The exhibit was launched as most exhibits are launched; opening remarks by the Cultural attaché and Public Relations Officer and the professor. That, yes, was all standard. What were not standard were the professor’s words. Dr. Wilkins gave an in-depth explanation of his photographed subjects from Costa Chica, Mexico.
“The aim of this photographic presentation is to make a substantive contribution to “Black History Month” celebrations by fostering awareness of the African presence in Mexico, highlighting the contributions of AfroMexicans and promoting cross border friendship. It is safe to say that there are still many people who are unaware that Mexico even has an African population; that Spaniards never outnumbered Africans in “New Spain” as Mexico was referred to during the colonial period; that AfroMexicans made an enormous contribution to the struggle for independence…” – Ron Wilkins, The African Presence in Mexico, a photographic discourse.
The aforementioned is an extract from the text which accompanies the exhibit. And these words spoke to me on a more personal level. As I have mentioned before, studying in Mexico was challenging for me as I was immersed in a culture which, though bearing similarities with my own, bore several racial differences and ideals. I can still remember the first time I roamed the Centro Historico of Merida with my afro. They stared and ogled and whispered, even with my back turned I could still feel their stares. Fearing that I would have to wait until semester’s end to get my hair processed; or permed as it is referred to in Belize; I went to the nearest grocery store to purchase the hair straitening shampoos and creams I had seen on the advertisements during the novelas I watched. I figured that it was worth a try, needless to say, those products don’t work as well as they do on the advertisements. Instead I had to find a way to cope with the stares and the requests to touch my hair, and even sometimes, those who didn’t ask but just grabbed a chunk of my hair and asked how comes it is that way.
In my second year of school, around the fourth semester, I had already decided what themes my art would focus on. It would definitely have to attempt to counter what I coined as the ‘negro imaginario’ or the imaginary black. I figured surely having references such as Memin Pinguin (The protagonist of a comic of the same name is a small black boy, who greatly resembled the coon drawings of the 1950s in America. This was one of the masterworks of Yolanda Vargas Dulche and Sixto Valencia Burgos. It is noteworthy to mention that Vargas Dulche was also the writer of many other stories which were later transformed to some of the most famous novelas for example Gabriel y Gabriela.) Kalimba and ex-band member of OV7 (Onda Vaselina 7), and la morena de fuego (la morena de fuego is a term used to refer to darker complexioned women who are extremely hot, read between the lines to understand the fire) was not how I wished to be portrayed. These examples, I felt, were responsible for the creation of the imaginary black or a very poor representation of black people, which is constructed based on a number of different stereotypes. The first project I did was a piece entitled “Don’t let them try to fool you” which consisted of two massive prints; the first was a painting, which I found on the internet of King Henri Christophe and Queen Marie Antoinette of Haiti, and an enlarged print of a comic strip, also by Vargas Dulche, a representation of King Henri Christophe and a blonde woman, who was supposedly Queen Marie Antoinette. Queen Marie Antoinette was the first black queen of the Americas, as when Haiti became independent of France, King Henri Christophe wished to instil in the people of Haiti a pride of being black and liberated by converting the newly freed country into a kingdom. Very little is known of this queen, I searched for several weeks on the internet before I could garner a few paragraphs on her life and then eventually an image of the queen. This project was featured in a group exhibit called “Cuando El Rio Suena” and was displayed in the foyer of the Peon Contreras in Merida.
The second project I did, in 2008, shortly before I returned to Belize, was called “Facing the Music” a performance piece where I wore white t-shirts which had commonly used phrases or words, which I perceived as bearing racist overtones, on them. I wore these shirts and did several strolls in the Plaza Grande in downtown Merida. I chose to do this performance in the Plaza Grande because of its significance to the city. Most cities in Mexico were built in a similar fashion. Around the grand plaza were the City Hall, the Cathedral, the Governor’s House and the Court. I figured if I wished to make a statement I needed to make it there in the midst of all the seats of power of the city.
I had always assumed that the reason the imaginary black existed was because there was no realistic point of reference in Mexico. Still, my ex-boyfriend’s mother showed me a Conaculta documentary La Tercera Raiz or the third root, which showed that that was not entirely true. She had also regaled me a book Las Soldaderas by Elena Poniatowska. I barely looked at the book. All the pictures were in the back and I barely managed a couple pages of the text before I lost interest in the book.
The folly of the youth is astounding. I believe that if I had taken time to really absorb that information, I would have been able to do more successful art projects at battling the imaginary black.
I often am amused by the cyclic nature of life; I went to the exhibit not knowing what to expect and was confronted once more with both the video la Tercera Raiz and the book Las Soldaderas. This time around, I paid more attention, listened with keener ears and looked with more alert eyes.
As I listened to Dr. Wilkins’ presentation and looked at the photos, a song rang through my mind “Young, Gifted and Black” by Nina Simone. As much as it pains me to admit it, I must say that so very few of us are aware that we are. I could speak eternally of what I experienced in Mexico, but I must admit that I am far more disappointed with what I experience here in Belize. We have an African presence in Belize which is not concentrated on a tiny coast but spread throughout the length and breadth of the country. Still we don’t admit that we are, and we continue to straighten our hair to look ‘presentable’ and I hear people proudly express interest in ‘putting milk in the coffee’ in an attempt to what? To be better? To be less black?
I don’t pretend to judge anyone, I struggle with loving my kinky hair as well, but we need to combat the stereotypes and learn to accept what we are.
The African Presence in Mexico, a photographic discourse by Professor Ron Wilkins, is an apt exhibit for Black History month. It highlights the African presence in Mexico, as well as showcasing their contribution to the culture and history of Mexico. This exhibit is currently on display at the Institute of Mexico on Newtown Barracks. It is surely worth the visit