GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — As Guatemala City’s morning traffic rumbles below his studio window, Jorge de Leon points out sketches, paintings, works-in-progress and several stacks of crumpled crime tabloids. “I draw a lot of ideas from these,” he said. “These are the reality. It’s imagery. It’s the landscape.”
With a mischievous grin, he pulls up an image on his computer screen. It’s a picture of a clown, face down on the sidewalk. His massive, red pointy shoes stick out to each side, and a small puddle of blood expands outward from his head. “This, I love,” he said with notable excitement. “I’m gonna paint it.”
When de Leon’s lifts up his shirt, tattoos, knife and bullet scars paint his corporal history and reveal his intimate knowledge of violence. In and out of jail 12 times, for years he lived by the rules of the Maras, Guatemala’s feared gangs that contribute significantly to the current 20 murders a day.
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De Leon made it out, and found himself angry and complaining about the dire situation of his country — the violence, low wages, corruption, lack of job opportunities. With previous experience tattooing, he began to look at art more seriously, depicting scenes of the violent world by using dark humor.
In 2000, at one of his first public performances, he enacted a mock gang initiation, stitching his mouth shut to replicate the rules of the game – you can see, you can hear but you stay silent.
Along with others such as Anival Lopez, Regina de Galindo and Alejandro Paz, de Leon is part of a generation who grew up under the bombs, bullets, fear and human rights abuses of Guatemala’s brutal civil war and the gang violence of the 1990s. Now in their 30s, the artists are gaining recognition for their gritty depictions of the modern realities of the Central American nation.
Curator Emiliano Valdes says this era of Guatemalan artists began taking advantage of the growing liberties that came after the 1996 peace accords. By early 2000, a discernible, uniquely Guatemalan style of art had appeared.
“Those with political awareness are the product of a social, political and cultural situation that is very complicated, and their work gets at some very big questions – poverty, distribution and inequality of resources,” Valdes said.
Guatemala currently has among the highest rates of violent crime in the world, higher instances of childhood malnutrition than Haiti and suffers from the long-standing disparities between the rural indigenous regions and the wealthier political and business elite in the capital city.
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While a lot of their art touches on some of the harsh realities beneath the surface, it uses tongue-in-cheek dark humor rather than formal criticism, documentation or activism.
At a recent multimedia exhibition of Alejandro Paz’s work, one series of photos called “Guardaespalda” (Bodyguard) featured a homeless man wandering the city under the watchful eyes of a suit-wearing man with an earpiece. A screen on the next wall over blared a video loop of an indigenous woman running against a treadmill.
Anival Lopez’s most recent exhibition featured street life in Guatemala’s massive informal economy; a 2003 performance piece in Italy had a carpenter making a casket.
Surrounded by countries also experiencing problems with gang violence, invading cartels and severe poverty, Guatemala boasts a much more vibrant art scene than its neighbors. Creative in how it tackles these themes, a community of artists has emerged, spurring artistic growth.
“There’s been a poor art education system here, but the quality of the work produced stands out,” said 37-year-old Regina Jose Galindo, who’s perhaps best known for work addressing violence against women.
“It is has its own voice, a character in the work that is distinct to Guatemala … . There’s a lot of creativity and activity within the art community here.”
Along with Lopez, Galindo is one of few who have managed to gain some international exposure — a fact many hope is changing. Within the country, de Galindo, de Leon and others see the art market as limited, and support to work on projects very hard to come by.
Valdes emphasizes that this current generation forms a critical link from the era of Guatemala’s civil war through the Mara violence of the 1990's and into the high rates of narco-violence and violent crime that persist today. This backdrop has shaped the art they produce.
“For Guatemalans, the violence is something that is still present, and that will be there in the future,” said Galindo. “It’s a never-ending crisis. It’s not just that there is violence, it’s that the situation in general is defined by violence."
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