guide uses the term nahual) that lives in the nearby pine forest. If your nahual falls ill, you will too, so sacrifices of chickens must be made, to feed the spirit animals.

The church at Zinacantán was closed for repairs, so our group (all Mexican tourists except for me) visited a textile shop instead. There were handwoven scarves and blankets, and embroidered bedspreads, bags, and pillowcases. Animals were a recurrent theme—iguanas, rabbits, monkeys, squirrels, parrots, but no bats, in spite of the name Zinacantán meaning “Place of the Bat” in the native Tzotzil tongue. Both my tour guide and the artesana who owned the shop seemed at a loss to answer my questions about the origin of the town’s name and the lack of bat imagery. I didn’t want to start quoting white anthropologists (and besides, my Spanish wasn’t that good), but I had read all about Zinacantán’s trickster bat god as part of my research towards a cultural history of bats (Laird 2018). The bat god had been suppressed by the Catholic colonisers, who immediately interpreted him as a devil figure (Herrera 1997). But in an anti-colonial twist, contemporary Zinacantán folklore imagines so-called witches shapeshifting into cats, goats, cows and horses, in other words, European animals, as if the plague of witchcraft arrived with Columbus. Likewise, chthonian deities, or “Earth Lords”, are all thought to be whites (the term given in the translated texts is “Ladinos”), disliked even more than Chamulans.

Zinacantán had beckoned me as a place where I might understand the mystery of bats, but no one wanted to talk about the so-called “Black Man of Zinacantán”, a “black, winged, super-sexed demon” (Blaffer 2012, 55). Instead of finding the dark and unfamiliar, a sweet young woman from Michoacán on my tour party bought me a kangaroo keyring lovingly crafted out of felt as a souvenir of the trip. No doubt these were made specifically to appeal to Australian tourists, in the same way that Zinacantán hothouses grow vast amounts of berries and flowers for North American markets. To have travelled so far to be given this strange reflection of myself seemed incongruous: a microcosmic memento of globalisation (I didn’t have the heart to point out that, in spite of living and working in Melbourne, I am actually from New Zealand). All our cultural wires were getting crossed, although, unlike the Zinacantecas, who are brilliant weavers, I was yet to discern a meaningful pattern. I bought a hand-loomed table runner with a beautiful geometric design in reds and blacks. This was the closest I would get to the wings of a bat from the Place of the Bat.

Man inside jaguar mask, Museo Arte Popular

Chiapas is a land of jaguars. At the Mayan ruins of Palenque situated in the jungle, local Indigenous men blow ceramic whistles in the shape of jaguars’ heads. Incredibly, these do not emit sharp, piercing noises, but feline growls and roars. I wanted to buy one but when I put my mouth on the opening, I could taste toxic paint and varnish, and so refrained. Likewise, I couldn’t bring myself to buy a jaguar statue from San Cristóbal because they were all essentially the same piece in different sizes, cast and painted to be as standard as possible. I kept searching for a one-off, a piece that really spoke to me, but they were all copies without an original (Baudrillard ends up in the strangest places).

The day after I lost my cat, I visited Na Bolom, which means “House of the Jaguar”: a museum and research centre housed in an old monastery, set in grounds featuring traditional housing and local flora. It was founded by the Danish archaeologist Frans Blom (capitalising on the likeness of his surname to the titular big cat) along with his Swiss wife, Trudi Duby Blom. A journalist turned anthropologist, Trudi seemed to have a penchant for photographing young men of the jungle-dwelling Lacandón tribe, who, with their long hair and white tunics, resembled European ideals of mystic sages. The Lacandón believe that when our cosmic time is up, jaguars will descend to earth and wipe out humanity (Olivier 2016). They are not the only Mesoamerican peoples to associate jaguars with the end of days; some Maya and Totonac accounts describe an apocalyptic scenario in which household crockery will transform into jaguars and devour those careless folk who chipped and cracked them.

