Born in Culiacán, Mexico, Teresa Margolles is an artist working with photography, video, sculpture, and performance. She has spent the last two decades exploring socio-political issues related to violent death in Mexico, engaging the sense of loss and sorrow that each assassination leaves on the victim’s family, friends, and community. Teresa Margolles: We Have a Common Thread expands on the artist’s long exploration of violence through a series of new works involving the unprecedented participation of artist-embroiderers from Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Brazil, Mexico, and the United States, all of whom share her concerns about violence, particularly against women. After explaining her vision for the project, Margolles provided each group with a fabric that had been marked through contact with the body of a woman, or in some cases a man, who had suffered a violent death. She invited the embroiderers to create patterns on the fabric as a way to trigger a conversation about the violence and social problems plaguing their respective communities. Some of these conversations were recorded and are included in the exhibition in a series of videos providing context for the textiles.
Diana Tuite, Katz Curator and venue curator for the exhibition shares some of her thoughts and observations at the close of the exhibition.
Boee Chocami (Black Path), one of the videos featured in Teresa Margolles: We Have a Common Thread, opens with the martial repetition of a drumbeat. The camera advances steadily, but with considerable speed, down an open stretch of road in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The effect is beyond ominous. It is supremely chilling, as though we have enlisted in a spectral reenactment of colonial invasion. Indeed, later in the video, one of the embroiderers recounts a folk premonition about the road: “It’s like opening the path to evil or to good, but our ancestors or elders always told us this: that the day a highway would be built, a dark path, as they said, would open, an evil thing would come.” These women are Tarahumara, or Rarámuri, as they call themselves, meaning “fleet-footed,” a people indigenous to northwestern Mexico known for being endurance runners. For them, expanded infrastructure has introduced the narco-economy into the mountains and canyons where their ancestors once eluded Spanish conquest. With the access facilitated by the “black path” come new forces of subjugation.
Teresa Margolles tracks the “evil things” foretold by the Rarámuri. She has long been interested in the “political life” of the dead body, and, in her recent work, deftly punctures the universal with the particular, recovering postmortem value for victims of violence while still guarding their identities. In doing this, she responds to the nota roja, those tabloid newspapers that exploit, depersonalize, and sensationalize stories of brutality and catastrophe. Margolles retaliates against the media’s abuse and stratification of victims by marshaling a countermedia. The textile arts on display in We Have a Common Thread represent archaic technologies of cultural transmission, of course, but she revalues them, likening them to “stained screens” and “microphones.” Displayed horizontally and lit from below, these six embroidered fabrics—and not the glowing video screens—almost cinematically illuminate the space of the exhibition.
Margolles’s repudiation of the tabloid media encompasses even those photographic tactics she once appropriated from them. When she recognized the limits of representational equivalence posed by graphic documentary images, she changed course: “While the photos used to be brutal—they showed corpses in a state of decay, for example—I now no longer attempt to represent physical horror, but rather silence.” At the core of her recent work, therefore, are questions about the insufficiencies of traditional modes of representation. Must a work of art embody or internalize brutality in order to address it? Must it simultaneously enact a transformation—a material, pictorial, or narrative muting? Or should it mimic the operations or outcomes of atrocity? Margolles has sometimes satisfied all of these conditions at once. After the 2011 police shooting of Mark Duggan in North London, riots and fires broke out in the capital city. In a gesture of both recuperation and erasure, Margolles collected charred rubble and hired an industrial diamond manufacturer to fabricate from it a synthetic stone that she entitled A Diamond for the Crown. On the one hand, the trace evidence of arson is no longer visible, but, on the other, she has compounded the violence to this carbonized wood by subjecting it to intense temperature and pressure once again. This artificial crown jewel demands atonement for imperial sins present and past, including even the geological ravages of colonialism.
No textile in the exhibition demonstrates the complex applications of silence in Margolles’s oeuvre better than Dylegued (Burial), created by Kuna women from the Rosano family in Ancón, Panama. According to the testimonials of the family members in the accompanying video, this piece commemorates the disappearance of a beloved grandson. The grandmother narrates a story in which the circumstances of his death are unexpressed, and a presumptive violence occupies the negative space. As she tells it, her grandson simply “never showed up again.” Days later her daughter informs her that “something had happened,” but just how much is known, how much the grandmother is told, is unclear, or perhaps suppressed. Looking at Dylegued, you appreciate how similarly the collaborative textile functions: the bloodstains on the flowered cloth disappear under sewn-on fabric or, elsewhere, within the intricate design. Molas, traditional Kuna textiles, consist of superimposed pieces of cloth slit open to selectively reveal the underlayers, and there can be no better analogy for Teresa Margolles’s aesthetic strategies.