NAHUM B.
ZENIL
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     "I have always felt the need for self-analysis in my work in order to accept myself and the way I live. I have always felt marginalized in my life and have experienced a great sense of solitude. In my art I've tried to effect a communication between the members of society and myself.


I think that the key to this integration is love--toward all people and all things that exist, and I want my art to function as a representation of this emotion."

 -Nahum B. Zenil.

 

 

Nahum B. Zenil, one of Mexico's foremost artists, deals with a wide variety of issues in his art. The traditional Catholicism in which he was raised, the mythology of Mexico's indigenous peoples, the importance of the work of such modern Mexican artists as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are all alluded to in his work. Yet, the over-riding theme of Zenil's art is the artist himself. Virtually all of his works on paper and (since the early 90s) on canvas, have dealt with his own image. He often includes that of his lover, Gerardo Vilchis, as well. Gerardo invariably plays the role of companion, alter-ego, guardian angel and sexual outlaw in the paintings by Zenil.

 

Nahum Zenil has long been an ardent supporter of gay rights in Mexico. He has projected himself both in his art as well as in his private life as one of the country's most adamant activists in both the cultural and political spheres. He has maintained a key role in the organization known as the Circulo Cultural Gay which, since the early 1980s, has presented a highly significant event held each June. Since 1987 the Semana Cultural Gay (Gay Cultural Week) has been organized at the Museo Universitario del Chopo (a beaux-arts structure in Mexico City owned by the National University) in conjunction with the yearly gay rights march in the Mexican capital. It consists of a series of lectures, symposia and readings as well as the exhibition of the work of lesbian, gay and straight artists.

 

 

It is important to note that this event is taken very seriously by a large sector of the Mexican public, both straight and gay; its exhibitions are regularly reviewed in the mainstream press and its participants are hailed for their contributions. One wonders if such events in the US would be given similar treatment by the media. This is not to say that there is not a great deal of oppression and mistreatment of lesbians and gay men in Mexico. Zenil himself as well as other of the organizers of the event have been instrumental in bringing to the attention of the public human rights abuses of lesbians and gays in the state of Chiapas and elsewhere in Mexico.

 

 

Zenil's art contains little or nothing of conventional subject matter often linked to art expressing a gay sensibility. His only vehicle is his body, both clothed and nude, which he employs as a signifier of personal existence, personal space and personal re-affirmation. While stylistically Zenil's art may be linked to many traditions that have developed in Mexico since the l9th century, the meanings of his images are uniquely his own. He appropriates and re-invents the traditional ex-voto Retablo format; he also borrows compositions and motifs from Kahlo (who he also looks to as a symbol of sexual liberation and freedom).

 

 

Zenil's art came to the attention of a larger audience in the 1980s, a period of 'renaissance' of the visual arts in Mexico. Many artists were involved in 're-discovering' aspects of their national heritage and identity. Zenil was among the most audacious and vocal of them. Yet he successfully translated his sources of visual stimulus into highly personal terms, always keeping in mind the transformative power of art. The enormous visual appeal of his images (which have been seen in exhibitions throughout Latin America, Europe and the US) have made audiences aware not only of his art but of its message.

     -Edward J. Sullivan       sullivne@is.nyu.edu

 

NAHUM B. ZENIL, WITNESS TO THE SELF
is on view at the
Grey Art Gallery of
New York University
though November 1, 1998.

 

"Retrato de boda"
(Wedding Portrait)
serigraph
Courtesy Polanco Gallery, SF
"Retrato de familia"
(Family Portrait)
mixed media on paper, 1987
Collection of the artist
"Esperar la hora que cambiará nuestra costumbre no es fácil"
(Waiting for the Time when our Customs Change is Not Easy)
mixed media on paper, 1984
private collection
"San Sebastián"
(St. Sebastian)
mixed media on paper, 1982
Courtesy Galeria de Arte Mexicano
"Frida y el Diablo,"
(Frida and the Devil)
mixed media on paper, 1985
Courtesy Galeria de Arte Mexicano
"Tengo una muñeca"
(I Have a Doll)
mixed media on paper, 1979
Collection of the artist
"Corazon"
(The Embrace)
mixed media on paper, 1987
Courtesy Mary-Anne Martin/Fine Art, NY
"Volando sobre Nueva York"
(Flying Over New York)
mixed media on paper, 1991
Collection of the artist
 

"En el Zócalo frente al Palacio Nacional"
(In the Zócalo Before the National Palace)
mixed media on paper, 1992
Collection of the artist
"Autorretrato como ángel"
(Self-portrait as an Angel)
mixed media on paper, 1991
Courtesy of Throckmorton
Fine Art Inc., New York
"Hombre con condón"
(Man with a Condom)
oil on wood, 1994
Collection of the artist
"Del Pariso 4"
mixed media on paper, 1990
Courtesy Mary-Anne Martin/Fine Art, NY

 

 

 



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