PURCHASE, New York — “I would love for consciousness to explode, to wake up so everyone could unite,” says Nicolás De Jesús in one of the videos on view in Nicolás de Jesús: A Mexican Artist for Global Justice. Curated by Patrice Giasson, the show is currently at the Neuberger Museum at Purchase College, where I teach the history of printmaking. De Jesús is not much known in the United States, so I have welcomed the rare opportunity for our students to see his many large etchings on amate paper, alongside recent paintings on canvas and banners taken from protest sites, which he mounts at considerable risk to himself and his family. De Jesús is from Ameyaltepec, a village in the mountains above the Balsas River in Southwest Mexico, and he speaks his first language, Nahuatl, in some of the videos. The extensive sampling of work from a 30-year period radiates a burning political commitment leavened by warmth and humor. De Jesús’s compelling story unfolds in the show’s excellent catalogue, revealing a restless artistic ambition rooted in a firm sense of time and place: his native region of Guerrero.
Amate, made from the bark of Ficus glabrata, figures prominently in the show. This is the material on which pre-Conquest people painted the many texts that nearly disappeared in the Catholic mania for scroll burning, among the most devastating losses to the historical epistemicide that carries on in periodic bursts of violent government oppression of indigenous Mexicans, including those from Guerrero.
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De Jesús’s father and uncle, both artists, were responsible in the 1960s for reviving the regional production of amate. Expressively textured, it is now used for the many folkloric paintings produced there and in neighboring areas. Pablo De Jesús, the artist’s father, was murdered when Nicolás was still a child, and the killer was never punished. His son was taught printmaking as a teenager by his godfather, the Fluxus artist Felipe Ehrenberg (1943-2017), who himself spent much time in exile. De Jesús took this skill with him to Chicago, where he lived in the late 1980s and early ’90s, and where he founded El Taller Mexicano de Grabado, the first of several community print workshops he established around the world. (His life in Chicago is the subject of the earliest prints in the show, and the influence of the funky local Imagists is evident.) In his printmaking, De Jesús carries on the legacy of Taller de Gráfica Popular, the influential workshop founded in Mexico in 1937, where American artists such as Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett learned the medium, bringing its radical vision back north. De Jesús makes his prints with his wife and daughters, who pull and hand-color many of them.
Ubiquitous here are the calaveras, the ludic skeletons popularized at the turn of the 20th century by José Guadalupe Posada, who made tens of thousands of prints of calaveras, which have since filtered so thoroughly into Mexican visual culture that their source is often forgotten. De Jesús claims he did not know about Posada when he began incorporating these moralizing stand-ins for human behavior into his art. They sometimes cause mischief in his works but just as often serve as protectors as they link the present day, in the form of villagers engaged in a kind of idyllic and timeless labor in harmony with nature, with the ancestral past. Skeletons stream from the moon during the Day of the Dead, arriving to partake of the offerings of bread, chocolate, and watermelon left by the villagers in homey scenes of preparation. The skeletons inhabit other sites, as well, often where De Jesús himself has traveled — flying with dragons in Indonesia, climbing the Eiffel Tower, or harrying border police. The prints are packed with them, along with living figures and endless details ranging from lighthearted — children playing games, for example, in scenes reminiscent of Pieter Bruegel’s 1560 painting “Children’s Games” — to horrifying. In “Los verdugos” (2011), men are tortured by dog-headed police in murky spaces shrouded and speckled in curtains of aquatint. The references to Goya’s etching series Disasters of War (1810–20) are most pronounced.
De Jesús’s political banners, salvaged from live events, are an especially precious record of his bravest activities, whether he is showing solidarity with Zapatistas or protesting state-sponsored terrorism. On the 11th anniversary of the 1998 El Charco Massacre, in which the military murdered members of the Na’ Savi (Mixteco) community, De Jesús produced a banner portraying gummy-limbed soldiers shooting at a garland of men who writhe and tumble through the air. Smears and streaks of paint splatter the surface. The work brings to mind the paintings of Peter Saul, in which a circuitry of figures similarly activates compositions. The show’s most recent works, from 2020, are giant, colorful canvases in acrylic that focus on immigration crackdowns, social injustice, and disease, linked inexorably by De Jesús. COVID molecules populate the windows of a jet in “Virus Criminal,” traveling through skies teeming with skeletons, cowboys, and musicians. Donald Trump makes repeated appearances as a cartoonish blond arch-villain, as in “Sueño migrante,” where a dove is speared on the crown of Lady Liberty as jaguars, skeletons, surveillance helicopters, and an Indonesian dragon hover above a snaking border wall. To the left, a fiery Virgin of Guadalupe points an indicting finger at the villainous Trump.
De Jesús’s scenarios are almost audible: characters play horns, bang drums, sing, dance, and fish, and participate in carnivalesque processions and rituals. We peep into a room where a couple is having sex, or into a bathroom at a delirious art exhibition attended by the vain and haughty, à la Daumier or John Sloan. The artist can be sly and even caustic, though he is unwaveringly generous to the people of the pueblos. It is they who are, after all, subjected to ecological depredation, from flooding to agro-terrorism, another source of De Jesús’s outrage. These works reveal the radical possibilities of an indigenous sensibility charged with a keen awareness of politics and art history. De Jesús may come from the mountain, as he says, but his view takes in the whole world.
Nicolás De Jesús: A Mexican Artist for Global Justice continues at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College (735 Anderson Hill Road, Purchase, New York), through December 23. The exhibition was curated by Patrice Giasson, the Alex Gordon Curator of Art of the Americas, with the assistance of curatorial intern Alexandra Hunter.