In the leafy courtyard of Na Bolom, Chamulan women were sitting on the ground in their shaggy black skirts and sarapes, carding thick wool and gossiping. One woman had a collection of felted animals made out of the rough wool: llamas, monkeys, cats. I chose a black cat to be a shadow of Ninja, in the shady courtyard of the House of the Jaguar, made by a woman in black fur.

Chilam Balam is the name of a post-contact Yucatec Mayan text, chilam meaning priest, and balam meaning jaguar, although, in a seventeenth-century Kaqchikel-Spanish dictionary, Tomás de Coto translated balam as meaning “sorcerer” (Olivier 2016, 66). At the Chilam Balam bookstore in San Cristóbal, I bought a copy of Artes de México dealing exclusively with the form of the jaguar in Mesoamerican art.

As with the bat god of Zinacantán, Spaniards demonised the jaguar, as well as those who worshipped the creature or adopted its likeness. Rulers throughout Mesoamerica, from varying cultures and periods, were often thought to have jaguars as their nagual, and many sat on jaguar-hide cushions or wore jaguar costumes. Jaguars’ status as the Americas’ largest ground-dwelling predator made them an obvious choice for symbols of leadership and power (Sugiyama 2016). In Copán, Honduras, portraits of fifteen Mayan rulers are carved into a stone block underneath which fifteen jaguar skeletons were discovered (Olivier 2016, 66–67). Jaguars’ night vision associated them with the underworld, as well as, conversely, the stars and the moon. The Yucatec Maya word ek means both stars in the sky and spots on a jaguar’s coat. This fusion of terrestrial and celestial forces is nowhere more explicit than in the Mayan identification of the jaguar with the “night sun”, a “sun of the underworld” found on a range of artefacts including shields, incense burners, and ceramic items “from which two-headed snakes emerge.” (The bat in Mesoamerica is associated with similarly paradoxical inverse solar force). I leave behind the Maya, the jungle and the jaguars to head to the high plateau at the centre of the country: Mexico City, to attend a conference, to find a two-headed snake emerging from the severed neck of the earth goddess.

Mexico City: Moctezuma’s Zoo in the Coatlicue State

Hernando Cortés and his conquistadors wrote about a compound in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, today’s Mexico City, filled with a dazzling array of birds and beasts, so many that three hundred humans were employed in their care. The conquistadors were kept awake by the screams and howls of the creatures in what is now known as “Moctezuma’s zoo”; screams made all the more terrifying by the knowledge that animals were being fed the bodies of human sacrificial victims, including the conquistadors themselves (Sugiyama 2016).

In today’s densely populated and highly polluted Mexico City, animals are much less evident, except for an occasional dusty squirrel or bird. If the streets are haunted, rather than populated, by animals, then the museums stand in for Moctezuma’s Zoo; here animal exuberance erupts from every pedestal and vitrine, albeit in petrified form. At the Museum of Anthropology, there is one entity in particular I had to pay my respects to. Coatlicue, the goddess whose name means skirt of snakes, is almost nine feet tall, and emits “psychic radiation” (Paz 1993c, 31). She wears a necklace of alternating human hands and hearts, giving and taking with each breath. The centrepiece of her necklace is a human skull, as is her belt buckle. She is headless, having been decapitated by her own children, but, as with the Hydra, this cut only produces new growth: two serpents’ heads made of blood issue from her neck. Gloria Anzaldúa, Chicana activist and political-spiritual theorist, notes that coatl “not only means serpent, it also means twin” (Anzaldúa 2012, 117). This seems sympathetic with the European pharmaceutical symbol of Caduceus—twin, twined serpents—which then summons the Platonic concept of Pharmakon, simultaneous poison and cure. Anzaldúa names the space of psychic rupture that she inhabits as the result of multiple political injustices, “The Coatlicue State”. Paradoxically, this space becomes the fertile ground of shamanic awakening, which she enters by intoning, “Come, little green snake. Let the wound caused by the serpent be cured by the serpent.” (2012, 68)

