Carlos Zapata: Mestizo Colombia

Mestizo Colombia

Excerpt from The Mestizo Art of Carlos Zapata

Momentum Books, 2019

Engaging with his European and indigenous mestizo heritage, Carlos Zapata uses his sculptural practice to distil and personalise the traditions, ethnicities and political realities that constitute Colombian national identity and Latin American society more broadly. Mestizo was a term first used during Spanish imperial rule as a classifier within the caste system - a class hierarchy based on racial background and acculturation. Whilst mestizo peoples very rapidly became the overwhelming majority of the Latin American population, they historically held less power than European aristocrats and their descendants. Today, mestizo has been reclaimed as a flexible and ethnically unifying term to denote those living within the Hispanic mainstream. Approximately half of the population in Colombia (including Afro-Colombians, Indigenous Colombians and other minority groups) identify as mestizo regardless of their ancestry.

Dennison Smith, Founder and Director of The Baldwin Gallery writes that:

The word indigenous – like native or first – is problematic, but English doesn’t offer us a better word. The dictionary definition is: ‘originating or occurring naturally in a particular place’ or ‘naturally existing in a place or country rather than arriving from another place.’ Both definitions and their applications are suspicious when applied to humans. Why? Because the word can be used to create a false and immobilising history, one that stagnates a people in both time and space, and one in which any kind of change – from innovation to migration – equals the dirtying or diminishment of a mythical state.

In Latin America, where indigenous and slave cultures became syncretic with colonist Christianity, the merging of disparate beliefs to preserve religious traditions reflects an adaptability and resilience that refuses temporal entrapment. In Maximón, Zapata references the Mayan folk saint and shapeshifting trickster believed to have protected the indigenous peoples of Guatemala during the Spanish conquest. Maximón - also known as San Simón - is frequently conflated with Mayan mythological figures, the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado y Contreras and the Christian Saint, Simon Peter. His veneration in various forms exemplifies the syncretisation of pre-Columbian culture with aspects of the dominant power structure. This blending of spiritualities is a salient feature of Latin America and exists in contrast to colonial histories in North America. For example, whereas Métis peoples in Canada, have a more compartmentalised cultural identity – concretized and necessitated through shared traditions, institutions and uniting political figures in their battle for sovereignty and recognition – mestizo culture is defined by its fluidity. Adopting one of his many guises, a hat and suit, Maximón personifies the complex history of migration and change that has shaped Latin America. The myriad of regional saints that Zapata depicts in his Carnival series mirrors the diverse array of folkloric and legendary creatures that occur in Colombian oral culture and carnival traditions. Saint Chicken, the forest spirit who tempts hunters from the path to consume them, stands beside Saint Horse, the evil mule believed to incite treacherous storms. Brandishing a human mask, Saint Jaguar retains the entrenched mythological symbolism the jaguar has held across indigenous and pre-Columbian cultures in Central and South America: he is a guardian figure in times of war, a spirit companion and transformation figure for shamans who traverse between the earth and spiritual realm. Each anthropomorphic deity exhibits personalities and attributes which provide an important channel of communication between the tangible and the metaphysical world. Carnival is integral to Colombian cultural identity and is understood to be influenced by a mixture of both European and indigenous practices, and dance, music and masquerading traditions brought to diasporic communities from West Africa via the transatlantic slave trade. In the Saints and Carnival series, Zapata attaches organic materials such as feathers, shells and cloth, to his wooden carvings, drawing upon West African Vodun talismans and Nkisi power objects from the Congo basin. Fetishism – the imbuing of a human-made object with spiritual power – has historically been disregarded in Western thinking as an arbitrary attachment to materiality associated with witchcraft, satanism or the occult. Zapata however, finds an equivalence between the veneration of shrines and statues in Catholic doctrines and the fetish objects believed to be inhabited by spirits in African cosmologies. Embedded nails, coins, or gold and silver leaf reference, our pan-cultural fixation with metal and its role as communicator between the human and spiritual world. While Zapata’s figurines are reminiscent of African material culture, they share characteristics with Russian icons inlaid with gold or the glistening embellishments that bedeck the interiors of cathedrals. With considered chisel gouges, most left raw and unpolished, he carves eclectic expressions of worship, celebration, pain, menace and contemplation, to investigate the practical purposes of religious objects and the power humans ascribe to them. With its roots in colonial, indigenous and transatlantic slave cultures, mestizo is a synthesising identity that transcends the arbitrary signifiers of nationhood. In the 19th century, much of South America was unified under the name of Gran Colombia. Zapata conjures the historical union of Venezuela and Colombia in his work The Three Powers, referencing the Venezuelan Trés Potencias, a triad of Latin American hero-saints the veneration of whom equalises historicity and mythology. In the center is the green-eyed mother María Lionza, whose union with a giant anaconda transformed her into a venerated goddess of indigenous mythology. Believed to inhabit Sorte Mountain in Yaracuy province, she is the eponymous figurehead of a Venezuelan religion which is similar to Cuban Santería or Brazilian Candomblé in its blending of Catholic, African and Indigenous beliefs. She is flanked by Negro Felipe, an escaped Cuban slave who fought alongside Simón Bolivar for the liberation and union of Latin America in the 19th century, and the indigenous chief Guaicaipuro, who led the 16th century uprising against Spanish gold miners in the Caracas valley. In their coexistence, the trio embody the inherent hybridity of mestizo Latin America, expressing a sense of indigenous spirituality and history which extends beyond national boundaries.

Fusing the spiritualities and mythologies of settler, indigenous and slave cultures, Carlos Zapata unites multiple reference points that acknowledge the riches and horrors of Latin American history. In this hybridic merging of peoples, Zapata’s sculpture allows for multiple, flexible and innovative constructions of race and identity and a plural unity at that is at once historic and contemporary.

Text by Verity Seward Excerpt from The Mestizo Art of Carlos Zapata (2019), Momentum Books Worthy of Belief: The Mestizo Art of Carlos Zapata was on display at The Baldwin Gallery from 20.10.2018 - 20.11.2018

© 2020 by Verity Seward