Whenever a piece of art is framed as being related to the drug underworld, scandal and morbidity usually lurk behind the merchandising mechanisms to sell it. That is exactly the way both English and Spanish-speaking media portrayed the work of Alfonso Zárate (no relation to the political analyst of the same name), initially sparked by a Vice article. This stereotypical depiction obscures part of his work’s vision and reach, while serving as an excellent example of how the media are still unable to discuss drugs without breaking into a fit of giggles and nerves. That is why it deserves close analysis before we delve into Homo Sacer, the exhibition that started it all.
The article’s title, written in Vice’s typical click-bait style, contributed to portray Zárate’s youth not as an art student, but as a drug dealer who “made ends meet selling brand name knock-offs,” (or fayuca in the local slang) in one of the oldest and most dangerous neighborhoods in downtown Mexico City: Tepito. Which other background could have better explained his work? Elliot depicts Zárate as a quasi-clandestine figure who found refuge in art and kept a delicate balance between documentation and anonymity. A few weeks later, local sensationalist tabloid ¡Pásala! picked up on Vice’s line, yet distorted the story and offered a slightly less scandalous title: “From Fayuquero [bootlegger] To Artist.” A small add on the front cover stated, “Tepito Neighbor Makes Art Out of Drugs and Hookers’ Clothes.”
What is problematic is not Zárates’s work per se—he has every right to create art out of his own experiences. It is rather the way it was discussed by various media—sometimes abusively, at other times plainly discriminatorily due to his presumable consuming, selling, or artistic habits. In an almost morbid tone, Elliot describes Zárate’s constant use of in situ drug-related materials, “The result is art that feels ghostly and pieces that seem to reveal the spirit of people and places that are usually subterranean, invisible to anyone outside of Tepito’s underworld.” From this perspective, art—or rather the aesthetic experience involving art exhibitions (as Yves Michaud points out in L’Art à l’état gazeux)—operates as a “window into chaos” (Castoriadis), allowing the gallery goer to experience a glimpse of disgrace from a safe vantage point. This depiction brings to mind Maynard James Keenan calling the average media user a cannibalistic voyeur:
’Cause I need to watch things die from a distance.
[…] Vicariously I live while the whole world dies.
Much better you than I.
The worst thing about Vice’s article is that, for all its implicit defamatory tones, it was meant to be a positive, legitimizing piece of journalism.
What is most interesting about Zárate, though, is that his work, as he said to Elliot, “is a conversation with the people at the end of a complicated social chain: outcasts, indigents, bandits, sicarios [hitmen], narcomenudistas [drug traffickers], addicts, alcoholics, and sex workers. They tell me the history of the streets and the neighborhood.” Here addicts are the most vulnerable link in Zárate’s chain—constantly harassed by policemen and other law enforcers, exploited by their suppliers, and rejected from society at large (sometimes because of the physical marks left on their bodies by drug use and street life).
Homo Sacer: Right to Survival on the Streets (Zárate’s solo exhibition at the Traeger y Pinto Gallery in Mexico City in 2017) refers to these outcasts from its very title (according to Giorgio Agamben, homo sacer is an obscure term from Roman law that describes a disposable individual ostracized from society). The collages most clearly using drug paraphernalia are the most eye-catching and easily recognized, yet other pieces refer more directly to modern society’s pariahs. Fire and the act of lighting objects (pen caps, beer cans, plastic lighters wanted for their inner parts) are pervasive (Frontón clásico…, Por obra del espíritu santo…, the stencil series On/Off) and often mixed with geometrical figures and patterns or materials containing drugs (cocaine dime bags, colorful crack wrappers).
The most fascinating, though, are the ones related to Jude the Apostle, known in Mexico as San Judas Tadeo (Jude Thaddaeus). As the patron saint of lost causes, Jude has been adopted by young, low-income drug users (known by many derogatory names, such as pokemones or chacas) as their main divine intercessor. As a way of penance, every 28th of the month, those individuals make a jura or “commitment” around the city, carrying
along Jude statues. Pieces like Ruta de altares callejeros en el mítico de Alfarería document this popular belief, not recognized by the church, around a legitimate saint (as opposed to an unrecognized popular saint, like Santa Muerte or Malverde, both venerated by sicarios and drug dealers), and they reveal much of the symbolic weight given to the believers’ socioeconomic level. For example, the glass shards covering the sides of the four Jude statues in Santo protector con protección de alta seguridad echo a rudimentary security system implemented in low-income neighborhoods and squats that consists of inserting the same shards into the edges of a wall or building using concrete. Sometimes, during the juras, some Jude statues would fall and break, as portrayed not only in Nicho semipúblico…, but also in a video that went viral in Mexico in which a Jude devotee, carrying a statue on his back and presumably high, crashed his bicycle against a car and shattered the statue, inspiring countless memes that blasphemously mocked the drug users’ faith being mutilated along with the statue.
Zárate’s work is informed by more than just drug dealing, bootlegging, or stealth. Homo Sacer is about the populations most seriously harmed by the Mexican drug war, which U.S. drug policies have fueled in myriad ways. Much changed in 2006 when then president Felipe Calderón officially declared the War on Drugs in Mexico (which he later toned down to a “struggle”). However, cities like Torreón, in the northeastern state of Coahuila, had suffered from the effects of militarizing the eradication of drug trafficking since much earlier in the decade, as Carlos Velázquez confirms in his book El karma de vivir al norte (2013). Someone once mentioned on social media that many children born in 2000, legally becoming adults by the minute, have not known any other Mexico than the one immersed in this meaningless fight, while in Canada the state is beginning to legalize, tax, and even (in provinces like Québec) sell recreational marijuana. That is work in a completely opposite direction—a dismantling of years spent in efforts for criminalizing drug use.
Under this contrasting panorama, it is no surprise that artists like Zárate are not only in contact with drugs, but find in them (and the urban cultures associated with them) the materials for creation. Mexican conceptual artist Teresa Margolles has also talked about the residues left by the War on Drugs in her work La promesa (2012), composed from the debris of Ciudad Juárez’s demolished buildings, rematerialized into a wall, and exhibited at MUAC (Museo Universitario de Arte y Cultura) in Mexico City. Places from where such debris was brought have been continually and systematically ravaged, first by looters, then by real estate speculators, and later on by “merchants of emotions,” as Keenan has called artists like himself. As suggested by Elliott, Margolles focuses on the aftermath of violence, while Zárate seems to be reporting live from the ground. In both cases, they are building up their social capital and artistic prestige out of other people’s suffering, even if such work seeks to create visibility for the marginalized. It is always an ironic situation where good causes intended to help a vulnerable social sector end up hurting them even more. There does not seem to be an ethical way for artists, the mass media, or art critics to talk about drugs. We have to come up with new critical tools for dismantling drug use based discrimination.