Enrique Chagoya: Flipping Europe on its Head

This accordian-style codice was created by the Mexican artist Enrique Chagoya and is based on a pre-Columbian model. When read from right to left, the fifth collage in the sequence shows a series of orderly classical columns, proportionately arranged with attention to perspective. Yet something is off here - this classical room has been flipped upside down and has been blocked by two eerie figures: the bust of Elizabeth of Austria (whose eyes have been replaced with moving goggly eyes), and a xenophobic caricature of a Mexican man wearing a sombrero.  The panel is surrounded by violent images of European conquest, including a European man setting fire to a group of chained Indians and scenes of cannibalism.

This subversive image, which presents a visual symbol of European order and rationality on its head, overtly criticizes the power structures of European society and in particular the Western history of colonization. Chagoya's work directly addresses the history of conquest and subjugation which characterized the European relationship with the Americas during the early modern period and beyond.

As Chagoya describes it, his work represents a "conceptual fusion of opposite cultural realities." He combines images from pre-Columbian mythology, western religious iconography, and American popular culture to create pieces of art which are satirical and often critical of Western colonialism and artistic appropriation. As a young artist, Chagoya noticed that Western cultures often "fed off of the creative output of their less powerful conquests," a process he calls "utopian cannibalism." Western artists have a history of appropriating images from the cultures they have politically subjugated; consider, as one famous example, Picasso's appropriation of African sculptural and mask formats in "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." To critique this process, Chagoya reverses it and "cannibalizes the cannibalizer," incorporating iconic Western images into traditional South American formats, like this codice. Through this process, he hopes to "flip historic imagery and relationships between historic figures to such an extent that we can no longer tell who 'the other' is." Chagoya's works are frequently humorous - they often incorporate cartoons and bawdy scenes - but this humor is underpinned by a thoughtful and serious challenge to Western viewers about the implications of Western appropriation.

Like anthropologists who investigate cultures through their material artifacts (and who frequently misunderstand their subjects), Chagoya turns his eye on Western material culture, combining Western images in absurd ways which alter the true order of history. This deliberate misunderstanding invokes and reverses the cultural annihilation which the Spanish conquest enacted in certain parts of South America. The codice form he has chosen here, for example, was a type of manuscript commonly used in the pre-Columbian era until the arrival of Spanish invaders, who burnt and destroyed South American libraries during the Conquest. Today, only 22 examples of pre-Conquest codices have survived. By using this form, Chagoya draws our attention to the fact that history is constantly being "rewritten by those who win wars."

Mel Watkin. Catalogue for Utopian Cannibal: Adventures in Reverse Anthropology: Recent work by Enrique Chagoya. Forum for Contemporary Art. Saint Louis, MO: 2001.

David Bonetti. "Chagoya's wondrous clash of cultures".​ San Francisco Examiner, October 27, 2000.

Website for Enrique Chagoya: http://enriquechagoya.com/


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American Orientalist art at the turn of the 20th century
<p>America Encounters Asia in Art</p>

American Orientalist art at the turn of the 20th century
<p>America Encounters Asia in Art</p>

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