Pieter Hugo: death, sexuality and spirituality in Mexico

View Gallery 9 Photos

When a Mexican curator invited Pieter Hugo over to make new work, “His only brief to me,” says the photographer, “was that it be about sex and mortality”. So began a two-year inquiry into the country’s complex relationship with life, death and the afterlife

This article was originally published in issue #7894 of British Journal of Photography. Visit the BJP Shop to purchase the magazine here.

Pieter Hugo has named his latest series after a legendary Mexican folk song, La Cucaracha, which tells the tale of a five-legged cockroach, “Hobbled by life, but triumphal all the same”. Although its roots are unknown, stretching back centuries, the song probably originated in Spain and was popularised in Mexico during the Revolution, when the lyrics were changed and adapted according to whose side you were on.

To Ashraf Jamal, the South African academic who has written a foreword to Hugo’s new book (published by RM Editions), the song is a classic example of duende, a term used in Latin folklore that refers to a ‘spirit’, which lies within the tune and inspires its story. And to the Cape Town-based photographer, it was the duende of this tragic yet joyous tune that captured his imagination when he first heard it on a visit to Mexico in April 2018.

Hugo had been invited over by Francisco Berzunza for a project in Oaxaca in south-western Mexico, which the curator had titled Hacer Noche. The exhibition, whose title translates as ‘Crossing Night’, was to explore “the relationship between violence and death, the ethics of how we relate to corpses, our rituals of life, death and the afterlife, our connections with our ancestors”, focusing on how these concerns are perceived in Mexican and South African culture. Berzunza wanted Hugo to reflect these dark ideas – with their connotations of hedonism, transgression and loss – inviting him to make new photographs. “His only brief to me,” says Hugo, “was that the work be about sex and mortality.” On a call from his car, heading off on a trip to the bush, Hugo tells me, “I began to think about the liminal spaces between life, death and rebirth”.

© Pieter Hugo.

In the introduction to the series, Hugo has written of his disquiet about “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,” he writes. “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 a tragic and often unacceptable situation.”

He was also confronted with a different set of art historical references. Throughout his initial residency, Hugo based himself at Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City, which houses the National Museum of History. He became fascinated by a large mural titled From the Dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz to the Revolution, by the Mexican social realist artist David Alfaro Siqueiros (who also gained notoriety for taking part in a failed assassination attempt on Leon Trotsky).

When we speak on the phone, Hugo describes the huge, multi-wall artwork as “like a photo essay in one huge painting”. It sparked in him an interest in the artistic potential of mural art on his photographic work. “Photographers often aim to capture one moment, whereas muralism takes on multiple facets of history,” he says. “As you walk through, you’re taken through the various phases of a historical moment.” How, Hugo wondered, could this idea be applied to portraiture? “It made me feel quite playful. It allowed me to reference art historical motives that I wanted to explore further. It made me think about the way our bodies and faces often retain and reflect traces of our histories.”

© Pieter Hugo.

After a month in Mexico, Hugo exhibited an early edit of the work, then titled Aquí se rompió una taza (which was roughly translated to ‘The party is over’ in English), at Centro Fotográfico Manuel Álvarez Bravo in Oaxaca. “But I decided I wasn’t done,” says Hugo. “Because something had shifted out there in the way I normally work.” After the initial exhibition, he decided to continue working, making four month- long trips to Mexico over the course of 2018 and 2019. Throughout this time, he travelled widely, moving from the industrialised zones of the capital up to Tijuana near the US border and the colonial town of San Cristóbal de las Casas in the central Highlands, then out into the desert area of Hermosillo, the mountainous regions of Ixtepec, and the indigenous Zapotec town of Juchitán de Zaragoza in the southern state of Oaxaca. On his return to Cape Town, Hugo set about processing and editing the imagery, mapping it out in his large studio space.

© Pieter Hugo.

“It’s a post-revolutionary society with a colonial history. It has an indigenous culture that has been repressed. Racism is prevalent”

© Pieter Hugo.

Mexico, Hugo says, is often an anarchic and surreal place. “It is such a visual culture, an incredibly garish culture,” he says. “It’s flamboyant, rich, saturated, and it has an amazing lexicon of imagery, one completely made up of its own vocabulary.” Yet it is in many ways defined by the “dark undercurrent of the narco-state”, he also notes. “Mexico has a bloody history and that’s been compounded by the narco-state, which is ubiquitous. There’s a constant threat of violence that permeates all social strata, and it’s often a very visual display, a very visual manifestation. You will often see bodies with limbs dismembered hanging off of highways. Everyone is influenced by that in some way or another.”

