Photographer Pieter Hugo will present La Cucaracha at Stevenson Cape Town, his seventh exhibition with the gallery.

Pieter Hugo - La Cucaracha

This latest body of work is the result of four trips to Mexico over the last two years, each spanning close to a month, with Pieter Hugo travelling from the industrialised zone of Mexico City to the desert of Hermosillo and the mountainous regions of Ixtepec and San Cristóbal. He states:

“I first came to Mexico at the invitation of Francisco Berzunza. He was curating an exhibition of South African art at a museum in Oaxaca and wanted me to make new work for the show. The exhibition was titled Hacer Noche (“Crossing Night”) and dealt with the liminal space after death. His only brief to me was that the work be about sex and mortality.” The complexity of the work’s title echoes Hugo’s layered exploration of these thematic concerns.

Sung with the deceptive simplicity of a jingle, with lyrics describing a cockroach that cannot walk, La Cucaracha is a folk song of contested origin. Historians have traced it as far back as the 1800s, yet it is accepted that it gained prominence as a satirical metaphor during the Mexican revolution when rebel and government forces alike invented political lyrics that commented on the events and effect of the war. Contemporary use of the song has spanned superhero movies, cartoons and recreational drugs. Violence, power, camaraderie and humour find articulation in the song, the country’s attitudes to sex and death, and in Hugo’s images.

Different relationship to death

Hugo elaborates: “Mexico has a particular ethos and aesthetic; there is an acceptance that life has no glorious victory, no happy ending. Humour, ritual, a strong sense of community and an embrace of the inevitable make it possible to live with tragic and often unacceptable situations.

Pieter Hugo - La Cucaracha

There is a very different relationship with death here to what I am used to. If one looks beyond the clichés of dancing skeletons and sugar skulls, there’s a deeply complicated connection with mortality. This necropolitical dynamic is most visible in contradictory expressions of honouring the afterlife, in the Day of the Dead celebrations and the brutal dismemberment of bodies by narco traffickers.

Alongside the flamboyance and high-pitched register of this series, there is the ordinariness of the everyday. I am drawn to the fabulousness of the banal and the banality of the exotic.”

La Cucaracha marks the first series in which Hugo uses descriptive titles, making more apparent the literary and art historical referencing that have long formed part of his practice. Images such as After Siqueiros, Zapata and Adelita and the sequence of Muxe portraits in particular foreground the country’s canon of visual expression. Hugo continues:

Given the disparate nature of my interests, I’ve always struggled to situate myself. One could say, albeit reductively, that my work has always been about the outsider – and in the Trump era, Mexico is definitely the outsider.

La Cucaracha is set to be published by Editorial RM (Spain and Mexico) in 2019. This is Hugo’s first new body of work to be exhibited following his mid-career retrospective, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, which travelled from Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg to Museum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, Dortmund, Germany, and Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisbon (2017-18).

What: Pieter Hugo – La Cucaracha

Where and when: Stevenson Cape Town, 160 Sir Lowry Road, Woodstock from 27 August to 5 October 2019

WS