Pieter Hugo, La Cucaracha @Yossi Milo

JTF (just the facts): A total of 14 color photographs, framed without mattes, and exhibited on gray walls in the East and West galleries (6 in the East, 8 in the West.) All are archival pigment prints, dated 2018 or 2019, and issued in editions of 7+2AP. Sizes range from roughly 24×33 to 71×53 inches (framed.) There is one triptych, with each of the three portraits measuring roughly 45×34 inches. (Installation shots below.)

A monograph of this body of work was published in 2019 by Editorial RM (here). Hardcover, 132 pages, in an edition of 1500 copies. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: One has to admire, if grudgingly, the audacity of Pieter Hugo. Routinely lambasted for exoticizing his portrait subjects, for seeking out people on the collapsed margins of polite society and asking viewers to gawk at their outlandish appearances and desperate survival tactics, he has ignored his detractors and photographed as if he were a completely free agent whose status as a white South African were not an explosive issue, or at least not a complicating one, when we look at his large, expensive pictures of young, poor black Africans.

So what has he done in this new body of work about the people of Mexico? Instead of retreating in the face of such criticism or tempering his former approach with the pretense that he views his subjects as his equals, he has charged forward and mounted a portrait show that dares us to be offended. His cast includes a dwarf couple dressed as Emiliana Zapata and Adelita; a bride in a white wedding dress holding a large iguana; an undercover male police officer disguised as a female sex-worker; some overweight nudes; a naked snake handler; and a group of performers known in Zapotec culture as Muxes or “third gender” (male by birth but fulfilling roles more associated with women.) It’s as though he were inviting charges of exploitation so that in defense he might portray himself as a victim of political correctness.

He is not a victim. The photographs in the show are calculating and feel like the clichés of a tourist drawn to the sensational. Whether the result of his limited experience with life in Mexico—they were made on just four trips over two years, to Hermosillo, Oaxaca de Juárez and Juchitán—or from an ingrained appetite for voyeuristic content is hard to say. The title of the series, La Cucaracha, is a sign that Hugo may be tone deaf. The traditional folk song has numerous verses; it was especially popular during the Mexican Revolution. The words describe a cockroach that is crippled and yet continues to walk. I’m not sure that Hugo is aware, though, that the song is the ultimate Norte Americano caricature of Mexican musical culture, the soundtrack for Warner Bros. cartoons from the ‘40s and ‘50s that accompanied sombreroed characters such as Speedy Gonzalez. As the melody for car horns on generations of jalopies, it may be the only Mexican tune that most Americans can recognize.

Did the photographs exhibit signs that Hugo is using this song as an ironic commentary on the blinkered prejudices of his audience, I would be more forgiving. Those signs aren’t there, however. Whereas in his African pictures, he kept a distance from his young men, and favored a muted palette, which allowed them a measure of independence, his poses and hues here suggest a leering ridicule of his subjects. They seem to have less freedom as agents of their own presentation. The decision to move closer to his subjects is not in general a wise one. Their skin glistens with oily sweat and the glare of the light is unflattering.

Hugo’s website features images from the project that are less Arbus-like in their fascination with physical and social estrangement but are also far more violent, including one of a naked corpse (presumably a victim of a hit by a drug cartel) consumed in flame except for his bare legs. Its counterpart is a picture of a severed head, held in a hand, with the title of “The Hero Prop” (so apparently not a true decapitated skull.) The most chilling and memorable photo in the series that I have seen is one of a ragged teddy bear, tied to a pole by its neck in a landfill. Their exclusion from the Milo show, along with a sympathetic portrait of a crouching young man, in bare feet and no shirt, who is seeking asylum indicates a deliberate attempt to focus on Mexican theatrics and to avoid border politics and the drug wars. A still life on a wooden tabletop, an array of fruits (lemon, pomegranate) and seeds spread out for the making of pigments, is one of Hugo’s occasional attempts at capturing daily life in the style of Cartier-Bresson. More typical is an ensemble portrait of men in a street recreating a David Siquiros mural from the Revolution, a further sign that Hugo sees Mexico as an unfolding, unpredictable drama. His self-dramatizing characters sit and stand for him as a way to validate themselves in the face of grim prospects.

