Visual Culture of the Nacirema: Chagoya’s Printed Codices

Fig. 1a. Enrique Chagoya, left panels of Tales from the Conquest/Codex (1992), color xerox transfer, lacquer, acrylic, and ink on amate paper, 31.75 cm x 300.36 cm x 10.16 cm. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund: gift of Susan and Robert Green, Christine and Pierre Lamond, Madeleine H. Russell, and Judy C. Webb. ©Enrique Chagoya.

Fig. 1a. Enrique Chagoya, left panels of Tales from the Conquest/Codex (1992), color xerox transfer, lacquer, acrylic, and ink on amate paper, 31.75 cm x 300.36 cm x 10.16 cm. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund: gift of Susan and Robert Green, Christine and Pierre Lamond, Madeleine H. Russell, and Judy C. Webb. ©Enrique Chagoya.

Fig. 1b. Enrique Chagoya, detail of Tales from the Conquest/Codex (1992). ©Enrique Chagoya.

Fig. 1b. Enrique Chagoya, detail of Tales from the Conquest/Codex (1992). ©Enrique Chagoya.

Enrique Chagoya describes himself as both a painter and a printmaker, and indeed, an understanding of his prints is essential to any meaningful discussion of his work. His interest in the graphic arts began when he first saw Goya’s etchings as a teenager; he illustrated books and drew political cartoons while studying political economics at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in the 70s; and he made his first suite of prints as an art student at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) and the University of California, Berkeley in the 80s (Homage to Goya II: Disasters of War (2003)).1 In the decades since, Chagoya has worked with more than a dozen printshops, producing some 16 monotypes, ten lithographs, 15 individual intaglio prints and three suites of 3 to 10 prints each, five digital prints, and 17 books.2 Most distinctively, he has made eleven editioned codices—accordion-folded artist’s books made with lithography, woodcut, letterpress, and occasional collaged elements on the bark-based paper used by the ancient Aztec, Maya and Mixtec. These codices are the most intricate and sustained articulation of Chagoya’s core concept of “reverse anthropology;” they are documents of an alternate world in which the Spanish conquest of the New World failed, and the normative culture of the 21st century is Meso-American rather than Anglo-American.

Fig. 1c. Enrique Chagoya, detail of Tales from the Conquest/Codex (1992). ©Enrique Chagoya.

Fig. 1c. Enrique Chagoya, detail of Tales from the Conquest/Codex (1992). ©Enrique Chagoya.

Monographs on Chagoya, however, have devoted surprisingly little space to his editioned work (exceptions are Patricia Hickson in Enrique Chagoya: Borderlandia and Shifra Goldman in Locked in Paradise).3 Chagoya’s 2003 codex The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals (Figs. 9a, 9b) made headlines when it was destroyed by a religious zealot in Loveland, Colorado last year, but while Eleanor Heartney and Faye Hirsch wrote analytical pieces placing it in context, the Loveland event has tended to overshadow critical discussion of Chagoya’s art itself.4 A thorough assessment of his printed work is long overdue. The complexity of his imagery, however, makes this a daunting task, and too lengthy for a single article. This essay will therefore focus on the codices—a form that Hickson identifies as “the culmination of Chagoya’s artistic practice,” and Robert Storr describes as “a conceptual breakthrough.”5

The codex form—a book with multiple pages either bound or joined—is shared by Christian-era Europeans and pre-Columbian Mesoamericans, but Chagoya has chosen to mimic the manuscripts that the Spanish found when they first landed in what is now Mexico. 16th-century accounts tell of the vast library of King Nezahualcóyotl, established only a few decades before the Spanish arrived, containing thousands of books on religious, scientific, governmental, and secular subjects.6 Nearly all were burned and of the few that survived, most were shipped to Europe as curiosities. The extensive libraries of the Maya suffered a similar fate. These books were made of animal skin or amatl (amate in Spanish)—a paper made from the bark of the wild fig—coated in white lime and then painted with colorful images and text in the indigenous glyph-based writing system.

Fig. 1a. Enrique Chagoya, right panels of Tales from the Conquest/Codex (1992), color xerox transfer, lacquer, acrylic, and ink on amate paper, 31.75 cm x 300.36 cm x 10.16 cm. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund: gift of Susan and Robert Green, Christine and Pierre Lamond, Madeleine H. Russell, and Judy C. Webb. ©Enrique Chagoya.

Fig. 1a. Enrique Chagoya, right panels of Tales from the Conquest/Codex (1992), color xerox transfer, lacquer, acrylic, and ink on amate paper, 31.75 cm x 300.36 cm x 10.16 cm. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund: gift of Susan and Robert Green, Christine and Pierre Lamond, Madeleine H. Russell, and Judy C. Webb. ©Enrique Chagoya.

