Bringing ritual inside the gallery, L.A.-based Chicana painter Sandy Rodriguez gives a heartfelt and commanding installation of artworks in her new exhibition, You Will Not Be Forgotten, showing at Charlie James Gallery in Chinatown through March 7. Dedicated to seven Central American child migrants who died in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody over 2018-19, and continuing her ongoing Codex Rodriguez-Mondragón series, this new collection of paintings invoke the children’s memory in beautiful portraits combined with an incredible new codex, Mapa for the children killed in custody of US Customs and Border Protection. Delicate drawings of medicinal plants and magical landscapes complete the complex narrative she memorializes with intent to heal.
Raised in San Diego and Tijuana, in a matriarchal lineage of painters, Rodriguez combines botany, biology, and geology with social themes and Mayan and Nahua spirituality in her painting. An interest in using pre-Columbian pigments guided her into studying the regional botany of the U.S. Southwest and Mexico, and the plant medicines in her paintings are heavily researched during field studies with a seasoned botanist.
Learning old techniques, Rodriguez collects samples and makes drawings to bring the magic of collaborating with these natural ingredients into her alchemical art practice and painting process. The map is of Aztlan, the area that was Mexico up until 1848, and while exploring geography and the current political climate, Rodriguez overlaps visual elements to build symbolism and literally paint in an authentic recipe for ritual.
The news headline, “she died of dehydration and shock” was for Jakeline Caal Maquin. The statement about the seven-year old Guatemalan girl’s death was a starting point for Rodriguez. “I wrote that down on a piece of amate and put it on my studio wall. Too horrific to think about, to be able to make the work about it,” she tells the Weekly. Amate is a sacred ceremonial outlaw paper that was created in pueblos by multi-generational Otomi families. Rodriguez uses it for her Codex Rodriguez-Mondragón series. It’s exceptionally textured, with surreal earthy tones and dreamy lines. The natural material joins all the works in the gallery and its ancient surface is a privilege to examine.
The tragedy interlaces with a recipe to treat the trauma of susto in the painstakingly researched and painted bioregional map that marks the locations where each of the children died, nearby plants that will be used in susto ritual, and special animal guides. Susto is known as a cultural illness in Latino countries and literally translates as “scare.” Rodriguez shares, “[Jakeline] dies of dehydration and shock, and I’d learned about an herbal which is the first medical text of the Americas, written the same time of the Florentine Codex, and they have a curandero for susto, which is trauma. If it’s written by a Nahua doctor who survived both the conquista and the disease outbreak that killed 80% of the population, if you survived that, you’re going to need the poultice and the potion for whatever your manifestations are. We’re all traumatized from surviving this; [the children] literally died of fright and the flu, so I have to go into this text and pull out the ingredients. I had to make a visual recipe, a visual remedy for us and them, and all of us because of this loss.”
You Will Not Be Forgotten is on view at Charlie James Gallery, 969 Chung King Road, Chinatown, through March 7. cjamesgallery.com.
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