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Border hopping: Artist Alida Cervantes confronts Mexico’s past and present

Celina Colby
Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Border hopping: Artist Alida Cervantes confronts Mexico’s past and present
Sex and power dominate Alida Cervantes’ exhibit, “Alida Cervantes: Majas, cambujas y virreinacas,” showing at the Mills Gallery in the South End. (Photo: Photo: Courtesy Mills Gallery)

Mexican artist Alida Cervantes crosses the border daily from her home in San Diego, California to her studio in Tijuana, Mexico. You can imagine how that journey is rife with inspiration. “Alida Cervantes: Majas, cambujas y virreinacas,” showing at the Mills Gallery in the South End through June 25, plays on this experience and on Mexico’s socially and sexually charged colonial history.

Sex and power dominate the exhibit, curated by Candice Ivy and presented in conjunction with Wellesley College’s Alice Cole Fellowship. Many pieces include one nude figure confronted by or juxtaposed next to a clothed one, begging the question, Who has the control? Gender isn’t the only factor at play; race and class are also components in the dance for social priority.

Cervantes plays on the popular 18th-century casta paintings that were used to identify the social order of, and therefore subjugate, people of mixed race during Spain’s colonization of Mexico. In “Matadora,” a black woman stylized like a Barbie, kneels between the legs of a white matador, raising a knife over her head as though about to stab him. He looks off, unfeelingly into the distance, still clutching his red cape.

“Tente en el aire,” an oil on wood piece, seems at first glance like a Victorian-era figure riding a horse through a lush landscape. On closer inspection, a darker-skinned figure can be seen lying horizontally, perhaps tied on the back of a second horse. It’s a reminder that the privileges of one group of people always come at the expense of another.

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Much of Cervantes’ work is reminiscent of Francisco de Goya, Madrid’s cheekiest 19th-century court painter. Goya is famous for his “Caprichos,” a satirical series playing on social corruption. “La nube” by Cervantes has a similar humorous quality, showing a set of men and women jostling with each other under a large cloud. It’s difficult to tell whether it’s passion, panic or physical violence driving the characters, but it seems things might calm down if they had the sense to move out from under the symbolic cloud.

Cervantes often paints on wood, and her Mills Gallery exhibition is paired with draped fabric, potted plants and large scale artworks, bringing an imposing physicality to the space. Though many of her figures are rooted in Mexico’s Victorian past, the fight for power despite racial, gender and social prejudices transcends time and borders.