As a result, the country is rich with graveside rituals, ancestor- honouring festivals and morbid rites of passage, each of which comes with its own formal and highly decorative code of dress. Mexico, Hugo notes, is the number-one consumer of hair gel in the world. “They look for any excuse to get dressed up and have a festival,” he says. “There’s one every second day, a pageant or a performance. It’s very embedded in their culture.” It is normal, then, to assume exaggerated characters, to escape one’s life to play a fantastical role – even while in doing so one is paying homage to the dead. It’s mourning as performance. “Life and death are very close, very accepted, but very contradictory. I found it difficult to reconcile the narco reality with the people I met there. I very rarely encountered any sort of aggression, even when I met people who were directly involved in this violent narco world.”

Hugo was born in Johannesburg in 1976. Aged 14, he watched Nelson Mandela walk free from prison, witnessing first-hand the end of apartheid. The years that followed, which coupled huge advances for majority rights alongside rising inequality and poverty, “was a transformative experience,” he says. In small, exploratory ways, Hugo started to photograph these changes. He remembers the first photograph he took and printed was of a homeless woman lying in the same street that, later in life, became home to his studio of today.

© Pieter Hugo.

As a young professional, Hugo initially found work in the film industry in Cape Town, before undertaking a two-year residency at the Benetton-owned Fabrica research centre in Treviso, Italy, which led him towards professional photography. Hugo’s work to date has focused almost entirely on the marginalised people and strange, human-altered landscapes of his native Africa. For his first major series, titled Looking Aside, he trained his camera on blind and destitute street dwellers, on albinos who had been rejected by their clan, aged beggars and Aids sufferers – each photographed in the clinical-white surroundings of his studio. In 2005, he began work on the series that brought him to wider international attention,

The Hyena and Other Men. The work captured in a cross-pollination
of documentary photography and performative portraiture, the young street performers of Lagos, with their wild yet captive animals smiling at the end of a leash. Then, in 2009, Hugo photographed the people and landscape of an expansive technology dump of obsolete technology on the outskirts of Accra, Ghana, in a series titled Permanent Error.

He’d become interested in photography via the ‘Bang-Bang Club’,
a group of four South African photojournalists who became world famous for their coverage of heightened violence in the townships in the period when apartheid was coming to an end, up to the first election open to all races, in 1994. Yet Hugo’s work can be seen as a reaction, and indeed counterbalance, to their frontline news reportage.

He cites the late South African David Goldblatt and the Ukrainian Boris Mikhailov as touchpoints – both documentarists who were transgressive of the cultures they captured. Goldblatt once told BJP: “I want to capture the underbelly of the society and value system that underlay South Africa”. And that seems a neat way to describe Hugo’s work as well – except that Hugo also learned to interrogate his own role in that journey. “I am of a generation that approaches photography with a keen awareness of the problems inherent in pointing a camera at anything,” he once said.

Hugo, then, has always invited us to question what he is showing us, to understand that nothing is ever entirely what it seems. La Cucaracha is another step down this road, he says today. “It’s a body of work that is very much not situated in the documentary tradition,” he says. “It’s a collection of single images, rather than a creation of narrative, and there’s less of a dialogue between the singular images. That was an interesting challenge for me.”

© Pieter Hugo.

I ask him how he navigated the cultural gap between his home country and that of Mexico, and if that radically changed the way he approached portrait-taking. Yet Hugo responds by noting the parallels between his culture and that of Mexico. “It’s a post-revolutionary society with a colonial history,” he says. “It has an indigenous culture that has been repressed. Racism is prevalent. Like South Africa, it is a so-called developing economy with socialist aspirations and similar class structures. It’s a culture I found very easy to identify with, because the meta narrative is similar to here.”

So, as he did with previous projects, Hugo set about finding this multivalent identity – and exposing the limitations of photography – through beautifully stylised portraits. Each portrait is given a descriptive title “that alludes to a reference or an inspiration from where the image comes from,” he says. In The snake charmer, a naked man holds an albino snake as it curls around his leg. For The advocate at home [above], Hugo pictured a man he met at
a photography course lounging on his sofa wearing nothing but his socks.

© Pieter Hugo.

Then there are images such as The sex worker [above], portraits of ‘Muxes’ [below]– the Zapotec culture’s term for transgender women. These images may be distinctly Mexican, but they are universal too. Through these portraits, Hugo allows us to investigate how ritual, tradition and community – from every culture across the globe – allow us to begin to understand the ever-complex kinship between the vivacity of life as we live it and the constant shadow of death. Hugo is searching for duende. He is reflecting the ghost back to us. Under Hugo’s lens, we are all broken cockroaches, fighting the dying of the light – and singing of it too.

© Pieter Hugo.
Tom Seymour

Tom Seymour is an Associate Editor at The Art Newspaper and an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication. His words have been published in The Guardian, The Observer, The New York Times, Financial Times, Wallpaper* and The Telegraph. He has won Writer of the Year and Specialist Writer of the year on three separate occassions at the PPA Awards for his work with The Royal Photographic Society.