Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa Frees the Spirit of a Lost City

At M Leuven, the artist draws on the allegorical as a means of exposing the absurdity of the current state of affairs

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BY Fernanda Brenner in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 20 JUN 22

On the short train ride from Brussels to Leuven, I learn from my companion, Canadian-Guatemalan artist Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, that cacaxte is a term of Nahuatl origin used in Latin America to designate a large wooden frame for transporting goods. Indigenous populations employed cacaxtes long before European colonizers ‘hijacked’ the device – using local people as bearers – for their inland extractivist expeditions. I am travelling with the artist to his current survey show at M Leuven, in which he presents work that considers both the cacaxte’s mythical significance and its connection to the persistent impact of colonial oppression in the region.

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Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, left to right: Abstracción Azul, 2012; Three Ghosts, 2014; and Illusion of Matter, 2015, installation view, M Leuven, 2022. Courtesy: Mendes Wood DM, Brussels/New York/São Paulo, Sies + Höke, Dusseldorf, and Proyectos Ultravioleta, Guatemala City; Photo: Miles Fischler.

Curated by Eva Wittocx, the exhibition opens with a selection of video works made over the past ten years, including three key pieces shown on parallel, free-standing screens: Abastracción Azul (Blue Abstraction, 2012), Illusion of Matter (2015) and Three Ghosts (2014). These are shown alongside Lugar de Consuelo (Place of Solace, 2020), a filmed performance in which Ramírez-Figueroa conducts a sort of healing ritual for Hugo Carillo’s lost revolutionary play El Corazón del Espantapájaros (The Heart of the Scarecrow, 1962) – a student production of which, staged in 1975 during the Guatemalan Civil War (1960–96), was promptly shut down by the government, the actors persecuted and the theatre burnt down. The artist learned about the play from his uncles, who participated in the original performance. Drawing from their oral accounts, rather than from a published transcript of the play, the artist invited a group of actors to the original venue, Universidad Popular in Guatemala City, where they read poems selected by the Guatemalan artist and poet Wingston González.

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Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, Cacaxte #1, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: Mendes Wood DM, Brussels/New York/São Paulo, Sies + Höke, Dusseldorf, and Proyectos Ultravioleta, Guatemala; Photo: Miles Fischler.

Ramírez-Figueroa often defines his artistic practice as one of storytelling and prop-making, which is often informed by, but distinct from, theatre. In the installation Deus Ex Machina (2021), for instance, he refers to a trope in ancient Greek theatre, in which a god comes down to resolve an apparently unsolvable problem for mortals. In these plays, the divinity would often appear hanging from ropes. Here, however, Ramirez Figueroa hangs a bronze branch in place of a deity, which is surrounded by masks that refer to the saints and gods who, in Guatemalan folklore, represent the protection of nature. He is always attempting, he told me, to explore the consciousness-raising possibilities of theatre, in this case, to make visible his ecological concerns. Even though he and his family were directly impacted by the Guatemalan Civil War, being forced to emigrate to Vancouver when he was just six years old, his work goes far beyond that specific context, to instead draw on the allegorical and fantastical as a means of exposing the absurdity of the current state of affairs and its origins in colonial violence and capitalism.

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Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, The House at Kawinal, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: Mendes Wood DM, Brussels/New York/São Paulo, Sies + Höke, Dusseldorf, and Proyectos Ultravioleta, Guatemala; Photo: Miles Fischler.

Cutting through a long corridor, Cacaxte#1 (2018) leads to the show’s final room, which houses The House at Kawinal (2018). The entangled ribbons of Cacaxte#1 support 20 small metal sculptures that allude to looted archaeological goods of varying origins and act as an introduction to a different sort of archaeological atrocity: the flooding of the Mayan city of Kawinal in the early 1980s in order to construct the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam in Guatemala. To complete the project, the local government also forcibly displaced thousands of Achi Mayan people by means of brutal, military-led massacres that wiped out entire villages. The ruins of Kawinal are now mostly inaccessible, appearing partially during summer droughts. In a gesture that seeks to free the spirits of this lost city, Ramírez-Figueroa presents a dimly lit, green-hued environment filled with phantasmagorical versions of recognizable objects that induce a latent emotional state, on the cusp between outrage and melancholy, which enables us to mourn the inestimable victims of state violence worldwide.

Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa is on view at M Leuven, Belgium, until 30 October 2022. 

Main image: 'Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, 2022, exhibition view, M Leuven. Courtesy: Mendes Wood DM, Brussels/New York/São Paulo, Sies + Höke, Dusseldorf, and Proyectos Ultravioleta, Guatemala; photograph: Miles Fischler

Fernanda Brenner is the founder and Artistic Director of Pivô, an independent non-profit art space in São Paulo, and a contributing editor of frieze

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