Chagoya’s interest in the artifacts of these “lost” civilizations is longstanding. As a child in Mexico City, he spent Sundays with his family at the ruins of Teotihuacán where he would “sit on the pyramids and… try to imagine how it was.”7 At university he was exposed to anthropological and historical studies such as Miguel León-Portilla’s 1959 The Broken Spears: the Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. At SFAI (BFA, 1984) and at Berkeley (MFA, 1987), Chagoya read further works by León-Portilla as well as theoretical analyses of Mesoamerican writing systems, and he studied the surviving pre-Columbian manuscripts and post-Conquest codices about native cultures, which the Spanish had commissioned from indigenous artists (tlacuilolli).8

Fig. 1d. Enrique Chagoya, detail of Tales from the Conquest/Codex (1992). ©Enrique Chagoya.

Fig. 1d. Enrique Chagoya, detail of Tales from the Conquest/Codex (1992). ©Enrique Chagoya.

Feeling “the need to see more of those books,”9 Chagoya chose the year 1992—the quincentenary of Columbus’ voyage to the New World—to begin making his own. Tales from the Conquest/Codex (Figs. 1a–1f) is a unique work made with ink, acrylic, lacquer and color photocopy transfers. Like its Mesoamerican predecessors, the book reads from right to left, is printed on amate paper, folded accordion-style, and paginated with the Maya numerical system of dots and dashes. Its surface appears to be ancient, weathered and stained. This is partly due to the paper, which is handmade and dried on planks in the sun, but is also a product of artful intent and laborious layering. The content unfolds in surreal pastiches from pre-Columbian sources, Catholic iconography, Mexican Colonial book illustration, and pan-American pop-culture.

The opening spread derives from a 16th-century depiction of the massacre in the Main Temple, Tenochtitlán, on May 10, 1520—an event that marked the beginning of the Aztec-Spanish war—which Chagoya has updated with a tank, a burning Madonna and a crucifixion scene.10 The second page appropriates page 29 of the Codex Borgia, one of the finest remaining pre-Columbian manuscripts, to which the artist has added a panel from an early Superman comic book (Fig. 1b).11 “IT’S A DIMENSIONAL BRIDGE — AND I’M CROSSING IT — RIGHT NOW!” the superhero declares, setting a stage for the mind-bending temporal and conceptual juxtapositions that follow. Later on we find a group of Catholic priests with hatchets embedded in their heads; Olive Oyl looks on complacently though Mickey Mouse seems agitated. The book concludes with overlapping images: Aztec tax collectors from the Codex Mendoza, Superman assisting a Mexican boy who confesses, “As my father lay dying, he told me to come to the U.S.A. for a better life…,” and Don Catarino, a Mexican comic strip character, shooting a gun loaded with “Kryptonite from Oaxaca” at the man of steel. These abrupt unions of past and present, indigenous and imperial, sacred and profane, are at the heart of Chagoya’s project—they are the tools of reverse anthropology.

Fig. 1e. Anonymous (Pre-Columbian, probably Nahuatl), detail of page 56 of the Codex Borgia (1898 facsimile edition).

Fig. 1e. Anonymous (Pre-Columbian, probably Nahuatl), detail of page 56 of the Codex Borgia (1898 facsimile edition).

Chagoya is acutely aware of the power wielded by the dominant culture to set norms and terms of debate. History, he notes, is “an ideological construction made by those who win wars. This goes across cultures and time… for every history told there is a history untold.”12 The Codex’s pseudo-pre-Columbian affect and quixotic content is strategic, suggesting a “lost document” from a parallel universe; like several of the subsequent codices, it posits one possible answer to Chagoya’s question, “what would have happened, if the Aztecs had conquered Europe[?]”13 Superman is a symbol of U.S. (or European) hegemony, but Superman’s supremacy is in question—we can see green pellets of Oaxacan Kryptonite en route to his chest.14 On page nine we see an indigenous artist at work in his studio (Fig. 1d), oblivious to the paintings beside him: Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory (1931). His disinterest in these canonical works of European modern art points to an inversion of the usual flow of cultural influence. Chagoya dubbed this an art-world manifestation of reverse anthropology “reverse modernism,” and explains it as:

Fig. 1f. Enrique Chagoya, detail of Tales from the Conquest/Codex (1992). ©Enrique Chagoya.

Fig. 1f. Enrique Chagoya, detail of Tales from the Conquest/Codex (1992). ©Enrique Chagoya.

