Symbolism and mysticism may seem part of an earlier time, but in Mexico City, notions of magic and spirituality are very prominent pieces of a contemporary lifestyle. Since 1531 the Virgin of Guagalupe has become the most powerful symbol for Mexicans, and her image is seen throughout the Americas as a figure of hope, peace, and salvation.
Alinka Echeverria’s current exhibition at EB&Flow Gallery features two series of work pertaining to contemporary Mexican spirituality. The Road to Tepeyac occupies the ground floor gallery and covers the entirety of wall space with images of over 100 pilgrims. While the subject of the photograph is an individual, each has their back turned on the camera revealing an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Are these images portraits of the subjects? A portrait of La Virgen? Not exactly. It is more a collective portrait of a cultural phenomenon.
The Virgin of Guadalupe was absolutely fundamental in the creation of modern Mexico – a uniting force in a tumultuous time of European conquest. The European Catholic image of the Virgin Mary assumes characteristics of the indigenous religion to create a unique mix of two traditions, like the culture of modern Mexico. La Virgen appeared to a young indigenous man on Tepeyac Hill in 1531 and now, each year, thousands of pilgrims embark on a pilgrimage to honour the woman referred to as the Queen of Mexico. Pilgrims come from all walks of life and each has their own interpretation on the meaning of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Some pilgrims ascend the hill on their knees to show extreme devotion and penitence, others travel as families.
The Road to Tepeyac explores the journey of the pilgrims by emphasizing the loads they carry. Each figure brings an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on their back, but the representations are as varied as the individuals who carry them. Some examples are exquisitely crafted, evidently the result of hours of painstaking work. Other images are mass-produced then adorned with flowers and photographs by the pilgrims. The typical image of La Virgen includes a red mantle with a blue cloak, but some of the representations on the pilgrimage feature a green cloak further highlighting the innate Mexican-ness of the tradition by recalling the colours of the Mexican flag.
Visitors are made into pilgrims themselves by attending the exhibition, and after walking with hundreds of other pilgrims, they descend into the basement gallery featuring a series entitled Small Miracles. The intensely dark space is in contrast to the brilliant whiteness above, and the walls are lined with eerily glowing panes of light. A highly saturated red colour serves as the background for solitary hanging milagritos, or small miracles. When pilgrims reach their destination, milagritos are placed in churches to represent the miracle they hope will occur. The small golden ornaments represent hands, pregnant bellies, cars, and animals, among others, and serve as a physical representation of prayer. The exhibition highlights a unique contrast of the small miracles in the virtual anonymity of the charm juxtaposed with the highly personal and unique prayer.
A dog wearing a Virgin of Guadalupe t-shirt provokes a smile, the man with the image of La Virgen in what appears to be a small elevator car is quirky, and children with miniature images demonstrate the continuity of the tradition. The exhibition is beautiful, spiritual, and inclusive – viewers are invited to join the pilgrims on the journey. It is a journey that inspires a multitude of emotions simultaneously and seamlessly blends tradition with modernity. Alinka Echeverria does work in portraiture, though not portraits of individuals, but rather a portrait of a culture and a people. Words /Photo: Emily Sack ©ArtLyst 2012