Mario Munguia Jr.
Last December I visited the House-Studio Museum of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, located in the San Angel neighborhood in Mexico City. There are three buildings on the plot, two were Rivera and Kahlo’s own studio-homes, and the third was dedicated to the designer of the whole complex Juan O’Gorman, an architect, muralist, and friend of Rivera. The largest and most prominent building is Rivera’s studio, which served as the highlight of my visit, not because of the size and design of the building itself but for the careful curation of his personal objects inhabiting the studio allowing the setting to come alive as a vibrant and imaginative environment. The objects I refer to included jars of pigments for painting, books, sketches/studies on display, unique furniture, but most importantly items from his personal collections. Rivera was an obsessive collector of Latin American Folk art, and pre-Columbian artifacts. Although one could focus on the history of Rivera’s collection as a whole I decided to focus on one particular theme. After all my interest had peaked immediately when I first walked into the studio from across the room the first thing my eyes had met were two groupings of 12-foot-tall paper-mache figures.
I had recently learned about the purpose of these figures on my trip. They are called “Judas” figures in Mexico named after the biblical Judas Iscariot. Judas of course is infamous for the betrayal of Christ, and the figures serve as effigies to be burned, beaten, and blown up specifically on the night before Easter Sunday. This tradition is European in origin but in Mexico it has taken on its own unique form through the characteristic designs and the rich history of “Cartoneria,” a term that refers to working with paper-mache figurative sculpture as a traditional Mexican craft. Judas figures vary in size and design, however you can identify them by their resemblance to Satan or devil like beings. Some may be small, life-size, or even monumental for larger celebrations. I use the term celebration for the usual festive nature of their destruction where communities gather to witness the tradition, also they are intentionally blown up by fireworks. Although throughout some instances of their history the ritual has been banned for the public predominantly because of the danger involving fireworks, but also because of the political implications associated with the figures, as in some cases Judas figures resemble unfavorable national and international political figures or personalities.
According to my sources the estimated amount of Rivera’s collection of Judas figures ranged from 140 to 180. The source of where most of them came from can be linked back to now celebrated Mexican folk artist, Carmen Caballero Sevilla. Rivera one day came across Sevilla in a market. He invited her to his studio and unofficially became her patron. Sevilla only worked for Rivera for two years before her untimely death but is now properly credited for her magnanimous contribution to Rivera’s collection. She never signed any of her work, and remained in obscurity for years, she also lacked heirs to carry on her tradition because her remaining sons had died soon after she did. Most if not all the figures in the studio-home were made by Sevilla. Both the Studio-Home Museum and The Anahuacalli Museum (designed by Diego Rivera), in the nearby area that houses the large portion of Rivera’s collections, have done their best to keep Sevilla’s memory alive by displaying her work and arranging special exhibitions in her honor.
The towering figures leaning against opposite corners of the giant studio window are all proper Judas figures. They are all unique one of a kind works exhibiting disproportionate bodies with oversized or shrunken heads, angular limbs, engorged bellies, some with symbolic wardrobe and others with painted ornate designs. They command the room with their massive presence and follow you with their eyes watching you around the studio perhaps wondering why so many visitors have invaded their space. Aside from these behemoths we find smaller figures, not Judas figures exactly, but peasants, skeletal vaqueros, and jesters situated in chairs or the placed on the furniture around the studio greeting the visitors with wide smiles, showing you the passage of time and sharing their personal stories as evident through their worn-down appearance. Anywhere you step there is no escaping their gaze, for even high above different groupings of hanging “Calacas” stare down at you.
“Calacas” is a colloquial term in Mexico for skeletal figures, they are deeply embedded in the tradition of Mexican Folk Art celebrating the cycle of life and death and paying homage to link the culture has with honoring and remembering their ancestors. These hanging figures intrigued me for the variety found in their groupings. Like the Judas figures they also have deformed bodies, anthropomorphic parts, wide open rib cages, and stubby limbs. One cannot help but contrast their features in the way they are placed with their hanging neighbors, emphasizing overall their eccentric quality. The fact they were hung so high and obviously made of frail materials reminded me of the notion of death and temporality, and how the history contained within the actual manifestations mimicked the content of the skeleton as subject. This is not to say they are extremely somber, after all these figures were meant to be celebrated and proudly displayed. A commentary against the notion of the macabre and more on the vitality in the enjoyment in life. This idea I propose is evident in a pair of bride and groom calacas placed in the bedroom of Diego Rivera. Whether this pairing was placed there by the artist or more likely the curators does not matter. I believe it was most likely a symbolic reference to Diego and Frida’s tumultuous and definitive love story. I had also read that when Kahlo had died, Rivera dressed a Judas figure up with her clothes and belongings. A sad and maybe unsettling image, but one that paints the true symbolic and compelling nature of these magnificent figures, and the artist that collected them.