… doing the exact opposite of what Picasso did with African masks. When he appropriated the African masks to develop his cubist paintings… [he said] he didn’t care about the content or the context of where the masks were from; he was only interested in the form. So by the same token, I’m trying to appropriate European art, pretending I’m not interested in the content of the European art or the context of it, but rather just the form.15

Chagoya’s inquiry into the possibilities of an indigenous aesthetic led him to the Brazilian avant-garde of the 50s and 60s, then to the Antropofágia movement of the 20s and 30s, and finally to Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 Manifesto Antropófago.16 The word antropófagia means ‘man-eating,’ and de Andrade argued that Brazilian artists should “cannibalize” European art to make it their own. This cannibalization alluded to the Tupí people who had a tradition of ingesting their enemies after combat in the belief that they would absorb their abilities—a practice assiduously repressed by the Jesuit priests who came to convert them in the 16th century. Thus cannibalization was tied to national identity and anti-colonialist impulses; for the Antropofágos, the only way to establish a quintessentially Brazilian art was to reverse the historical flow in which the art of former colonies was always a tributary, and instead to “ingest” the art of Europe.17

Fig. 2. Enrique Chagoya, detail of opening page of Insulae Canibalium (Cannibal Island) (1995), accordion-folded artist’s book, monotype with photocopy transfers and hand-additions on amate paper, 11 3/4 x 96 inches overall. Published and printed by Segura Publishing Company, Tempe, AZ. Collection of the Arizona State University Art Museum, gift of Friends of Mexican Art. ©Courtesy of the artist and George Adams Gallery, New York.

Fig. 2. Enrique Chagoya, detail of opening page of Insulae Canibalium (Cannibal Island) (1995), accordion-folded artist’s book, monotype with photocopy transfers and hand-additions on amate paper, 11 3/4 x 96 inches overall. Published and printed by Segura Publishing Company, Tempe, AZ. Collection of the Arizona State University Art Museum, gift of Friends of Mexican Art. ©Courtesy of the artist and George Adams Gallery, New York.

With this in mind, Chagoya began to play with notions of cannibalism in his 1994 painting The Governor’s Nightmare. Inspired by a scene of human sacrifice in the Codex Magliabechiano, the painting shows indigenous Mesoamericans dining peacefully on human body parts while an Aztec god salivates over a bound and panicked Mickey Mouse. (The title alludes to California Governor Pete Wilson, whose re-election campaign played to anti-immigration sentiment.) The same image appears in several subsequent printed works: the opening spread of the 1995 monotype codex Insulae Canibalium (Cannibal Island) (Fig. 2); the trade-edition book Friendly Cannibals (1996), with collages by Chagoya and drawings and a short story by Guillermo Gómez-Peña; and Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Patrol (Fig. 3a), a collaborative project with Gómez-Peña and book artist Felicia Rice.18

Fig. 3a. Enrique Chagoya, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, and Felicia Rice, Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Patrol (1998), artist’s book, letterpress in black and red on amate paper, accordion folded and encased in portfolio box, 9 inches x 31 feet (extended). Edition of 50, includ- ing five deluxe hand-painted editions in roman numerals (pictured). Moving Parts Press, Santa Cruz, California. Image courtesy Moving Parts Press, Santa Cruz, CA.

Fig. 3a. Enrique Chagoya, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, and Felicia Rice, Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Patrol (1998), artist’s book, letterpress in black and red on amate paper, accordion folded and encased in portfolio box, 9 inches x 31 feet (extended). Edition of 50, includ- ing five deluxe hand-painted editions in roman numerals (pictured). Moving Parts Press, Santa Cruz, California. Image courtesy Moving Parts Press, Santa Cruz, CA.

Having grown up entirely in Mexico, Chagoya does not particularly identify as Chicano,19 but he is alert to the difficulties of cross-cultural identities. “Espangliensis” is a made-up word meant to approximate the Latin for “Spanglish,” and Chagoya’s double-page collages combine with poetic/performance texts by Gómez-Peña to toy with Mexican-American border politics of the late 90s, from NAFTA to crackdowns on illegal crossings. In the opening spread, a Posada engraving of hell spawns a devilishly red Superman (Fig. 3b) who flies into battle with three Mixtec warriors borrowed from the Codex Zouche-Nuttall. Designed, produced, and published by Rice, the codex followed the format of Tales from the Conquest: printed on amate paper, accordion folded, and reading from right to left. Like The Governor’s Nightmare, this book was particularly topical in California, where Wilson had proposed and/ or enacted a number of laws restricting the rights of immigrants.