Meeting together in profile, the snakes issuing from Coatlicue’s neck create a grimacing face of two halves, like the fearful symmetry described by Claude Lévi-Strauss in his comparison of the arts of the Maori, the Pacific Northwest Coast of America, and ancient China (Lévi-Strauss 1963). Lévi-Strauss was interested in the way certain cultures divide representational imagery down a vertical axis and spread it out just as humans do to animal skins by removing the structure of the bones, to create, for example, a jaguar skin rug. Lévi-Strauss gives an example of totemic art from the Pacific Northwest in which a face is made up of two faces in profile, a composition of halves that, in the mind’s eye, split apart and re-form. This optical/ conceptual shimmer is confounding because you can’t see both possibilities at the same time, even though they exist simultaneously.

Oscillation is the condition of all pattern, that is, when pattern and ground are perfectly balanced they switch roles: you see either a dark pattern on a light ground, or a light pattern on dark, or the same effect with complementary colours. Pattern has the potential to de-and re-territorialise (Deleuze and Guattari 2009), to initiate productive refrains while rupturing stale ones, and it often does this via an animal lexicon of spots, stripes, and zigzags. Snakes themselves can be read as signs or symbols of pattern, at the level of their scales, which repeat as a uniform texture; at the level of coloured patternations of bands or diamonds; and in undulating motions which themselves produce patterns, such as those made by sidewinder snakes in the desert. Such sinuous motion is constantly self-renewing, like waves apprehensible to sight, sound or touch: the refrain.

The oscillations inherent in pattern can paralyze the senses by offering them two or more compelling ways to read an image. Similarly, when confronted with the patterned and paradoxical Coatlicue, Octavio Paz says the mind “stops dead” because “the enigma of the massive block of carved stone paralyzes our sight.” (Paz 1993c, 31) As with the Greek myth of Medusa, when we fix eyes upon the hybrid of woman and pattern-making snakes, it is we who turn to stone. For Anzaldúa, Coatlicue is the petrification of contradiction: “Like Medusa, the Gorgon, she is a symbol of the fusion of opposites: the eagle and the serpent, heaven and the underworld, life and death, mobility and immobility, beauty and horror.” (2012, 69) When the writer, activist, and queer mestiza occupies this “Coatlicue State”, she becomes a “shapeshifter” or shaman with the “ability to become animal, or thing, to travel to other realities and to offer conocimiento (knowledge, consciousness, understanding) from alien perspectives.” Anzaldúa both enters, and is entered by, Coatlicue. In this state, even the text itself is a changeling entity, a female being who is “sad, joyful, is Coatlicue, dove, horse, serpent, cactus.” (2012, 89) Moving away from a mestiza discourse of mixed blood, which readers interpreted as being rooted to territoriality and borders, Anzaldúa embraced la naguala, who “continually changes form or identity, mutating along with the forces around us.” (Schaeffer 2018, 1019) For Anzaldúa, “La naguala is the supreme border crosser, or walker between worlds.”

In a discussion of states (emotional or otherwise) and borders, let’s not forget that the Aztecs, like the Romans, were empire builders, and masters (I use the word deliberately) of propaganda. The Aztec hall is the jewel in the Museum of Anthropology’s crown, or rather the skull in its necklace. The huge, open-plan gallery is filled with monumental pieces that are awe-inspiring in their Brutalist blockiness, their hard-edged, pitiless power. And Aztec imagery still dominates Mexico: the eagle grasping a serpent on a cactus is the story of the founding of Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, now Mexico City, yet this image purports to represent the whole country via the flag, and imprinted onto money. Lucero Ibarra, who comes from Purépecha country in Michoacán, a place which never conceded Aztec rule, tells me that the Mexican history taught in schools is dominated by the story of the Aztecs. Unsurprisingly, the patriarchal figure of the eagle in this story subjugates the chthonian, and arguably feminine, entity of the snake. Funnily enough, the eagle of Mexico looks very similar to its brother from El Norte, that overlord symbol of surveillance. Argentinian artist Sergio Vega disparages the dated imagery of the eagle and suggests we shift to a more social and sensual totem: the parrot (Vega 2009). Even for Anzaldúa, as a citizen of the Aztec homeland of Aztlán, there is recognition that Aztec culture was as patriarchal as that of the Spanish usurpers; this is one of the inherent contradictions of her Coatlicue State. Her deterritorialisation of the Aztec State involves a becoming-animal that reactivates the chthonian female principles of the Mesoamerican worldview.

