Monday, November 4, 2013

Appropriation/Exchange: Posada and his Descendents

Robert Boyd

Dennis McNett, Wolfbat Storyteller (Mask), 2011, wood armature, paper mâché, woodcut prints, 36 x 30 x 26 inches

Dennis McNett in the information card that accompanies Wolfbat Storyteller writes that as a teen, he was impressed by punk rock and skateboard graphics. "When I took my first printmaking class and pulled my first woodblock print it was graphic, bold, and raw. It had the same aesthetic of everything I was into during my early teens." As a printmaker, his eyes were opened to German Expressionist graphics, Japanese woodcuts and the great Mexican printmaker José Guadalupe Posada. Studying Posada, he saw the "similarity with the punk movement, energy, and graphic sensibility." I think this particular artistic journey is one that many of the artists in Messengers of the Posada Influence, on view at the Museum of Printing History, have more-or-less taken.

This is on my mind because of an editorial recently published by Free Press Houston , "White People Are Killing Day of the Dead". Its author, Luciano Picasso, calls the use of the Day of the Dead by what he identifies as "white organizations" racist.
This goes for Lawndale Art Center in Houston, Texas. Their 26th Dia de Los Muertos exhibit is the 26th time they turn Day of the Dead into a cultural garage sale to make money. They lump in Dia de Los Muertos with a Gala and Retablo Silent Auction so they can insult us twice over, and there is not one actual alter on their premises that speaks to that day. They make money off this mess to pay for their White programming all year long. I’m sure they will give us the same lip service the Texas Book Festival gave: we have a Hispanic intern  . . . yada yada yada . . . the equivalent of “I’m not racist because I shagged a Hispanic once.”
This goes for the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH). This is another example of a White arts group taking money for Latino outreach and never reaching Latinos. They’ve got several events for “Day of the Dead” including a DJ party with IKEA-the Swedish plundering of our demographic, and a couple of sorry ass lectures by Germans showing slides of their cool adventures in Mexico. Wow, deep. See, this proves that MFAH stands for Mother Fucking Ass Holes.
It's hard to read this editorial because it is so vituperative and hate-filled. I guess the Museum of Printing History is lucky they didn't get called out by name. I doubt Luciano Picasso would have approved of Wolfbat Storyteller.

But it is hard for me to see McNett's appropriation of Posada's imagery (and via Posada, imagery from the Day of the Dead) as anything but homage to a master. It is an expression of respect.

Artemio Rodriguez, Dia de Muertos en Edo, 2012, linoleum cut print, 25.5 x 16 inches

Of course Luciano Picasso's editorial implies a one-dimensional world of racist appropriators of a victim's culture. It can't explain an image like Dia de Muertos en Edo. Who's appropriating what? Artemio Rodriguez, a Mexican print-maker, went to Japan where he made this print. It's a playful combination of two disparate cultural elements--a 19th century street scene in Edo (as Tokyo was was called until 1868) and the Day of the Dead calaveras.

Artemio Rodriguez, Payasos piden a la virgen alto a la maldita crisis, 2013, linoleum cut, 18.5 x 22 inches

A satirical artist like Rodriguez doesn't worry about offending cultural sensibilities, such as when he sends this group of clowns to make an offering to the Virgin Mary. Except that this is an actual thing--clowns do march every year to make offerings to the Virgin! That's what true satirists discover--and that includes Posada himself--that reality frequently exceeds your ability to make fun of it. All you can do is draw it and proclaim, this crazy thing exists.

Tom Huck, Possum Promenade from "The Bloody Bucket" series, 2000-2005, woodcut, 51.5 x 37.5 inches

Printmaker Tom Huck spoke on the night of the opening. His talk covered his own work and Posada's about whom he was very knowledgeable. The influence was direct--he even tried to use paper that matched the color of the yellowed newsprint on which Posada's woodcuts were printed. But his work avoids the motifs of Posada. Huck comes up with his own. But where the two artists are similar is in their rage and their humor. "The Bloody Bucket" was a series of enormous manic satirical prints. Like Posada or Hogarth or Gillray or so many others, he can be quite jolly while exposing the underside of the society in which we live. The Bloody Bucket was a bar in his hometown of Potosi, Missouri. He takes typical habitués and creates narrative images of them--some mildly pathetic, like the loveable loser dancing with a broom above.