After Codex Expangliensis, Chagoya moved away from collaborative projects in favor of fully conceived artist’s books. Ten of these (as well as one monotype codex) have been produced with Bud Shark of Shark’s Ink, a master printer who approached Chagoya and was willing to take on the technical challenges of this eccentric form. (Among other difficulties, printing on amate is exceedingly difficult as it “stretches as much as 1/4 to 5/8 inches” when put through the press multiple times; Chagoya’s layered images usually require eight to ten passes.)20

Fig. 4a. Enrique Chagoya, left panels of El Regreso del Caníbal Macrobiótico (The Return of the Macrobiotic Cannibal) (1998), accordion-folded artist’s book, sixteen-color lithograph and woodcut on amate paper and chine collé, 7 1/2 x 92 inches overall. Edition of 30. Published and printed by Shark’s Ink, Lyons, CO, ©Enrique Chagoya 1998. Photo: Bud Shark.

Fig. 4a. Enrique Chagoya, left panels of El Regreso del Caníbal Macrobiótico (The Return of the Macrobiotic Cannibal) (1998), accordion-folded artist’s book, sixteen-color lithograph and woodcut on amate paper and chine collé, 7 1/2 x 92 inches overall. Edition of 30. Published and printed by Shark’s Ink, Lyons, CO, ©Enrique Chagoya 1998. Photo: Bud Shark.

El Regreso del Caníbal Macrobiótico (Fig. 4a), the first codex done with Shark, introduces the figure of the “utopian cannibal” or “un-noble savage.” The character first appeared in 1998 in a La Coqueta, one in a series of works in which Chagoya painted over pages removed from a 19th-century art history book found at a flea market.21 In both images, a head borrowed from page 56 of the Codex Borgia is attached to a hand-drawn male body clothed in authority: a blue business suit in one, a lab coat in the other (Fig. 4b), a tie and white shirt in both.

Fig. 3b. Enrique Chagoya, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, and Felicia Rice, detail of Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Patrol (1998), artist’s book, letterpress in black and red on amate paper, accordion folded and encased in portfolio box, 9 inches x 31 feet (extended). Edition of 50 (pictured), including five deluxe hand-painted editions in roman numerals. Moving Parts Press, Santa Cruz, California. Image courtesy Moving Parts Press, Santa Cruz, CA.

Fig. 3b. Enrique Chagoya, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, and Felicia Rice, detail of Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Patrol (1998), artist’s book, letterpress in black and red on amate paper, accordion folded and encased in portfolio box, 9 inches x 31 feet (extended). Edition of 50 (pictured), including five deluxe hand-painted editions in roman numerals. Moving Parts Press, Santa Cruz, California. Image courtesy Moving Parts Press, Santa Cruz, CA.

This figure becomes regular presence in Chagoya’s codices—an indigenous trickster who takes various guises and “cannibalizes” European culture in the same fashion that Mesoamerican culture has been haphazardly subsumed into artifacts of contemporary life, from Virgin of Guadalupe window stickers to Taco salads. These cannibals (both male and female) romp through an alternate reality in which they are members of the dominant culture, toying with icons of the dispossessed underclass—Mickey Mouse or Jesus or Picasso. Sometimes they literally ingest their “inferiors;” at other times they treat them with the carelessness of the privileged; more often than not, they merely engage the “other” in fruitless and confused interactions.

In their provocative intent, Chagoya’s codices can be seen as visual parallels to Horace Miner’s famous 1956 mock-paper, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” which described American personal hygiene through the distanced language and purported objectivity of anthropology. Here is Miner on dentistry and shaving:

Fig. 4a. Enrique Chagoya, right panels El Recgreso del Caníbal Macrobiótico (The Return of the Macrobiotic Cannibal) (1998), accordion-folded artist’s book, sixteen-color lithograph and woodcut on amate paper and chine collé, 7 1/2 x 92 inches overall. Edition of 30. Published and printed by Shark’s Ink, Lyons, CO, ©Enrique Chagoya 1998. Photo: Bud Shark.

Fig. 4a. Enrique Chagoya, right panels El Recgreso del Caníbal Macrobiótico (The Return of the Macrobiotic Cannibal) (1998), accordion-folded artist’s book, sixteen-color lithograph and woodcut on amate paper and chine collé, 7 1/2 x 92 inches overall. Edition of 30. Published and printed by Shark’s Ink, Lyons, CO, ©Enrique Chagoya 1998. Photo: Bud Shark.

One has but to watch the gleam in the eye of a holy-mouth-man, as he jabs an awl into an exposed nerve, to suspect that a certain amount of sadism is involved… most of the population shows definite masochistic tendencies. It was to these that Professor Linton referred in discussing a distinctive part of the daily body ritual which is performed only by men. This part of the rite involves scraping and lacerating the surface of the face with a sharp instrument.22

Fig. 4b. Enrique Chagoya. detail of El Regreso del Caníbal Macrobiótico (The Return of the Macrobiotic Cannibal) (1998), ©Enrique Chagoya 1998. Photo: Bud Shark.

