Fifteen years ago, the Mexican-American artist Eduardo Sarabia traveled from his home in California to Guadalajara, the Mexican city where the most powerful drug traffickers’ families are rumored to reside. Sarabia simply planned to visit a ceramics factory owned by a young art collector. But, enchanted by the city’s natural beauty and atmosphere, he decided to stay.
Sarabia has since focused his artistic practice on the drug culture that’s percolated into many aspects of Mexican society, from music — as seen in narcocorridos, folks songs that immortalize drug traffickers — to Catholicism, wherein the legendary Jesús Malverde is revered as the unofficial patron saint of drug trafficking.
Sarabia now has a show of his drug-culture-inspired ceramics, photographs, paintings, and sculptures at Cabañas Cultural Institute in Guadalajara. “These works started as an experiment in using the language that has become popular from drug trafficking,” he told Hyperallergic. “They are reminders of how important and how ingrained in our culture drug trafficking, especially the economy of it, has become.”
Among many works in the show, Sarabia has a series of traditional talavera pottery (produced in that art collector’s ceramics factory) decoraed with figures and motifs that tell a story about power, much the way ancient Greeks embellished their vessels with narratives about their gods. These symbols — marijuana leaves, AK-47s, and the scantily clad girlfriends of narcos — signify the way drug culture has so thoroughly infiltrated life in parts of Mexico that it often goes unnoticed.
“Newspapers commonly adorn the front page with ‘sexy’ bikini-dressed women next to an image and headline like ‘10 Found Butchered in a Ditch,’” Sarabia explained of his repeated depictions of the female body. “It reminds us of the macho society in which we live.”
In the show, the vases sit atop cardboard boxes bearing the logos of food companies and convenience stores like OXXO. Though the name may recall a familiar acronym for hugs and kisses, it carries a darker meaning. “A few years ago, there was a newspaper image of OXXO styrofoam coolers with the headline, ‘Heads Found Inside Coolers.’ For me, it was the height of the drug war and how terrifying it had become. It was a message of power for all to see,” Sarabia said. He experienced that terror again two years ago, when the ceramics factory was robbed and a fellow artist killed. “It was a tough time, but I could not abandon what we started.”
The violent legacy of the Mexican Drug War has been explored by many artists, including Patricia Ruiz-Bayón, Rigoberto Alonso Gonzalez, and Teresa Margolles. Films like Narco Cultura (2013) and US exhibitions like Narcolandia (2012) have taken up the subject. But Sarabia says drug culture is still seldom discussed in Mexico. “I was nervous and excited to show this work [here],” he said. “It’s very rare to have this subject put in such a public platform.”
Below are a few more images from the show: