By Nina Menocal
There they were, spread across the living room walls. Juana’s works of art – paintings, abstract geometric forms, sometimes black and white, sometimes full of color. All made from recycled small pieces of paper. An enormous cooking mud pot in the middle of the bed, also painted in all sorts of colored papers. It was extraordinarily exciting to go into that room in the middle of the countryside, in a remote corner of the world that could have been nowhere. Through the open door we could make out Juana’s modest house below, hens and dogs dancing playfully, a lonely donkey discernible much further out in the distance, mountains fading in the background. You could feel Juana’s aura, that most determined and ambitious of a woman who transformed herself into an artist in what would have seemed the unlikeliest of circumstances.
Does she know what kind of art she is making? She has an idea of what contemporary art is because she has seen it in magazines. But I haven’t gured out how to categorize my art or where it ts, she tells me. I didn’t copy it from anywhere, it came from within.
The exhibition in the nina menocal gallery, which will be inaugurated on 26 April, includes an installation of mud cooking pots (painted with recycled paper) curated by Paloma Porraz and a video on Juana’s Universe produced by curator Nancy Ramirez and video maker Anabel Becerril.
Juana lives and works in the Las Águilas Ranch, in an isolated house in the mountainous region of the northeast of the state of Michoacán, where she was born 64 years ago. She walks two hours by foot to get to the market in the town of Tlapujahua, and two hours to get back. She lives with her older brother José del Carmen, an artisan, and with her farm animals. When she was 19 years old, and having completed only two years of primary school, she went travelling with a group of missionaries to discover her country.
At 40, she arrived at a house in Mexico City. She was a nanny, and whenever she had a chance, she would learn from the books in the library. At night she had grown accustomed to work on her artistic creations. She started with powder from owers on cardboard or triplay. All from recycled materials. She used owers that were sent to the house, gift boxes and postcards. Later she would buy stretchers and she began to concentrate on her rst artworks made of glossy paper from discarded magazines. An artist was being born in 2005!
Many years later Juana would return to that same small house in the countryside in search of solitude, a space where she could commune with nature, develop her ideas and nd expression for her passions in abstract art. Self-taught, ercely intelligent and perceptive, she works on her art with an almost madness, drawings consisting of the tiniest pieces of cut paper on di erent supports.
I met Juana through my friend Manuel Arango. He had learned about Juana’s project almost by accident, in one of those strange coincidences that mark a life. She showed him one of her pieces and he bought several. He thought they were beautiful, more so because of the energy and magic that give them meaning: the incredible story of who Juana is.
I wanted to see the works that Manolo and his family had acquired, and when they arrived at the gallery I immediately called the curators Paloma and Nancy. We asked to meet the artist, and that was how a few months ago we undertook that trip to Tlalpujahua, one of Mexico’s designated “Magical Villages” because of its architectural richness and its pre-Columbian and colonial past. Juana took us for a walk along the cobbled streets and to the Chapel of St Peter and St Paul, where the Virgin del Carmen is worshipped. Afterwards we went towards the Las Águilas Ranch in a 4×4 rented Suburban to be able to get through rocky and steep terrain. We also walked part of the way. It was a beautiful landscape of the mountains surrounding Tlacotepec. It was almost deserted. There was only cows and a few cli s, we and at the very bottom small streams that carry water when it rains. Everything was green: oak trees, pine trees, cypress trees. In the distance, towards the South, we could see the Santa Teresa dam. The clouds and the
pro le of the mountains enveloped us into the blue sky. Juana was thrilled while she explained to us why she “painted”. For her, “paintings” are all the objects that she covers and transforms with recycled paper, like the cooking mud pots, as well as the drawings she makes on fabric. She understands abstraction as the outburst of what she has inside, that spirituality that is so peculiar to her. She told us that she likes to work late into the night because she wants to nd expression for “who I am”. During the day she tends to her animals; the cat and chickens are always on the run and she has to chase them.
Juana’s house is 100 years old. It consists of three adobe rooms with wooden planks and clay tiles. When she returned from Mexico City only José del Carmen lived there. With his help, Juana started to build two little neighboring cabins, which she designed, with walls in white ower sticks lined inside with soil. The furniture in the small rooms is an also beautiful, headboard made from the plant white ower sticks and tree trunks as tables. There is a Christ in one of the rooms: his body is made of a root that Juana found in the ravine and that she put on top of another root that forms the cross.
She also built a “living room” in a little hill higher up. In that room – where her works of art were on display –we had a delicious mole made with metate. The living room, made of concrete with a tiled roof, is also the bedroom. At the base of the wall blocks and all around there were empty bottles of Bordeaux and Champagne. On a table pushed to one corner a collection of perfume bottles, also empty. These decorative objects are important in Juana’s work, items recovered from the trash that can be used again, even if just to bring alive the environment in which she lives. And that is how, without any school title or formal training, a girl born in the mountains of rural Mexico has become an artist in her own terms, defying categorization and stereotypes.
Mexico City 9 March 2017