Fig. 4b. Enrique Chagoya. detail of El Regreso del Caníbal Macrobiótico (The Return of the Macrobiotic Cannibal) (1998), ©Enrique Chagoya 1998. Photo: Bud Shark.

Turning the tables between the subject and the observer, between the describer and the described, Miner laid bare the privileged vantage point from which Euro-American culture implicitly argues all other cultures are to be understood. Anthropology, Chagoya observes, arose “in England as a way to better understand the British colonies.”23 Like history, it is not an objective and disinterested description of human behavior, but is determined by the power relationships between victor and vanquished.

Chagoya is clear, however, that no group can claim the moral high ground. He notes how Mesoamerican peoples warred amongst themselves and believes that, had they triumphed, they would have been equally ruthless in their subjugation of Europeans:

So perhaps, all of the questioning I do with my work is about the misuse of power… Why don’t we use the power, all the power we have, to our advantage for a better humanity’s life and existence and a better interaction with nature? That sounds very utopian.24

Chagoya’s cannibal is “utopian” in that he/she works to alert viewers to their complicity in systems of empowerment and oppression. His savage is “un-noble” since, as Hickson explains, it represents “the antithesis of the stereotype of the noble savage as a morally superior human uncorrupted by the influences of civilization.”25

Fig. 5a. Enrique Chagoya, left panels of Abenteuer der Kannibalen Bioethicists (Adventures of the Bioethicist Cannibals) (2001), accordion-folded artist’s book, nine-color lithograph and woodcut with applied “wiggle eyes” on amate paper on various chines collé, 7 1/2 x 92 inches overall. Edition of 30. Published and printed by Shark’s Ink, Lyons, CO. ©Enrique Chagoya 2001. Photo: Bud Shark.

Fig. 5a. Enrique Chagoya, left panels of Abenteuer der Kannibalen Bioethicists (Adventures of the Bioethicist Cannibals) (2001), accordion-folded artist’s book, nine-color lithograph and woodcut with applied “wiggle eyes” on amate paper on various chines collé, 7 1/2 x 92 inches overall. Edition of 30. Published and printed by Shark’s Ink, Lyons, CO. ©Enrique Chagoya 2001. Photo: Bud Shark.

These works of the 90s were concerned primarily with Mexican/American cultural and historical conflicts, but at the turn of the millennium Chagoya began to employ a more global frame of reference, in part due to time spent in Europe. In 1999 while on sabbatical Paris, Chagoya made a request to see the Paris Codex, one of the very few surviving Maya manuscripts, which is housed at the Bibliothèque nationale. He was researching an essay for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) about the influence of pre-Columbian texts on his work,26 and having presented a letter from LACMA as well as his credentials as a professor at Stanford, he was surprised to find the request denied on the grounds that a Mexican national had stolen a Mesoamerican codex from the collection some years earlier.27 Though Chagoya was in fact a U.S. citizen, repeated appeals proved fruitless. He channeled his frustration into Les Adventures des Cannibales Modernistes, which includes run-ins between North American (both U.S. and Mexican) and French pop-culture figures: the last page shows the Mexican comic heroine Adelita duking it out with two officers who distinctly resemble French gendarmes.

Fig. 5a. Enrique Chagoya, right panels of Abenteuer der Kannibalen Bioethicists (Adventures of the Bioethicist Cannibals) (2001), accordion-folded artist’s book, nine-color lithograph and woodcut with applied “wiggle eyes” on amate paper on various chines collé, 7 1/2 x 92 inches overall. Edition of 30. Published and printed by Shark’s Ink, Lyons, CO. ©Enrique Chagoya 2001. Photo: Bud Shark.

Fig. 5a. Enrique Chagoya, right panels of Abenteuer der Kannibalen Bioethicists (Adventures of the Bioethicist Cannibals) (2001), accordion-folded artist’s book, nine-color lithograph and woodcut with applied “wiggle eyes” on amate paper on various chines collé, 7 1/2 x 92 inches overall. Edition of 30. Published and printed by Shark’s Ink, Lyons, CO. ©Enrique Chagoya 2001. Photo: Bud Shark.

UtopianCannibal.org, a work from 2000 that addressed the growth of the internet and the attendant Y2K scare, followed Les Adventures. The next year, Chagoya created Abenteuer der Kannibalen Bioethicists (Fig. 5a), a codex peppered with references to art of all kinds with no discernable pecking order: a stereotypical Native American head and an equally clichéd Roman head face off stoically on page three, while on page seven the comic strip character Nancy offers a Kunst Lektion to her dog on the subject of Mesoamerican writing. On pages 16-18, Chagoya appropriates Warhol’s famous Campbell’s soup cans, re-labeling their contents ‘CREAM OF DEALER,’ ‘ARTIST’S BRAINS,’ ‘MUSEUM DIRECTOR’S TRIPE,’ etc.28 (Fig. 5b).

