Pieter Hugo started his series, La Cucaracha, after being invited to Mexico by Francisco Berzuna, who was curating an exhibition of South African art named Hacer Noche (Crossing Night) in the Oaxaca museum. Berzuna requested Hugo contribute some photographs, with the only requirement that they reference themes of sex and mortality. This request sparked four trips to Mexico over a two-year period, during which Hugo investigated the country’s ancient rituals, traditions and communities. Exploring the industrialised zone of Mexico City, the desert of Hermosillo and the high-peaked mountains of Ixtepec and San Cristobal, Hugo focussed his lens on peripheral members of Mexican society. His affinity with the ‘outsider’ grew from a need to uncover Mexico’s authentic voice, and to truly appreciate its unique visual culture. Ravished from the effects of the Narco state and multiple revolutions, today Mexico is a country often associated with violence. Indeed, Hugo remarks that the country ‘has a particular ethos and aesthetic; there is an acceptance that life has no glorious victory, no happy ending’. At once confrontational and flamboyant, La Cucaracha reveals the mythology and conflict that nestles deep within Mexico’s complex history.
Hugo often shoots his subjects in emotionally charged, stripped down states. At 44 years of age, the artist relishes in the freedom of finally feeling comfortable in his own body. Thus, Hugo often chooses to capture his models nude, transforming a vulnerable moment of privacy into something powerful and energised. Not only do Hugo’s nudes reflect some of art history’s most iconic works (paintings by Manet or Titian, for example), but they also establish a distinct sense of tension. While taking photographs, Hugo opens his subjects up, revealing the very essence of their characters. At times, this can prove uncomfortable for viewer and subject alike. As such, Hugo uses the nude to express the space where our lives intersect with our environment.
Aside from the recurring theme of nudity within his photographs, Hugo utilises eye-contact to summon an additional layer of discomfort. His subjects refuse to shy away from the lens, preferring instead to lock the camera in a confrontational glare. When we consider these portraits, our gaze is requited. As we look, we are looked at in return. Thus, Hugo purposefully creates images that grasp you tightly, and do not allow you to escape.
The Snake Charmer, Hermosillo is one of the series’ most tactile images. Hugo’s photograph elicits the flaky crunch of dry grass, chirping with unseen cicadas; and the smooth, powdery slabs of rock, baking to the touch. One envisions the sensation of human flesh, dappled with sweat and coarse hair, against the scaly body of the warping serpent.
Within Mexican culture, the snake is regarded as a powerful emblem. Symbolising veneration, resurrection, and rebirth; the serpent stands as a metaphor for humanity as a whole. Indeed, the snake shedding its outgrown skin can be understood as the inevitable transition from life to death. The Snake Charmer acts as a testament to Mexico’s complicated connection with mortality, proving that joy and tragedy often coexist simultaneously
(By Eleanor Lerman)