Cochineal on Amate

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The Medium

Above is an early work by Alejandro Santiago – dated 1991. The materials are all natural, the paper is amate and the color pigment is cochineal.

Cochineal is a pigment made from a small bug cultivated on cacti. It was one of the great treasures the Spanish discovered in their conquest of the Americas. Cochineal was used and still is in the dyeing of fabrics for weaving. It can also be found in the temple paintings of pre-Columbian ruins.

Amate is a very simple form of paper making. It is simply tree bark that is stripped then boiled and beaten into flat sheets of paper.

Alejandro Santiago’s grandmother was a healer and as Alejandro Santiago was very close to her, learned a good deal about many different traditional materials and techniques.

In fact, when Alejandro Santiago exhibited with Rufino Tamayo at the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Monterrey (MARCO), Tamayo invited the then young artist to his studio a number of times to discuss and learn about these techniques and materials.

The Painting

The way that he created the beautiful skulls and decorations is somewhat of a mystery - but he mentioned to me in the past that lime juice will turn cochineal pink and lemon juice will bleach it out – so this is how he achieved the almost batik like quality in this beautifully executed painting.

The work breaks down into three elements – the top, middle, and bottom. The top represents heaven by the depiction of a hand with an all seeing eye. The image represents an omniscient deity or god. The image in the middle is a birthing figure – which represents earth, and the bottom depicts a large skull, which represents hell, death or the underworld.

The painting has a strong mythological quality to it. For Alejandro, its like a personalized myth – so beautifully dream-like, with each image metamorphosing into another.