Fig. 5b. Enrique Chagoya, detail of Abenteuer der Kannibalen Bioethicists (Adventures of the Bioethicist Cannibals) (2001), accordion-folded artist’s book, nine-color lithograph and woodcut with applied “wiggle eyes” on amate paper on various chines collé, 7 1/2 x 92 inches overall. Edi- tion of 30. Published and printed by Shark’s Ink, Lyons, CO. ©Enrique Chagoya 2001. Photo: Bud Shark.

Fig. 5b. Enrique Chagoya, detail of Abenteuer der Kannibalen Bioethicists (Adventures of the Bioethicist Cannibals) (2001), accordion-folded artist’s book, nine-color lithograph and woodcut with applied “wiggle eyes” on amate paper on various chines collé, 7 1/2 x 92 inches overall. Edi- tion of 30. Published and printed by Shark’s Ink, Lyons, CO. ©Enrique Chagoya 2001. Photo: Bud Shark.

The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals on the other hand, addressed the pedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church.29 The figure of Jesus appears throughout the book, though he is incarnated in a variety of incongruous bodies. In one, his head is attached to a reclining, scantily-clad female body whose inner thigh is being licked by a man (behind them is the Spanish word orgasmo). This was the image that prompted a woman truck driver to smuggle a crowbar into the Loveland Museum/Gallery and destroy the book. While certainly provocative, the image was also willfully absurd. As art historian Jennifer González points out, Chagoya frequently takes “an artist’s liberty with many sacred sign systems.”30 These systems include those of high art and national identity as well as religion. They are, the artist explains, “my way of dealing with ideas and stereotypes… people project themselves into a religious icon, but also, people have a hard time understanding someone else’s icon and making a bridge.”31

The Ghost of Liberty and Double Trouble (Anthropology of the Clone) addressed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Art historical, political, and historical references are layered deep in images like that of George W. Bush in The Ghost of Liberty: the 2004 drawing is derived from the artist’s charcoal drawings Poor George after Philip Guston, which echoed Guston’s Nixonian Poor Richard series from 1971, which in turn drew its title from Ben Franklin.32 More recent codices have addressed the global economic collapse: Illegal Alien’s Guide to the Concept of Relative Surplus Value; and Escape from Fantasylandia: An Illegal Alien’s Survival Guide [see Art in Print Vol. 1, No. 5].

Fig. 9b. Enrique Chagoya, The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals (2003) (destroyed). Collection Loveland Art Museum ©Enrique Chagoya 2003. Photo: Bud Shark.

Fig. 9b. Enrique Chagoya, The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals (2003) (destroyed). Collection Loveland Art Museum ©Enrique Chagoya 2003. Photo: Bud Shark.

Like all good artists, Chagoya exploits specific forms for specific purposes. The social satire that is one of his chief occupations finds expression in his drawings and his free-standing prints; reverse anthropology, he says, “works better in my codices.”33 Over the past few years Chagoya has become more experimental with the codex form. This began with minor touches, such as adding plastic wiggly eyes to Double Trouble (Anthropology of the Clone) and Abenteuer der Kannibalen Bioethicists and playing with variable dimensions for each page in The Ghost of Liberty. For the monotype codex En el Jardín de los Miserables (Fig. 6), Chagoya chose to print only in black and include only images drawn by hand in a fluid, gestural style—departing from his usual colorful collages to explore “monochromatic cohesion.”34

Fig. 7a. Enrique Chagoya, right panels of New Illegal Alien’s Guide to Critical Theory (2008), pigment and acrylic on amate paper and three layers of Plexiglas, 13 1/4 x 92 1/8 inches. Variable Edition. Printed and published by Magnolia Editions, Oakland, CA. ©Courtesy of the artist and George Adams Gallery, New York. Photo: Adam Reich.

Fig. 7a. Enrique Chagoya, right panels of New Illegal Alien’s Guide to Critical Theory (2008), pigment and acrylic on amate paper and three layers of Plexiglas, 13 1/4 x 92 1/8 inches. Variable Edition. Printed and published by Magnolia Editions, Oakland, CA. ©Courtesy of the artist and George Adams Gallery, New York. Photo: Adam Reich.