Michoacán—land of Mariposas and Diablitos

In Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene Donna Haraway enthusiastically embraces a Chthonian turn as a way to become more “earthbound” in the era of the Anthropocene (rather than looking to the skies in search of “Planet B”). Haraway’s chthonic beings are “replete with tentacles, feelers, digits, cords, whiptails, spider legs, and very unruly hair”. They are “monsters in the best sense; they demonstrate and perform the material meaningfulness of earth processes and critters.” (Haraway 2016)

Haraway was scheduled to be one of the keynote speakers at Minding Animals. In fact, apart from Coatlicue and Adelaida, she was my impetus for travelling to Mexico. But Haraway was sick, and she never showed up, not even via Skype. They also missed her at the National School of Superior Studies, Michoacán, where she was scheduled to extend her journey. Michoacán features in Staying with the Trouble because the ancestral overwintering grounds for millions of monarch butterflies are there, high in the hills. Haraway imagines the mariposa monarca as a “symbiont”, a symbiotic animal partner, in a speculative fabulation where some humans choose to genetically merge with animals. These shapeshifters hold the key to a more entangled future, in which humans care for animals by becoming-animal, as well as engaging in the politics of place, including decolonial alliances. I had gone to Michoacán to stay with Lucero Ibarra and look for Adelaida in Ocumicho, but I also desperately wanted to see the monarcas stripe the countryside orange and black, so that the landscape would have a jaguar hide. Unfortunately, the mariposas were sick, like Haraway herself. The winter was excessively cold, and the wildlife reserve didn’t want to further stress the butterflies. They closed the gates. Like Berger’s animals, Haraway and the butterflies were all the more present by their absence. Images of monarcas were everywhere, and thoughts of entanglement, and tending the sick, including the earth and her creatures, were uppermost in my mind as we trundled into Ocumicho.

In her book Mexican Women in Folk Art, Eli Barta speculates that the word Ocumicho may have once meant “place of tanners”, but there are no animals around anymore, and the town’s principal activity of pottery is performed by women, while men travel north to earn money (Barta 2011, 76). Ocumicho has become famous for a particular style of polychrome pottery featuring diablitos or devils in a range of sometimes improbable, sometimes charmingly quotidian, activities. There are devils licking icecreams, playing musical instruments, riding motorbikes, devouring watermelons at the Last Supper, and engaged in illicit sexual liaisons. The most important thing to note, as Barta does, is that these devils are all smiling. They relish their misdemeanors with infectious delight, embodying the “prototype of the festive condition” (Quoted in Barta 2011, 79). According to Octavio Paz, “laughter is Satanic” and, “in paradise no one laughs”.

The diablitos are naked but often sport stripes or patterns on their skin. This is said to hark back to a time when Purépecha warriors wore specific designs painted on their skins to distinguish themselves in battle, adding further intrigue to the role of patternation in becoming-animal. Diablitos are not animals, but they are not human, either. They exist in the same in-between state as the nagual, which can be either a spirit animal, or a shaman, or both. The devil is not really evil, but is most definitely a troublemaker, and, as with his (or her) appearances in Europe, can be traced back to pre-Christian nature deities. The women of Ocumicho who sculpt and paint these outrageously naughty tableaux are devout Catholics. They are also generally serious by nature, which makes their cultural production even more mysterious. Barta finds it hard to believe that the drudgery and poverty the women of Ocumicho endure, produces such colourful, lighthearted imagery. She quotes Eduardo Galeano, who wrote that the women of Ocumicho are “Condemned to submission, fated to sadness”, yet every day they create “a new rebellion, a new joy.” (Quoted in Barta 2011, 86)

