Visiting artist speaks on political inspiration behind paintings

The Lederer Gallery was filled with eager faces on April 6 to hear Mexican artist Maddu Huacuja speak about her artistic inspiration and the process of creation in a presentation entitled “Sources of Art: Maddu Huacuja On Her Works.”

Huacuja was born and raised in Mexico City, just after the political fervor of the Mexican Communist Party and its famous members Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera. As a result, Huacuja was strongly influenced by the remnants of this political movement, since Rivera’s murals still cover the city.

During her childhood, Huacuja often visited Kahlo’s house, which was turned into a museum after her death. At the time the museum saw very few visitors, leaving Huacuja and her best friend to explore every nook and cranny of the “Blue House.”  

“I became very intimate with Frida and her belongings,” Huacuja said.  

Due to this closeness with Kahlo, the inescapable influence of the surrounding political murals and the experience of her own mother’s failure as a painter, “I don’t think I had a choice but to be a painter,” Huacuja said. 

Most of Huacuja’s own works are political, with messages about Mexican history, the role of women in society and issues of environmental sustainability shining through. Huacuja explained that, for her, painting such touchy subjects is often not a conscious decision, but a natural reaction. 

For example, her many paintings of Kahlo—executed with thick swatches of color—are a direct reaction to the closeness she felt to the famous painter during those wanderings in her home. 

“Besides the glamorous woman, I felt her pain,” Huacuja said. Her most recent painting of Frida, however, draws on the pain of others in combination with her political efforts. 

This painting is a zoomed in portrait of Kahlo with the words, “They didn’t know we were seeds” written on her neck, and, “They left alive and we want them back alive” on her face. These words reference the 43 Mexican students that went mysteriously missing in 2014—a tragedy that has struck the Mexican population strongly. 

Another issue close to Huacuja’s heart is the destruction of Mexico’s native animals. In a series entitled “And Nothing Matters When We Are Dancing,” Huacuja mixes painting and drawing to depict half-animal-half-human androgynous forms. Her goal here is to “assign figures to the devastation” of the extinction of these animals and to effectively show her audience that “when we destroy these animals, we destroy ourselves.” 

This series has had an especially poignant effect on Huacuja’s audience. 

“People look at these paintings, and they start crying, and I know they get it,” Huacuja said.

Her invitation to paint utility boxes in Boston has also received an overwhelmingly positive reaction. As one of three Boston-based artists chosen for this project, Huacuja chose to paint portraits of Prince, Michelle Obama and Muhammad Ali. She attests that members of the community have approached her while painting the boxes, exclaiming, “This is what it’s about!” and “We relate to this!” 

A community favorite is a box depicting Ali with the words, “Champions come and go, but you gotta have heart” emblazoned on the side. 

Although Huacuja seems to specialize in portraits and traditional works, she also “loves experimenting with materials.” Her “Love Letters” series is a group of abstract works done in oil pastels. Huacuja describes these as “action paintings,” with their dark lines and bright, rich colors that “melt into the piece.” 

With these pieces, however, Huacuja doesn’t lose her ties to her culture. They include beautiful quotes from Mexican poets, leading Huacuja to claim, “I’m not always about the end of the world.” 

It’s visitors like these that make the art history department a true asset to Geneseo. Despite recent cutbacks on creativity at the college, the department continues to grow through the classes students can take and the opportunities and real world experiences it offers.