In New Illegal Alien’s Guide to Critical Theory (Figs. 7a, 7b), Chagoya radically re-imagined the codex format, preserving the linear stretch of narrative and the amate paper substrate, but abandoning the page-turning sequence of spreads in favor of layered elements sandwiched in Plexiglas. Produced with Magnolia Editions, it was released in a “series” rather than an “edition” since each example constitutes a unique variant. In one iteration, a digital pigment print on amate is fused to Plexiglas, which is covered with two additional layers of printed Plexiglas; the artist then painted additions in white acrylic over the whole. The various strata interact in the manner of an old-fashioned animation cell. The theme is again reverse modernism—the utopian cannibal in the opening spread asks, “Habla Aramaic? Tu connais Gustave Moreau?,” standing before a wall plastered with a Campbell’s soup can of “Pop Art.” The wall continues for eight feet, right to left, hung with borrowings from ancient Egypt, Colonial Mexico, and antebellum America (Fig. 7c).

Fig. 8. Enrique Chagoya, Histoire Naturelle des Espécies: Illegal Alien’s Manuscript (2008), accordion-folded artist’s book, twelve-color lithograph on amate paper, 11 1/2 x 74 1/4 inches overall. Edition of 30. Published and printed by Shark’s Ink, Lyons, CO. ©Enrique Chagoya, 2008. Photo: Bud Shark.

Fig. 8. Enrique Chagoya, Histoire Naturelle des Espécies: Illegal Alien’s Manuscript (2008), accordion-folded artist’s book, twelve-color lithograph on amate paper, 11 1/2 x 74 1/4 inches overall. Edition of 30. Published and printed by Shark’s Ink, Lyons, CO. ©Enrique Chagoya, 2008. Photo: Bud Shark. 

Dissecting Chagoya’s work like this, one can identify sources and concepts that seem to offer a path through his world of conflated and incongruous signifiers, but it is not his intent to present clear narratives. Most scholars have wisely chosen to emphasize the work’s open-ended and free-associative qualities,35 but it is important to acknowledge that Chagoya’s iconography is also meant to prompt the search for meaning, as he made clear in this exchange with Paul Karlstrom:

Fig. 7b. Enrique Chagoya, detail of New Illegal Alien’s Guide to Critical Theory (2008), pigment and acrylic on amate paper and three layers of Plexiglas, 13 1/4 x 92 1/8 inches. Variable Edition. Printed and published by Magnolia Editions, Oakland, CA. ©Courtesy of the artist and George Adams Gallery, New York. Photo: Adam Reich.

Fig. 7b. Enrique Chagoya, detail of New Illegal Alien’s Guide to Critical Theory (2008), pigment and acrylic on amate paper and three layers of Plexiglas, 13 1/4 x 92 1/8 inches. Variable Edition. Printed and published by Magnolia Editions, Oakland, CA. ©Courtesy of the artist and George Adams Gallery, New York. Photo: Adam Reich.

PK So I guess my question is this. If I’m looking at this and really struggling to try to give it meaning, you say that it’s okay that I do this, right?

EC Right.36

The codices offer viewers both the comfort of recognition (one will always find something familiar) and the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. Hickson notes that “most of us do not have the education, cultural background, or equipment to read the specific ancient Mayan and Aztec symbols.”37 Chagoya thus places us on the same uneven footing with respect to our own culture that we have in relationship to Mesoamerican culture, which is only partially understood due to the paucity of surviving information. As he has frequently noted, his compositions are assembled instinctively and his “aim [is] to create a kind of tension, a dialogue between different cultures.”38 The struggle itself is where the meaning lies:

I don’t have solutions for the problems of the world… it would be too pretentious to think that art changes people’s consciousness, but you could arrive to a point where your art is a departure for thinking, and the world changes through other actions. That’s my only hope with my work.39

Fig. 6. Enrique Chagoya, En el Jardín de los Miserables (2010), accordion-folded artist’s book, monotype on amate paper, 12 1/4 x 84 inches overall. Unique. Collection of the Faulconer Gallery, Grinnell College, Grinnell, IA, Marie-Louise and Samuel R. Rosenthal Fund. Published and printed by Shark’s Ink, Lyons, CO. ©Enrique Chagoya 2010. Photo: Bud Shark.

Fig. 6. Enrique Chagoya, En el Jardín de los Miserables (2010), accordion-folded artist’s book, monotype on amate paper, 12 1/4 x 84 inches overall. Unique. Collection of the Faulconer Gallery, Grinnell College, Grinnell, IA, Marie-Louise and Samuel R. Rosenthal Fund. Published and printed by Shark’s Ink, Lyons, CO. ©Enrique Chagoya 2010. Photo: Bud Shark.