Adelaida Pascual and Tessa Laird

When we arrived in Ocumicho (after driving through artisanal townships, each with its own specialty), Lucero asked at a few places if anyone had heard of Adelaida Pascual. I felt embarrassed. What was I going to say if I met her? After the first couple of tries, though, it felt like it might be a dead end. If no one had heard of her in a place this small, there wasn’t much hope. Lucero headed to Señora Tomása’s house: she was a head artesana and bound to know. Entering this dirt floor workshop, cold and dark in the middle of winter, revealed an Aladdin’s Cave of delights, as diablitos in all sizes, colours, and postures were packed together on numerous tables and all over the floor, while masks and other ornaments hung from the walls. This was a professional enterprise; a number of the pieces on display had been entered into competitions, and quite a few of them were prizewinners. The prices being asked were not shamefully cheap—Señora Tomása knew what these artefacts were worth.

Lucero asked Señora Tomása if she knew Adelaida Pascual. “Yes”, she said matter-of-factly, “She’s my daughter”. As soon as she said this, Adelaida arrived at the door. She looked young—much younger than me, and so much like the Polynesian girls I grew up with at school. Lucero explained to Adelaida that I had been hoping to meet her since I bought a piece of her pottery in San Antonio, Texas, some years ago. Adelaida looked unphased, as though this was a regular occurrence. Lucero explained that I made my own pottery, and had drawn inspiration from one of Adelaida’s pieces. I waited for signs of discomfort or disapproval. If they were there, they were very subdued. Adelaida seemed most interested in my buying more of her work, which wasn’t difficult as she was clearly the best artesana in the household, if not the village (Lucero, who had spent a lot of time in Ocumicho, and was a big buyer of crafts in general, said as much). Trying to decide what to buy was an agony—how much could I fit in my suitcase? Would it break? I bought two small devil masks with snakes and spiders coming out of their beards, and wires coming out of their eyebrows, with little people seemingly impaled on the wires. As grisly as this sounds, they were beautiful, delicate things, in glorious, psychedelic colours. Adelaida packaged them by laboriously winding toilet paper around each horn, ear, tongue, or other protrusion. Amazingly, they arrived home intact.

I talked a lot with Lucero about cultural appropriation and intellectual property rights. I was surprised at how open she was to cultural exchange and influence. She said that intellectual property was a Western concept, imposed upon the Indigenous. She said those she had spoken to were more concerned about getting paid for their work than about their ideas being used by others. They also believed in the power of authenticity. “Let others copy” they would say, according to Lucero. “It won’t be as good as the real thing”. But I also feared that concerns over appropriation are a luxury when you are just trying to put food on the table. Adelaida didn’t care what pottery I made in my home country, it was simply imperative that I buy from her when I visited her warehouse.

While the artisanal family spent every waking hour sculpting and painting beguiling devils, there were real demons to contend with which weren’t at all charming. Adelaida’s brother was mentally unwell, he had been causing the family trouble, and needed to be admitted to hospital. But the rural Indigenous women had no idea where to go, how much it would cost, and how they would be able to pay him visits, as Ocumicho is isolated and they had no form of transport. I am glad to say that Lucero spent a lot of time discussing options with the women, offering money and support.

It was with mixed feelings that I left Ocumicho behind. First of all, I couldn’t believe my luck—I had found the village I had wanted to visit, and the very artesana I had been searching for! On the other hand, I was more keenly aware than ever of my privileged position as we drove away from the pressing troubles of illness and poverty. And while Lucero had vowed to help, I was catching the plane back to Australia. My biggest worry was getting these pottery pieces home unscathed. I left Lucero with some extra money and best wishes.

Mexico in Melbourne: alebrijes and axolotls

Back in Melbourne, I wanted the spell of Mexico to last a little longer, so I went to see Coco, the latest Disney/ Pixar production, which Lucero had mentioned, primarily because the guitar that features in the film had been made by a Los Angeles-based guitar maker from the town of Paracho, Michoacán. Thanks to the film, demands for guitars from that small town were through the roof. But the artesanal guitar makers had to be careful they didn’t replicate Coco‘s guitar too closely—of course, Disney would sue them for copyright infringement. Lucero shook her head at the thought of multinational suing Indigenous artisans for making what they had always made.

Analysing Coco from a craft-based perspective, Kevin Murray notes that shoe-making is represented as “a menial task for dullards”. The film doesn’t simply vaunt the potentially glamorous lifestyle of a musician over that of a leatherworker, it becomes “an exercise in cultural imperialism: pointing the way forward not in the self-sufficiency of home-grown industry but in the consumption of corporate entertainment fare from the USA.” While I agree with Murray’s sharp prognosis, I wonder if the real subtext isn’t at the very beginning, when young Miguel laments that of all the crafts his family could have chosen, they settle for the most (ahem) pedestrian. Miguel can’t understand why his family couldn’t have been makers of candy, fireworks, or even sparkly underwear for wrestlers. None of these are essentials, and therefore they fall under the rubric of excess—what Paz (following Georges Bataille) sees as the necessary condition for sacrifice, the very cornerstone of Mesoamerican cosmology (Paz 1993a).

The more obvious political interpretation of Coco is that it is a subtle dig at Trump’s America, since it is about border crossing, and the slippery character who tries to elude authorities to get to the land of the living turns out to be the good guy down on his luck. But my interest in the film is neither to vaunt the role of craft, nor lambast the Trump administration, as attractive as those two options are. It is the fantastic animals of Coco—the alebrijes—that captured my imagination. They are introduced early on, when Miguel “plays” a table of them as if they were a collective xylophone, while the crazy street dog Dante (who of course guides him through the Land of the Dead) stands right next to the table, indicating that he may actually be one of the fabulous beasts himself.

Alebrijes are made by the Linares family of Mexico City, from cardboard, wire, and papier-mâché. They are also made from wood in Oaxaca. The Linares family legend has it that some time in the 1940s, Pedro Linares fell ill and became delirious, dreaming he was in a “strange place” full of hybrid animals, including “a donkey with butterfly’s wings, a cockerel with bull’s horns, a lion with an eagle’s head” (Barta 2011, 69). Stranger still was that all these animals were shrieking at Linares the singular word “Alebrijes!” Each animal screamed the nonsense word in crescendo, violently upsetting the biblical injunction in which Adam names the animals. These animals not only name themselves, they will themselves into being, in all their striped, spiny, fluorescent, winged, horned, and tentacular glory: symbiont critters that would make Haraway proud.

In Coco‘s Land of the Dead, alebrijes come to life as “real” spirit creatures who “guide souls on their journey”. Miguel is warned “Watch your step—they make cacitas everywhere”, in a beautifully humorous acknowledgement of the indivisibility of spirit and matter. As Dante the street dog rides on the back of a powerful fluorescent jaguar with rams horns and wings (improbably named Pepita), his canine legs start to glow with fluorescent patterns, and eventually, a tiny pair of wings sprouts out of his back. But when the alebrije versions of Dante and Pepita visit the land of the living, Dante becomes a dog again, and Pepita becomes… a tiny cat. This transformation from the fabulous to the quotidian sent shivers down my spine, because it affirmed the possibility of the reverse manoeuvre. I had made an ofrenda for Ninja as soon as I got home from Mexico, and it gave me great comfort to think that he was out there, somewhere, in his true, magnificent, fluorescent form.

