Mexico's Dark Past and Present

The exploitation of the poor in Mexico past and present often goes unnoticed in reports of its economic rise in recent years. One artist, Edgardo Aragón from Oaxaca, tries to capture that in an exhibition at the Laurel Gitlen Gallery.

Elisabeth Bernstein

Mexico, Mexico City in particular, has been a wellspring for the global art world for a while. Now, one artist is trying not only to bring the art world outside the refined confines of cosmopolitan neighborhoods in the capital, but also to dramatically challenge the brutal consequences of some of Mexico’s dark history.

Edgardo Aragón’s Treasure, which ends its run at the Laurel Gitlen Gallery in New York City on Sunday, June 23, introduces visitors to a Mexico experienced by many of the millions who live there. In Treasure, Aragón presents the lives of 10 families, five from his home of Oaxaca, by photographing against a simple white background the small jewelry these families have managed to hold on to despite facing the tough economic and social conditions confronting the region. Along with massive debts as a result of the Mexican company credit system and a historically volatile peso, that cheap jewelry is all these families have to pass down—and it speaks volumes to Aragón about how tragic certain aspects of life are for the poor in Mexico. The gallery has set up the images like a jewelry store, and visitors can wander amongst the display cases, gazing at the trinkets many would have melted down and sold to settle those debts.

The other work featured at the gallery is a video by Aragón, titled La Encomienda. In the film, he has a choir of young men performing mining protest slogans set to baroque music in an abandoned mine. The video brings together succinctly the connection between the family jewelry and the mining industry, the natural bounty of Mexico’s land, the connection between multiple Latin American countries on the issue of exploitation, and with the baroque music, a line to the time period during which the conquering of natives began.

Also worth delving into are Aragón’s past work, particularly La Trampa, which spoke to the history of death flights (the government dropping dead peasants into the ocean after torturing them), the violence and coercive nature of the drug trade, and also the exploitation by mining companies.

To close the exhibition, on June 23, outside perhaps the world’s most famous jewelry store, Tiffany & Co., a lone singer will perform the composition featured in La Encomienda.