There’s a superficial minimalism to The Road to Tepeyac that’s refuted as soon as you get near to the many ‘people’ in the gallery. The multitude of figures all face away from us, and though not life-sized, have a strength in numbers that’s augmented by the vivid colours and absorbing, engrossing details in Alinka Echeverria‘s images. Despite being ‘faceless’, each exists as a person with a specific identity, and in this manner are very authentic: its not hard to imagine their stories and backgrounds, what has perhaps brought them onto the road to Tepeyac.
There’s a laborious quality to these pilgrims: they carry the Virgin of Guadalupe with them, and it weighs some of them down, and drives them to their knees (perhaps literally, with the sheer physical burden, or with the affliction, the strain, of their ‘belief.’ More on that, in a moment). The gallery installation positions you, the viewer, in the middle of the ‘u’ of the congregation moving outwards and away. Not only are their faces unseen but oftentimes their bodies are nearly fully obscured by their painting or sculpture, shawl or other covering physically representing their ‘faith.’ Some are only visible with their bare feet, or the bottom of their shoes as they kneel towards an unseen destination, on the road to ‘see her and be seen by her’ (to quote one of the pilgrims Echeverria spoke with) at Tepeyac.
The double level of the figures (as installed in the VISA) and the ’empty’ backgrounds both privilege the figures (on my initial visit I spent a great deal of time on the intense details and exploring the various, yet similar in many instances, belongings of the wayfarers or believers) yet conversely unite them as a group. Further formal factors are ‘repeated’ in the manner in which the virgin appears sometimes as a massive painting, with hands below it gripping furiously, or a small shiny sculpture, or a towel or shawl or jacket, more utilitarian in its presentation. Some carry the same ‘icons’, brand new, others obviously worn by generations of reverential hands. Two ‘pilgrims’ carry an image of the virgin comforting Karol Wojtyła, another has balloons attached to their ‘lady’, and sometimes small images of other religious icons or family photographs are interspersed around the ‘iconic’ green robed Virgin of Guadalupe.
The accompanying statement: The Road to Tepeyac consists of over 100 images of devout Mexican pilgrims carrying their personal image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the anniversary of her apparition in 1531. The work provides kaleidoscopic re-presentations of the sacred image and deconstructs the relationship between an invisible presence and its materialized expression.
At her talk, Echeverria offered human depth to The Road: if the works seem to enfold you, this may be due to the inclusiveness of Echeverria’s process where she sucessfully transcended a staid ‘documentary’ approach, and interacted with the ‘pilgrims.’ That Echeverria was among, not separate, manifests in her eye and in her choices and thus in the gallery, transferring that community sense to those who ‘visit’ The Road.
There is history that you can surmise, but allow me to proffer the following.
Tepeyac, also know as the Hill of Tepeyac, is “[a]ccording to the Catholic tradition,…where Saint Juan Diego met the Virgin of Guadalupe in December 1531, and received the iconic image of the Lady of Guadalupe. The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe located there is one of the most visited Catholic shrines in the world. Spanish colonists erected a Catholic chapel at the site, Our Lady of Guadalupe, [often called] “the place of many miracles.” (Díaz Del Castillo). Its likely you’re familiar with Lourdes, or in a Canadian context, perhaps (like myself when much younger) you’ve visited the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré in Québec City.
As well, a film titled Tepeyac (1917) uses the backdrop of WWI as a fable of the Virgin of Guadalupe’s ‘intervention’, in the ‘rescue’ of the fiancé (Carlos) of the devoted heroine (Pilar Cotta as Lupita Flores). The reunited couple go to The Basilica on the 12th of December – the primary pilgrimage dates being 11 / 12 December – and undoubtedly are married under the ‘watchful’ eyes of the Virgin. As the lost were found, so does the sometimes dirty, sometimes indigent, caravan of those seeking hope and better things that Echeverria presents us pursue peace and shelter and safety, both literally and in wider, deeper ways.
We live in an age where immigrants and the poor are declared evil and dangerous in a manner that, if not unequalled in history, is unequally monstrous in vitriol, from Fox ‘News’ to social media. May I channel Lou Reed? “Give me your hungry, your tired your poor I’ll piss on ’em that’s what the Statue of Bigotry says / Your poor huddled masses, let’s club ’em to death and get it over with and just dump ’em on the boulevard.”
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But let us go then, you and I, outside the gallery, for a moment.
The Virgin of Guadalupe (Virgen de Guadalupe) isn’t a neutral image, nor any allusion or direct reference to Catholicism, these days. Perhaps you heard (and were offended, or edified) by the recent joke (comedians often have told harsh truths) about how supporting alleged pedophile R. Kelly in his music is no worse – arguably quantitatively ‘less evil’ – than being a Roman Catholic. We’re amidst ongoing, unending, it seems, revelations of serial child rape and those whom aid and abet, by ‘sins’ of commission or omission.
When I see many of these ‘worshippers’ I think of the disingenuous – wilful distraction of a – promise of ‘seek justice in the next world, not this one’: an opiate crisis of a different, but perhaps more insidious, kind. I disagree with much of Marx, but his assertion of religion as the opium of the masses has been, is being, will be, proven repeatedly – as it is in this show.
Its necessary to remember Diderot‘s assertion that we’ll “never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” (I enjoy thinking of how during the French Revolution – a few years prior to Diderot’s death, that Louis XVI, who was so sure he was divinely appointed, and pampered Catholic elite cabal whom were his enablers and beneficiaries and so sure, so sure, they were divinely unassailable, still saw their heads separated from their necks with little fuss or bother. Perhaps this was bloody as it was overdue justice. Did someone mention México’s own Marcial Macial or Cardinal Pell, or Law, or McCarrick or – well, we could be here all day. You take my implication).
‘Abuse of power comes as no surprise’ (Holzer) and neither is how many are eager to prostrate themselves. Echeverria evokes Alejandro Cartagena’s exhibition A Presidential Guide to Selfies, which also exposed devotion and artifice, undeserved deference given to another shoddy Mussolini, if you will. In this respect, I think of that fine comedian / satirist Mark Twain and his clarion warning that “religion was invented when the first con man met the first fool.”
So, I imagine anyone engaged in the moral gymnastics that strain and stress like a victim of Stockholm syndrome (if they’re not just ignorantly bleating to their delusional ends, like Boxer in Animal Farm) must, in their heart of hearts, feel the weight of guilt (appropriate for once, in terms of Catholicism). When I saw some of the penitents – sorry, pilgrims – almost buried under their icons, straining with them, I wondered how long they could go on. Would they pray for help, and what would they do when no one answered?
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One pilgrim is hidden nearly fully by their blue framed Guadalupe, with such thin frail legs I presume it must be a child or youngster; another kneels so far forward that he seems to have fallen under his overwhelming ‘burden’ of devotion; another devotee kneels – the position of elbows and arms makes me sure he clasps his hands in prayer – and the statue he carries seems excessively penitential suffering; so many others, in the stressed nature of clothing and what they carry, pale even more against the vivid flowers, garlands and other garnishments of what might be faith, might be fraud, or might simply be human frailty, reaching for better, for more.
Echeverria has captured their humanity both expertly but empathetically: in this way, as you stand in the gallery enfolded by the people, you’re among them, and are standing with them, either hopeful or battling hopelessness, on The Road to Tepeyac.
All images are from online sources, especially from Echeverria’s own site, or were shot by myself. This exhibition is on display at the VISA Gallery at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Peforming Arts in downtown St. Catharines. I’d like to acknowledge the research and conversation with Cree Amber Tylee that were intrinsic to this article.