The Laugh is on Them: A Guatemalan Artist’s Take on Belonging

 Photos by Andrés Asturias

Photos by Andrés Asturias

By Tatiane Santa Rosa

Pencils and cities, maps and flags: familiar symbols of how knowledge and history have been constructed through time. Or, perhaps, no, not quite. Not at all. Who has constructed them? Are they really familiar? To whom? In Fernando Poyón’s Al Otro Lado del Trazo these symbols are re-ordered, transformed. The solo exhibition was recently at La Erre, an innovative independent art and cultural space in Guatemala City run by artists. 

Born and based in Comalapa, Guatemala—a predominantly Kaqchikel (Mayan origin) municipality—Fernando Poyón has participated in editions of the Bienal de Paiz, and his works have been featured in art institutions from México, Ecuador, and Cuba to Argentina, Costa Rica, and Spain. He has often challenged the way indigenous peoples have been circumscribed and undermined by the West. 

For example, for the 2014 Bienal de Paiz, in collaboration with artist Ángel Poyón, they created the installation Colleción Poyón, in which they entitled themselves collectors of Mayan culture. They selected and exhibited a series of objects that participate in a visual culture that has exoticized Mayan peoples: from carnivalesque costumes to advertising and dolls. By doing so, Fernando and Ángel hijack the loaded actions of collecting, selecting, cataloguing, and curating which are continually used by colonial and white cultures: they turn the ethnographic gaze towards the very producers of the exoticization of indigenous peoples.

 Fernando Poyón,  Al otro lado del trazo,  wood, vinyl, and pvc, 2018

Fernando Poyón, Al otro lado del trazo, wood, vinyl, and pvc, 2018

In Al otro lado del trazo (On the Other Side of the Stroke), Fernando Poyón often uses the appearance of objects that look benign, familiar, only to reveal their origin as colonial or imperialist tools of domination. Some of his pieces look like object-assemblages, requiring the viewer’s careful visual attention. Others are larger installations that create a relationship with the viewers’ bodies: for example, in Detector de las palabras silenciadas (Detector of Silenced Words) (2018), a row of gigantic pencils—around 2-3 meters tall—lean onto the wall. Although looking like ordinary writing tools, they have two erasers at each edge. 

On the other hand, El peso del día (The Burden of the Day) (2017) looks like a fragile miniature city made of cement and installed inside a black wooden box that beckons viewers to bend to take a peek inside its mysterious, tomb-like interior. This play with scale is not arbitrary; Poyón seems to juggle with the very nature of these colonial apparatuses. What is a pencil, if not a tool that has been used for writing history? Since colonization, in these continents now called “Americas,” “history” marks not only the beginning of modernity, but also the launching of systematized endeavors of erasing indigenous histories, diverse traditions, and knowledges.  

In Poyón’s hands, history/memory becomes a un-writing tool. The pencil is blown up to large scale to reveal it as a burden, a clumsy instrument of history, as if the artist were saying that these two-sided erasers could only be functional or beneficial to some: Western and imperialist cultures. The exaggerated size of the object can also refer to the forced shift from transmitting histories via indigenous oralities to the enforcement of Western literacy, which through disciplines such as anthropology and sociology helped obliterate or misread indigenous memories and records.

 Fernando Poyón,  El peso del día,  wood and cement, 2017

Fernando Poyón, El peso del día, wood and cement, 2017

In El peso del día, a shoeshine box—an object used on the streets of Latin America by those who are modest—refers to the dream of immigration of the poorest, who seek a better life in global cities, or risk their lives crossing the US-Mexico border. Although these desires for belonging are valid, they also create divisions between those who can pursue a “better life” and those who do not have that option. And what does the option to immigrate to the US entail?  

With economic and social crises aggravated in Central American countries—such as Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—for many individuals and families escaping violence or seeking a “better life,” the only option is to immigrate. With today’s exacerbated condition of Latin American asylum-seekers’ deportations and children being separated from parents at the US border, Poyón’s object, El peso del día, achieves another layer of meaning, an urgency. In today’s context, it reads also as an impossibility of movement, of being trapped, confined. By miniaturizing a city, as if transforming it into a sand castle, Poyón may be commenting on the illusion brought by the dream of belonging to a nation, manifested in the image of city life. 

