Last May, an exhibit sponsored by the government of the Mexican state of Sinaloa compelled civic leaders in Culiacán, the capital, to denounce the artist Rosa María Robles and demand that the show be closed down. Comments left in the visitors’ book weren’t as harsh. After wandering aghast through installations that featured bloodied toilets and suspended children’s outfits pierced by dried cow tongues or long, knobby rubber penises, viewers wrote things like “It gave me nausea, but it made me think” and “This was very hard; it made me want to cry.” A few even thanked Robles for the exhibit.
Sometimes a black boot was displayed in the act of shattering an ostrich egg. Not every viewer may have understood that this was the artist’s way of critiquing the macho narcotraficante culture of her native state, which has brought with it uncounted acts of violence, including hundreds of murders each year. But many did understand: people in Sinaloa know that los narcos actually wear those absurd boots—most fashionably made of ostrich leather—and in these hard times every day brings news of more lives they have shattered. And even a clueless outsider could grasp the meaning of the exhibit’s most controversial and memorable installation, referred to in the catalogue as “Red Carpet.” It was pieced together from the heavy woollen blankets typical of the Sinaloa mountain region, which, in the exhibit, were stiff with dried blood. Everyone in Sinaloa knows by now that in the wave of drug-related murders some of the most notorious victims have been the levantados, or pickups: cops or police chiefs or traffickers who are kidnapped, and whose mutilated corpses, wrapped in blankets, appear later. Rosa María Robles had somehow managed to obtain some of the blood-soaked blankets that had been used in such murders, but after the show opened state investigative police confiscated the blankets, on the ground that they are legal evidence.
Robles, a tiny, wiry, loquacious woman who wears tight jeans and clingy tops, has spent most of her life in Culiacán. In the mid-nineties, she earned a respectable reputation crafting enormous, menhir-like monuments from tree trunks that fetched up on the banks of a river that runs through the city. Her artistic concerns at the time, she told me, were mainly ecological. In 2006, her work took a different turn when, in a sort of trance, she began assembling the exhibit she called “Navajas” (“Razors”). The various installation pieces came together quickly “and without stumbling,” she said one afternoon in her home, a sparsely furnished rented house in a dusty neighborhood on the outskirts of the city.
“They ask me why I want to give this negative image of Sinaloa,” she said. “But I don’t. The image is already there. ‘Razors’ is about violence, but it calls for a reflection about the signs of decadence that surround us.”
“Razors” is both raw and stagy, and overwhelming in a way that does not really play fair with the viewer. Indeed, Robles could be accused of trafficking in the same kind of bloody one-upmanship that the drug trade is currently engaged in. (When the authorities confiscated the bloody blankets, she cut one of her veins, collected the blood in a chamber pot, and painted a new set of blankets with it.) But, in her messy response to the mayhem around her, Robles, like many Mexicans who watched indifferently as the drug terror developed over the decades, is only just learning how to react to it.