Tom Huck, Joe's Meat Grinder from "The Bloody Bucket" series, 2000-2005, woodcut, 51.75 x 45.75 inches 

Other barflies are less appealing, like the racist WWII vets in Joe's Meat Grinder.  Huck spoke about how he'd hear about "the greatest generation" in reverent terms, and how that didn't jibe with his own experiences at all--that the WWII vets he knew were all unreconstructed racists. That's what a good satirist does--he goes after sacred cows.

The Amazing Hancock Brothers and Carlos Hernandez, Posada: 100 Years On (24 of 100 prints), 2013, screenprint, 18 x 24 inches each

Carlos Hernandez and the Amazing Hancock Brothers teamed up for this enormous tribute to their master. The individual prints in Posada: 100 Years On are full of visual quotes from Posada. Hernandez and the Hancock's have similar styles, but the layering of image and color here reminds me more of Hernadez's work than the Hancocks. Of course, in a collaborative work like this, it's hard to know who did what, and certainly they all have a similar aesthetic--they are, as Huck spoke about in his talk, "outlaw printmakers," who take inspiration from folk culture and often despised subcultures (sideshow banners, for example). Obviously the Day of the Dead is huge for Hernandez--his work is full of calaveras. Every year he puts together a Day of the Dead Rock Stars exhibit. He designed a calavera label for St. Arnold's beer. Their kaleidoscopic remixing of Posada is a beautiful tribute.

The Amazing Hancock Brothers and Carlos Hernandez, Posada: 100 Years On (detail), 2013, screenprint, 18 x 24 inches each

When I see a show like this, I'm reminded of one of my favorite songs, "Chiclete Com Banana", written by Gordurinha and Almira Castilho.

Eu só boto bebop no meu samba
Quando o Tio Sam tocar o tamborim
Quando ele pegar no pandeiro e no zabumba
Quando ele aprender que o samba não é rumba
Aí então eu vou misturar Miami com Copacabana
Chiclete eu misturo com banana
E o meu samba vai ficar assim:
bop-be-bop-be-bop bop-be-bop-be-bop
Eu quero ver a confusão

(I’ll only put bebop in my samba
When Uncle Sam plays the tamborim
When he grabs the pandeiro and zabumba
When he learns that samba isn’t rumba
Then I’ll mix Miami with Copacabana
I’ll mix chewing gum with bananas
And my samba will turn out like this:
bop-be-bop-be-bop bop-be-bop-be-bop
I want to see the confusion )

I first heard this sung by Gilberto Gil, but I like the original 1959 Jackson do Pandeiro version better. When I see the work of the artists in this show, from the U.S. and Mexico, I see the "confusion." And it's glorious.



  1. Quick correction: what you identify as Hate is actually a little something called Anger. Please don't be one of thems that is so quick to dismiss the constantly provoked and easily understandable anger of a person of color living in a white supremacy.

    1. Sorry, I'll stick with hate, which is what I got from that piece. In any case, I didn't leave out anger in my description ("vituperative").

    2. I guess you would know. No one knows us like the masters of the universe.

  2. I think anytime a person of color calls something out as being racist white people should give them the benifit of the doubt for 2 reasons...A) Most white people have no idea what its like to not be white and
    B)White people have nothing to lose by doing this, they still get to be white and enjoy all of the advantages of being white. Don't try to take one of the few advantages non whites have over whites, and that's knowing when something is racist. I think that the Free press op ed was not geared at individual artists who actually know and rescpect the history they are appropriating (like you suggested) but to the institutions whose aims are self serving and who, lets face it, are supported and attended by white people.

    1. I think when anyone screams insults at anyone else, they're not being polite. When they do it at length, they're being hateful. So screw that guy.

    2. That's rich coming from a punk rock fan. Also this kind of commentary doesn't really go hand and hand with "polite" unless you just want to hear from the Don Lemons of the world.

    3. Exactly. Tom Huck is not "being polite" when he calls out racism. But I didn't hear Boyd complain.
      (Maybe Boyd thinks printmaking and punk rock involve artistic expression, while writing an essay doesn't?)