Misleading poetry about a murky story

Guatemalan artist Naufus Ramirez-Figueroa combines poetic and visually appealing art with a strong political consciousness. M Leuven shows a selection of his oeuvre.

It’s a quiet walk in the last but scenographic first space of the Naufus Ramirez-Figueroa exhibition, where ‘The House at Kawinal’ is installed. The walls are painted green. There are many objects on the floor, mostly painted white. An overturned tricycle, a ball, a radio cassette player, human figures. There is something threatening about it. An extinct life that somehow seems to end peace with the end.

The essence

  • Naufus Ramirez-Figueroa is a Guatemalan artist.
  • He makes sculptures and films of his performances.
  • The years of civil war in Guatemala run like a thread through his work.
  • He wraps his philosophy in poetic and attractive art.

It is a typical installation for Ramirez-Figueroa’s oeuvre (44). He links poetry and attraction to sociopolitical themes and history. ‘The House at Kawinal’ is closely linked to Guatemala’s recent history. Kawinal was a thriving Mayan city between the 12th and 16th centuries. After the colonization of the Spaniards, life quickly died out. But the city remained interesting to archaeologists for centuries.

In 1976, the then Guatemalan government – a military dictatorship – decided to build a dam in the Kawinal region. Neighbors were thrown out of their homes without mercy. In the end, 5,000 people were killed because they were considered rebels. The installation of Figueroa is a reminder of this. Silence and immobility when the violence is over.

The Guatemalan artist was already a guest in M ​​at the Playground Festival in 2018. He then made the film ‘Cacaxte # 1’, which can now be seen again along with an exciting installation of the same name. A cacaxte is a large backpack with a metal-bearing structure. Again, it is a reference to the past. Centuries ago, the locals used the cacax – in wood – to move goods. Back then, the backpack was nothing more than a convenient means of transportation.

Naufus Ramirez-Figueroa with ‘Cacaxte # 1’
© © Ushua Goeminne, M Leuven, Playground 2018

After the arrival of the Spanish rulers, it took on a completely different meaning. The backpack became the symbol of theft. At the new exhibition, the cacaxt hangs as an installation in the hallway. Figueroa hung several small objects from it. Once again, he combines misleading innocence with a veiled message of colonization. You need to know the background to understand the depth of the work. Otherwise you will not go beyond the poetic beauty.

It is amazing that M Leuven dedicates an exhibition to the Guatemalan artist. She is curated by Eva Wittocx. Ramirez-Figueroa is not yet a well-known name, but the exhibition is a pleasant introduction to his oeuvre.

Naufus Ramirez-Figueroa is not yet a well-known name, but the exhibition is a pleasant introduction to his oeuvre.

From 1960 to 1996, Guatemala was hit by a bloody civil war between a military dictatorship and left-wing resistance. Ramirez-Figueroa is a child of that time. He regularly fled the country with his family. He studied art in Vancouver and Chicago. He lived in Canada and Germany for a while, but has now settled in his native country.

His art practice is diverse. He started as a performer, he says in a release of the museum. ‘When I started – I was in my early twenties – performance felt like the first medium through which I could really express myself. It took a while before I could say anything about my sculptures. ‘

The exhibition in Leuven shows both old and new performances, which he captured on film. Also there you see the duality of light-hearted relaxation and restrained violence. Watch the movie ‘Three Ghosts’. You see the artist on a pile of bricks busy with watermelons. He cuts faces in fruit. They are faces of ghosts from the ancient Guatemalan faith. And slowly but surely, his white T-shirt turns red from watermelon. As red as blood.

Another exciting film is ‘Abstraccion azul’. Ramirez-Figueroa paints a dressed man blue in a natural landscape. The man represents a relative of the artist who was murdered during the Civil War. The scene twists in all directions, and that’s probably what Ramirez-Figueroa had in mind.

The exhibition concludes with the artist’s latest film: ‘Lugar de Consuelo’. It is perhaps his most explicit reference to the Civil War. The film is based on the play ‘El Corazón del Espantapájaros’, which was staged in 1975 at the University of Guatemala City. The play was quickly banned by the military junta. Actors, including uncles of Ramirez-Figueroa, were arrested. The theater burned down. He presents this murky story in a rather abstract way in his film. Without a beginning and an end. As a reminder of something that must never be forgotten.

Naufus Ramirez-Figueroa runs until October 30 at M Leuven

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