Surreal shots of sex, death and mysticism in Mexico

Surreal shots of sex, death and mysticism in Mexico

Enter the cucaracha — In his latest project, La Cucaracha, photographer Pieter Hugo attempts to unravel the country’s most compelling mysteries.

At the invitation of curator Francisco Berzunza, South African photographer Pieter Hugo arrived in Mexico to work on a new exhibition. The project, originally titled Hacer Noche (‘Crossing Night’), was set to be a visual exploration of sex and death in the country. 

The commission quickly became an obsession for the artist. Between 2018-19, Hugo made four month-long trips to Mexico to create a collection of captivating portraits that combine mysticism, beauty, humour and horror. The result was La Cucaracha, an exhibition which is now on view at New York’s Yossi Milo Gallery.

“I wanted the work to stay true to a Mexican aesthetic and make pictures that have an original and authentic voice,” Hugo says. Drawing upon the understanding that tragedy is a pervasive fact of life, Hugo embraces the anarchic and surreal sides of Mexican life. 

Pieter Hugo. Muxe portrait #3, Juchitán de Zaragoza, 2018

Pieter Hugo. Zapata and Adelita, Mexico City, 2019

Here, subjects appear as Don Quixote, a snake charmer, a blood-soaked pugilist and an undercover police officer disguised as a sex worker. Tender images of a girl on her First Communion appear alongside sensitive portraits of ‘Muxes’ – the Zapotec culture’s term for transgender women.

Hugo handles the subject of death with equal reverence. “The narco-state is a dark current that permeates all aspects of Mexican culture,” Hugo says. “Google ‘narco murders’ and you’ll get a sense of the vulgar morbidity and performative rituals committed – the signals these murders try and send to society. If one juxtaposes this with the beauty of Oaxaca’s death rituals, marigolds, graveyard wakes and the life and ancestor honouring, the contradictions are very apparent.”

The exhibition title, La Cucaracha – which translates to ‘the cockroach’ – comes from a song that gained prominence during the Mexican Revolution, when rebel and government forces alike invented lyrics to comment on major political figures, the events of war, and effects on civilians.

Throughout the series, Hugo explores the paradoxes of Mexican life, examining the tensions between tradition and revolution, and the cycle of life and death.

Pieter Hugo. The snake charmer, Hermosillo, 2019

Pieter Hugo. After Siqueiros, Oaxaca de Juárez, 2018

Pieter Hugo. Burning bush, Oaxaca de Juárez, 2018

Pieter Hugo. Black Friday, Oaxaca de Juárez, 2018

Pieter Hugo. The asylum seeker, Hermosillo, 2019

Pieter Hugo. First Communion, Mexico City, 2019

Pieter Hugo. Don Quixote, Oaxaca de Juárez, 201

Pieter Hugo: La Cucaracha is on view at Yossi Milo Gallery in New York through February 29, 2020. 

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