He reverses the Eurocentric rationale that has regimented the modern city in the first place: a transient sand castle is the flipside of the modern city’s utopian permanency. While modern cities were built based on Western expectations of functionality, their attested failures across the world have shown that “the machine for living” can only operate through exclusion.

 Fernando Poyón,  Partida,  steel, aluminum, and ceramic, 2018

Fernando Poyón, Partida, steel, aluminum, and ceramic, 2018

Poyón’s gesture also suggests that the only permanent aspect of modernity is the failure of insisting on adhering to nation-statehood or conforming to Western development doctrines. The artist also refers directly to the disasters brought by the Western idea of development in Partida (Departure) (2018). Here, small ceramic animal figures are attached to the blades of a chainsaw, another perverse tool that, across Latin America, has had a very active role in the devastation of nature and indigenous ways of living through agribusiness and industry. Poyón’s work combines the delicacy of the ceramic miniatures with the violence of chains and engines.  

When Poyón uses world maps it is to undo Western iconographies. If maps are thought of as neutral products of scientific knowledge, it was through them that the colonial mindset sought to “organize” and control territory. Poyón’s world maps are either incomplete puzzles or collapsed, overlapped, clusters of lands. In En el Sitio (In Place) (2010), he prints an image of the world map onto a rock’s surface: the result is that the lines of countries’ borders are blurred, defaced.

 Fernando Poyón,  En el Sitio,  rock printed with laser, 2010

Fernando Poyón, En el Sitio, rock printed with laser, 2010

The artist exposes the fault lines of the Western idea of borders and boundaries that are disciplined by maps’ grids. Printed on the rock, the grid is no more: it is pulverized, giving place to the textures and immeasurability of the rock’s materiality. In Formas para verse, formas para organizarse (Ways of Seeing, Ways of Organizing) (2018), it is sand that takes over a world map puzzle displayed on a table: the map’s grid is again disturbed. Miniature dunes invade the immensity that is the “world”––that illusionary cartographic representation that has been carefully constructed by the West/North. 

Finally, Poyón also takes on the use of flags, not only the Guatemalan flag, but those of several other nation-states. Flags—sometimes torn or ragged, other times neatly arranged as if in a United Nations display—appear in his works ornamenting found objects. In Espacio de inmigración (Immigration Space) (2018), a modest life-sized, white-painted, wooden baby crib becomes a base for large national flags. The flags loom around the railing, as if a haunting promise for the youth: belonging is required, fitting into borders is demanded.

 Fernando Poyón,  Espacio de inmigración,  wood, cloth, and sponge, 2018

Fernando Poyón, Espacio de inmigración, wood, cloth, and sponge, 2018

In Usos alternativos de una bandera (Alternative Uses for a Flag), flags adorn a birdcage. Made in 2015, the object became a statement of the inhumane immigration policies that have existed in imperialist countries for centuries. As much as these objects become puns, they also highlight the often tragic, melancholic modes of national (or transnational) belonging. Who is allowed to fully belong to these nations? Who is allowed to move with ease across borders? Usually, it is the non-white and indigenous populations––non-normative groups––that are excluded from state recognition. It is usually the Latin American populations that have not been able to magically cross borders. For those who cannot belong, or can’t freely move, national flags become oppressive ornaments.

Poyón’s metaphors look like jokes, but they are re-significations: the laugh is on them. The laughter is about them, about Western and imperialist ideologies, their modes of thinking, and the failed epistemologies that have been spoon-fed to Latin American countries. Poyón goes after these objects that seem universal, creating assemblages and installations that disassemble big, presumptuous, US/Eurocentric ideas, such as the blind belief in a preordained equality that democracy is not always able to deliver, or the perverse faith in borders, walls, and cages.