Pieter Hugo: La Cucaracha

Pieter Hugo: La Cucaracha
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From August 27 to October 5, 2019, Stevenson, Cape Town will present La Cucaracha by Pieter Hugo, the photographer’s seventh exhibition with the gallery.

This latest body of work is the result of four trips to Mexico over the last two years, each spanning close to a month, with Hugo travelling from the industrialised zone of Mexico City to the desert of Hermosillo and the mountainous regions of Ixtepec and San Cristóbal. He states:

I first came to Mexico at the invitation of Francisco Berzunza. He was curating an exhibition of South African art at a museum in Oaxaca and wanted me to make new work for the show. The exhibition was titled Hacer Noche (‘Crossing Night’) and dealt with the liminal space after death. His only brief to me was that the work be about sex and mortality.

The complexity of the work’s title echoes Hugo’s layered exploration of these thematic concerns. Sung with the deceptive simplicity of a jingle, with lyrics describing a cockroach that cannot walk, La Cucaracha is a folk song of contested origin. Historians have traced it as far back as the 1800s, yet it is accepted that it gained prominence as a satirical metaphor during the Mexican revolution when rebel and government forces alike invented political lyrics that commented on the events and effect of the war. Contemporary use of the song has spanned superhero movies, cartoons and recreational drugs. Violence, power, camaraderie and humour find articulation in the song, the country’s attitudes to sex and death, and in Hugo’s images.

Hugo elaborates:

Mexico has a particular ethos and aesthetic; there is an acceptance that life has no glorious victory, no happy ending. Humour, ritual, a strong sense of community and an embrace of the inevitable make it possible to live with tragic and often unacceptable situations.

There is a very different relationship with death here to what I am used to. If one looks beyond the clichés of dancing skeletons and sugar skulls, there’s a deeply complicated connection with mortality. This necropolitical dynamic is most visible in contradictory expressions of honouring the afterlife, in the Day of the Dead celebrations and the brutal dismemberment of bodies by narco traffickers.

Alongside the flamboyance and high-pitched register of this series, there is the ordinariness of the everyday. I am drawn to the fabulousness of the banal and the banality of the exotic.

La Cucaracha marks the first series in which Hugo uses descriptive titles, making more apparent the literary and art historical referencing that have long formed part of his practice. Images such as After Siqueiros, Zapata and Adelita and the sequence of Muxe portraits in particular foreground the country’s canon of visual expression. Hugo continues:

Given the disparate nature of my interests, I’ve always struggled to situate myself. One could say, albeit reductively, that my work has always been about the outsider – and in the Trump era, Mexico is definitely the outsider.

La Cucaracha is set to be published by Editorial RM (Spain and Mexico) in 2019. This is Hugo’s first new body of work to be exhibited following his mid-career retrospective, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, which travelled from Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg to Museum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, Dortmund, Germany, and Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisbon (2017-18).

Pieter Hugo was born in 1976 in Johannesburg and lives in Cape Town. He has participated in numerous solo and group exhibitions at prestigious centres and institutions including the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul, the Hague Museum of Photography, Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Ludwig Museum in Budapest, Fotografiska in Stockholm, MAXXI in Rome, the Institute of Modern Art Brisbane, Barbican Art Gallery, Tate Modern, the Folkwang Museum, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, and at the São Paulo Biennale.

Hugo received the Discovery Award at the Rencontres d’Arles Festival and the KLM Paul Huf Award in 2008, the Seydou Keita Award at the Rencontres de Bamako African Photography Biennial in 2011, and was shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize in 2012. In 2015 he was shortlisted for the Prix Pictet and was chosen as the ‘In Focus’ artist for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

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