From the perspective of craft politics, alebrijes and diablitos are not “traditional”, but inventions of the twentieth-century for tourist markets inside and outside of Mexico (Cant 2016). This complicates a worldview that wishes to see Mexican cultural production as timeless and static rather than shifting and responsive to global trends. As Eli Barta points out, both alebrijes and diablitos are folk art without a practical function. Like Miguel’s candy, fireworks, and sparkly underwear, their purpose is one of ornamental excess and vivid, imaginative play. As Paz puts it: work, including, one might suppose, shoemaking, is serious, but death and laughter rip off work’s “mask of solemnity”. It is only through death and laughter that “the world and human beings become toys once again” (Paz 1993a, 54), or, in the case of Coco, animated cartoons.

Diego Ramirez, aXolotl’s Happiness, 2014, HD video, 7 mins 15 seconds.

At the other end of the production spectrum to Coco, I attended a screening of three short films by Mexican-born, Melbourne-based artist, Diego Ramirez. Of particular interest to me in its animal metamorphosis was aXolotl’s Happiness, 2014. Ramirez’s emphasis on the X draws a relationship between the “otherness” of Nahuatl language and the indeterminacy of X as an unknown, as with Malcolm X. Based on a Julio Cortázar short story, in which the protagonist becomes so enraptured with an axolotl exhibit, he visits it every day until he himself transforms into an axolotl, Ramirez himself appears as a human-axolotl hybrid. With beautifully rendered feathery gills emanating out of his otherwise hairless head, Ramirez resembles “Matthew Barney on a Sunday waiting for the roast to cook” (Ramirez 2018). Indeed, this axolotl creature attends to household chores such as hanging out the washing or doing the dishes in a resigned, disconnected way.

In a text he wrote after making the film, Ramirez highlighted the axolotl’s associations with Mexican nationhood, as it is endemic to lake Xochimilco, Mexico City, and its name derives from Xolotl, the Aztec god of “twins and monstrosities”. As Ramirez notes, it is the otherness of the amphibian that Cortázar emphasises, “the deep blackness of its eyes (which are attributed in the story with a different way of seeing), pre-Columbian appearance (its face is described as ‘Aztec’), and altered perception of time”. Since the axolotl is actually a larval salamander that refuses metamorphosis, it ends up occupying a species class of its own, and in this attenuated state of otherness, is summoned by Cortázar “to address the confusion associated with the Latin American condition”. Yet, according to Ramirez, the protagonist’s metamorphosis has frequently been interpreted as reconciliation with his pre-Columbian heritage, and a “disavowal of his contemporaneous self”.

In Ramirez’s film, however, there is violent rupture rather than reconciliation at the end: the axolotl-man sits in front of a washing machine, which continues its desperate spin cycle in the background. He places a fishhook in his mouth, the most painful symbol of capture. Suddenly, he pulls, and blood sprays the camera, while the side of his cheek is split open. The end. The unspeakable viscerality of this moment enacts the violence of colonisation, domestic entrapment, and the desire to eviscerate stereotype. Unlike Cortázar’s protagonist, Ramirez doesn’t find peace at the bottom of the fishtank—he would rather maim himself than live under such suffocating conditions (I am reminded of prisoners on Manus island, sewing their lips together and other forms of self-harm performed as protest). Paz writes of Mayan ritual bloodletting, in which the King lacerates his penis and the Queen her tongue (Paz 1993b), in order to facilitate the smooth functioning of the cosmos. But in ascribing pre-Columbian roots to Ramirez’s bloody eruption, am I not perpetuating the very violence of framing that he is reacting against? Ramirez’s entire oeuvre, including his writing and art practice, calls into question all the stereotypes I have carefully assembled, especially those which ascribe relationships between Indigenous peoples and animals. Yet there seems to be some pattern worth discerning, between the chthonian entities that are sometimes real animals, and sometimes ideas of animals, their shapeshifting capabilities, and their human allies. While I can’t claim any metamorphic abilities myself, it is in writing that I come closest to crossing borders.

