Nahum B. Zenil: Witness to Self

by Edward J. Sullivan

Mexican artist Nahum B. Zenil has said: “I have always felt the need for self-analysis in my work in order to accept myself and the way I live. I have always felt marginalized in my life and have experienced a great sense of solitude. In my art I’ve tried to effect a communication between the members of society and myself.” This statement contains the essential kernel of meaning in his highly complex and invariably self-referential art. Since the mid-1970s Zenil, who works principally in mixed media on paper as well as oil on canvas, has had a single subject: the artist himself. His face and body appear, in one form or another, in virtually all his works of the past twenty years. Zenil employs his own image to make insightful, often acerbic, commentaries on Mexican society of the late twentieth century.

Zenil opens himself up to the viewer, focusing the spectator’s gaze directly on his body—sometimes clothed but often not. He sets himself up as the object of scrutiny, the receptor of voyeuristic fixation. Yet he also turns the tables on us, gazing back at all who attempt to penetrate his world, challenging and goading, while at the same time inviting us to participate in the personal dramas (or, sometimes, melodramas) that he fashions from his own autobiographical obsessions.

While Zenil’s own body is obviously the focal point of his visual dialogue with the viewer, he treats a wide range of themes in his art. He queries and problematizes issues of nationalism in many drawings and paintings that incorporate the icons of his country, notably the Mexican flag. His definitions of “family” often differ radically from traditional Mexican notions of the immediate or extended family.

Religious imagery is another favorite subject. The Virgin of Guadalupe occupies pride of place in Zenil’s symbolic vocabulary. She is frequently shown together with the artist himself and with his companion, Gerardo Vilchis. The Virgin often appears above them, blessing their union or casting a protective aura around them. The wide range of saints populating Zenil’s works attests to his fervent interest in the potent forces of the spiritual world. At the heart of Zenil’s imagery, however, is the continuing dilemma of how to define, through visual analogues, his position as a gay man in contemporary Mexican society. Zenil has long ardently supported gay rights in Mexico. Since the early 1980s, he has been active in the Círculo Cultural Gay, which presents exhibitions and other events each June in the Museo del Chopo in Mexico City.

Zenil was born in 1947 in the state of Veracruz. His upbringing was essentially rural. Describing his childhood, he states: “I came from a lower-middle-class background and I had little or no access to culture as a child, yet I felt a great need to create. I never had a really integrated family life and I envied my cousins and others who did. I lived most of my childhood with my mother and grandmother in the house that appears in many of my paintings.”

In 1959 Zenil enrolled at the Escuela Nacional de Maestros (National Teachers’ School) in Mexico City, from which he graduated in 1964. His initial interest in self-portrayal evidently emerged there: “I remember that when I was in teachers’ school we studied art. One of the professors asked us to do a self-portrait and this might have been the start of what would virtually become an obsession for me.”

Zenil has lived in the Mexican capital since his earliest years of advanced study. He worked in a variety of schools, teaching all subjects, from drawing to sports, for twenty years before he became a full-time artist. His experience as a schoolteacher made a deep impression on his imagination. In many compositions he employs his students as subjects, often enumerating them and discussing their personal histories.

Zenil entered the Escuela Nacional de Pintura y Escultura (known as La Esmeralda) in Mexico City in 1968; his principal teachers were Cristobal Torres and Benito Messeguer. During his time there Zenil painted a number of abstract works, not dissimilar to those of the painters of the Mexican “Ruptura” movement of the 1960s and 1970s. He soon found abstraction insufficient to communicate the emotional content that he wanted to express in his art.

Because Zenil desires that his viewers know the precise circumstances behind the creation of a work, he often inscribes the scenario in his own handwriting. Image and text are virtually intertwined in his art. He believes that many of his works originate in the same impulse that leads us to write letters or postcards. “For me, paper and pen are the most natural means of communication,” Zenil has said. “I first started to use them because they were the cheapest media when I was a student. Later, they became my favorite means of working and communicating. I like paper very much. I like to cut it, to scratch and to touch it. At some point I’d like to make my own paper. I decided to write texts on my pictures as if I were writing a letter to a friend.”

The artist’s handiwork is always distinctly visible, evidence of his interest in the act of assembling. He often merges, in collage-like fashion, one element of a work into another. Sometimes he places one piece of paper over another, often sewing them together with thread or yarn. In many of his more ambitious compositions, Zenil attaches pieces of cloth to the surface of the paper. Occasionally he threads string or rope through the paper or the border. In his boxes and other constructions, he juxtaposes a wide variety of objects—cloth dolls, stuffed cloth hearts, baubles of various sorts, etc. These are often handmade, and we immediately grasp the labor that went into their creation. For Zenil the art-making process recalls the sewing that his mother did for hours on end or evokes the dignity of handicrafts and the traditional importance in Mexican folk art of the idiosyncratic, highly personal use of the hand as fashioner of the object.

Melancholy and nostalgia pervade much of Zenil’s oeuvre, creating an atmosphere of solitary, soulful revery. With its distressed surfaces and sepia tones, his work also recalls the look of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Mexican prints, including broadsheets by artists such as Manuel Manilla and José Guadalupe Posada, which were cheaply produced and widely distributed. In his use of skulls, skeletons, and devil figures, Zenil revives favorite motifs of Posada, who is often cited as the progenitor of modern Mexican graphic art.

Critics have often noted similarities (both specific and spiritual) between the art of Zenil and that of Frida Kahlo. Indeed, self-portraiture lies at the root of both artists’ production. For both Kahlo and Zenil, the depiction of the self represents a cathartic experience, a purging gesture, in which pain, both psychic and physical, is exorcised.

Zenil’s work reached its maturity in the 1980s. During that decade many younger artists, such as Julio Galán, Rocío Maldonado, and Dulce María Núñez, were returning to traditional Mexican themes, often examined in a skeptical or satirical fashion. The large group of painters and printmakers known as the “Neo-Mexicanists” reasserted a national sensibility. Zenil’s unique appropriation of traditional Mexican signs and symbols places him in the current of this movement.

In an international perspective, Nahum B. Zenil’s art finds few counterparts. It is hardly “erotic” in the conventional mode of, say, Paul Cadmus or Robert Mapplethorpe. Zenil’s manner of drawing, with its self-conscious awkwardness expressing both hesitation and boldness, is reminiscent of David Hockney’s drawings and paintings of the 1960s inspired by the poetry of Constantin Cavafy and Walt Whitman.

The work of Nahum B. Zenil stands, for the most part, alone. Neither his imagination nor his frames of reference need move beyond the small, crowded rooms of his house in Mexico City or the studio of his country refuge in Tenango del Aire, a village about an hour’s drive from the Mexican capital and situated in the shadow of the volcanoes Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl (sacred mountains for ancient peoples of Mexico, whose forms sometimes appear in the artist’s work). Zenil’s art reflects his own place in the cosmos. This is not to say, of course, that his work lacks implications for the world outside his private universe. In Zenil’s paintings and mixed-media works we perceive an intensely compassionate humanism that seeks to confront a myriad of moral and ethical issues, centering on the redeeming powers of tolerance, respect, and love, with clear relevance for all who are willing to take his messages to heart.


Categories: Essays