Worthy of Belief: The Mestizo Art of Carlos Zapata

Worthy of Belief: The Mestizo Art of Carlos Zapata

The Baldwin Gallery

20.10.2018 - 20.11.2018

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.

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. 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 West 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.

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 Worthy of Belief: The Mestizo Art of Carlos Zapata (2019), Momentum Books.

Photography by Oceana Masterman-Smith

© 2020 by Verity Seward