If, as Brian Massumi suggests, writing is a vehicle for becoming-animal (2018), then this text must be an alebrije: a monstruo de papel, or paper monster. Like the alebrije, it is an assemblage of coloured patterns and disparate animal parts, along with a dose of delirium (just think of Linares’ vision). An assemblage is only useful, though, if it can activate new forces or relations. What does an alebrije / exquisite corpse / Frankenstein’s monster of a text do? I think of this text as being like the ridiculous cartoon dog Dante sprouting wings, becoming-pattern while rupturing and being ruptured by it (he gnaws at the fluoro colour as it starts spreading over his skin—the itch of the glitch). Alebrijes are intensive nodes of imagination, they are crystallisations of a multinaturalist cosmology. This text may not manage to fly, but it is covered in fluorescent patterns, and they are spreading…


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———. 1993b. “Reflections of an Intruder.” In Essays on Mexican Art, translated by Helen Lane. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co.

———. 1993c. “The Art of Mexico: Material and Meaning.” In Essays on Mexican Art, translated by Helen Lane. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co.

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I was presenting a paper on animal imagery in the films of Camille Henrot at Minding Animals. See Tessa Laird, “From Underdog to Overview”, Antennae, No. 42, 2017, 37-54.

The spelling and definition of nagual varies throughout Mexico. Among the texts I read for this essay, there was a remarkable slippage between nagual, or nahual, meaning animal spirit, shaman, or human shapeshifter, which indicates just how indeterminate these spaces of transformation are.

Claude Lévi-Strauss devoted a whole book to Amerindian myth cycles around the sacred—and very tricky—world of pottery. The Jealous Potter indicates that the women’s work of pottery is also tied up with proscriptions around matrimony and childbirth, and that ritual behaviours must be observed in the act of working with clay, otherwise the pots will crack and be useless. Lévi-Strauss, The Jealous Potter, translated by Bénédicte Chorier, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Two-headed serpents rear their twin visages throughout Mesoamerican art, for example, Octavio Paz refers to a Mayan relief from Yaxchilan, from the Jaguar Shield series, depicting Queen Xoc in a trance during a bloodletting ritual. From the blood “there rises a fantastic two-headed serpent that writhes in the air” (“Reflections of an Intruder”, Essays on Mexican Art, 75). This ties into ideas around shamanic visualisation of DNA as entwined serpents in Jeremy Narby, The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the origins of Knowledge, New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher / Putnam, 1999

In the late 1700s, when Coatlicue was first exhumed from the area beneath Mexico City’s central square, she was immediately reburied because she was considered too frightening, too pagan, too supernatural. Years later, she was dug up and reburied again, and not displayed until 60 or so years after that. Even then, for many years, she was hidden behind a screen.

The comparisons between Coatlicue and Medusa are apt, along with many other snake goddesses, up to and including Eve’s encounter with the serpent. In Tales from Zinacantán, snakes are considered to be daughters of the Earth Lord (a euphemism for Satan, which nevertheless maintains some relationship to pre-Catholic traditions). Snakes are equated—unfavourably—with women’s sexuality, and one Zincantecan remarked that “dream(ing) of touching a woman’s privates ‘is like touching a horrible, cold snake’.”(9) In resurrecting non-patriarchal Mesoamerican worldviews, Anzaldúa “learned not to fear the snake and darkness (the feminine, the creative forces of the vagina, the animal spirit, and the un-known)”. Felicity Amaya Schaeffer, “Spirit Matters: Gloria Anzaldúa’s Cosmic Becoming across Human/Nonhuman Borderlands”, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 43, No. 4, 2018, 1020.

There is even more irony watching Coco with its “Department of Family Reunions” after recent media furore surrounding the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy for illegal migrants crossing the Mexican border into the US, including the separation of families and subsequent detention of children as “unaccompanied minors”.


Tessa Laird is a New Zealand artist, writer, and lecturer, and recent arrival to Melbourne. Her book Bat was published by Reaktion in 2018. She is currently lecturing in Critical and Theoretical Studies at the School of Art, VCA. Her first article about Adelaida can be found here.

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