Like his older contemporaries Bruce Gilden and Roger Ballen, Hugo wants to discomfort us by making pictures that ignore the proprieties of distance and respect photographers are supposed to maintain as they negotiate with their subjects. His African portraits of hyena men and gun-toting teens were impossible to dismiss. The smoking electronic trash heaps in which people scavenged for a living in toxic conditions told stories about the global economy that we hadn’t seen before. These Mexican portraits don’t have that wider, pungent social purpose. Behind his project seems to loom Avedon’s In the American West, another enterprise in which the photographer is a lordly and condescending presence. Avedon was seldom able to duplicate the sympathetic magic that Arbus could conjure so easily when interacting with her outcast subjects. Hugo doesn’t commonly have the instinct of empathy either. His men and women, living in some of Mexico’s poorest areas, seem in search of a story that would free them. They are instead trapped in his underdeveloped vision of their lives. That they are partly responsible for the sorry business of their portraiture only makes the pictures sadder.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $24000 each. Hugo’s work has become more available in the secondary markets in the past few years, with prices recent ranging from roughly $5000 to $70000, the large prints from the Hyena Men series at the top of that range.

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Read more about: Pieter Hugo, Yossi Milo Gallery, Editorial RM

3 comments

  1. Sebastian /

    I think it is rather funny that in many occasions people who condone other people of not being aware of “political correctness” profess in their commentary their own distance from what actually happens in countries such as Mexico. Writers, editors, politicians, professors, and activists, please stop being more offended than the actual people who were portrayed. In Latin America, we are worried about where we are going to get our next meal from yes, not if someone draws us in a funny manner. Trust me, if you think these are insulting, wait until you spend time with an actual Latin American family whether from Mexico or Argentina, and you’d soon realize how our jokes towards each other are way worse than these pictures. We are a very problematic culture on every level, is this something to be proud of? I’d leave it to people to debate. But don’t ever think that by professing a somewhat woke rationale you are invited to our quincianeras. I am outraged by this toxic behavior as a Latin-American, you are not absolved as a writer from propagating your false narrative and try to minimize my voice just because you think I might take offense that a white dude took pictures in Mexico.

  2. Tim /

    I have said this before about Hugo’s work before and I’ll say it again: I am not a huge fan of his aesthetics, but Hugo has not dispossessed anyone of their land, nor has he had anyone killed in pursuit of his images, unlike those from the west in pursuit of oil (or even bananas, for God’s sake) in developing countries. Yet the art industry, in its clamour to occupy some kind of woke high ground, has spent more column inches dissing his work than it has on all the human rights abuses of their patrons put together. Shameful.

  3. Chris /

    I arrived at a very different position than Mr. Woodward regarding the photos of La Cucaracha.

    Pieter Hugo (whom I know and whose work I have collected, including some of the particular images mentioned in this review) has always explored a range of interesting people in his practice, whether in his own world (Kin) or beyond (La Cucaracha, Flat Noodle Soup Talk). Some of these people are clearly quirky or naked or doing something unusual, and some seem more middle-of-the-road.

    In all instances, I find that Pieter approaches his collaborators with a sense of curiosity and empathy, and for me there is no support to conclude that La Cucaracha is a visal dare, a doubling-down on flouting political correctness, or in any way more exploitative than any other photographic portrait by any other maker.

    Indeed, Pieter has turned the camera on himself and his family in vulnerable ways on several occasions and shared the space and experience of the other people whom he has included. The people depicted in La Cucaracha are not being cast as tropes or buffoons but rather present very much as unique individuals worth getting to know and worth looking at.

    And the fact that the writer identifies Pieter as a white South African male (which of course, he is) shouldn’t diminish the opportunity viewers give Pieter to explore subjects as he sees fit, whether as an insider or as an outsider. Freedom of creative expression, particularly when it comes from a sincere and sympathetic perspective, should outweigh pandering to politically correct limitations every time.

    I like La Cucaracha a lot and believe it is Pieter Hugo’s most compelling work to date outside of Africa.

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