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  1. “Enrique Chagoya: Borderlandia” 2007 exhibition text and Susan Seligson, “CFA Hosts Enrique Chagoya,” Arts and Entertainment, BU Today online, 12/16/2011; Enrique Chagoya and Karlstrom, “Oral history interview with Enrique Chagoya,” 2001 July 25-Aug. 6, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; Patricia Hickson, “Borderlandia Unbound: An Abbreviated Guide to the Visual Anthropology of Enrique Chagoya” in Patricia Hickson, ed. Enrique Chagoya: Borderlandia (Des Moines: Des Moines Art Center, 2007), 14-15. []
  2. Printshops with whom Chagoya has worked include: Made in California, Oakland, CA; Segura Publishing Company, Tempe, AZ; Moving Parts Press, Santa Cruz, CA; Smith Andersen Editions, Palo Alto, CA; Crown Point Press, San Francisco; Landfall Press, Chicago, IL (now Santa Fe, NM); Shark’s Ink, Lyons, CO; HuiPress, Makawao (Maui), HI; Magnolia Editions, Oakland, CA, and ULAE, Bay Shore, NY. []
  3. Hickson, “Borderlandia Unbound,” and Shifra M. Goldman,“The Subversive Vocabulary of Enrique Chagoya,” in Enrique Chagoya: Locked in Paradise (Reno, NV: Nevada Museum of Art, 2000). []
  4. Eleanor Heartney,“The Global Culture War,” Art in America 99, no. 9 (October 2011): 118- 123; and Faye Hirsch,“The Print and the Pastor,” News & Opinion, Art in America online, 3/01/2011. For reporting of the original incident, see David Itzoff, “Woman Arrested in Colorado after Destroying Artwork,” The New York Times, October 7, 2010; and Dan Frosch, “Provocative Image of Christ Sets Off a Debate Punctuated With a Crowbar,” The New York Times, October 10, 2010 (online) and October 11, 2011 (in print). []
  5. Hickson, “Borderlandia Unbound,” 18; and Robert Storr, “Stratagies,” in Enrique Chagoya: Borderlandia, 31. []
  6. Enrique Chagoya, “A Lost Continent: Writings without an Alphabet” in Virginia M. Fields and Victor Zamudio-Taylor. The Road to Aztlan: Art from a Mythic Homeland. (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2001), 264. []
  7. Chagoya and Karlstrom. []
  8. Elizabeth Hill Boone and Walter D. Mignolo. Writing without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994). See also Chagoya and Karlstrom. In “A Lost Continent,” Chagoya states there are 22 pre-Columbian codices and 54 post-Conquest codices and provides his own overview, citing Léon-Portilla (262-73). Other sources differ, and the authenticity of the Codex Grolier is in question.The artist has studied most of these codices in facsimile and has been able to see the Codex Madrid (coll. Museo de las Americas, Madrid, Spain) in person. []
  9. Chagoya and Karlstrom. []
  10. The source is El Lienza de Tlaxcala (History of Tlaxcala), c. 1550-85 (University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections). The text at upper left, “Yepeuq’yaoyotl ycha ciuco má,” translates to “Massacre at the Fiesta.” []
  11. The Codex Borgia is in the Apostolic Library of the Vatican. Images of each page are available online at Wikimedia commons. []
  12. Diane M. Deming, “Interview with Enrique Chagoya,” in Enrique Chagoya: Locked in Paradise, 67. []
  13. Chagoya and Karlstrom. []
  14. For discussion of Chagoya’s use of pop-culture icons such as Mickey Mouse and Superman, see Goldman, 9-12. []
  15. For discussion of Chagoya’s use of pop-culture icons such as Mickey Mouse and Superman, see Goldman, 9-12. []
  16. He was particularly interested in the Neo-Concretists Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica and the “anti-colonial and colorful stories” in films such as Terra em Transe (1967) and Antonio das Mortes (1969) by Glauber Rocha, and Os Fuzis (1964) by Ruy Guerra. The manifesto was inspired by the painting Abaporu (The Man that Eats) by Tarsila do Amaral, now considered a masterpiece of Brazilian modernism. []
  17. Benedito Nunes, “Anthropophagic Utopia: Barbarian Metaphysics” in Mari Carmen Ramírez and Héctor Olea, Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America (New Haven: Yale University Press and Houston: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2004), 57-61. []
  18. The original collages form the unique book Orbis Canibalium (coll. Dr. Milton Schaefer and Scott Plakum, San Francisco); see illustrations and checklist in Shifra M. Goldman and Diane M. Deming, Enrique Chagoya: Locked in Paradise (Reno: Nevada Museum of Art, 2000), 41, 44, 45, 76. Chagoya describes Friendly Cannibals as a “blind collaboration… Neither one of us knew the other’s work until it was published and edited by Anne MacDonald who commissioned both works, the one of a kind codex, and Guillermo’s short story” (email with the author). []
  19. He observes that Chicanos growing up in the States had “no information about their own culture when they were going to school. So there was this thirsty feeling for whatever was coming out of Mexico—anywhere from the Virgin of Guadalupe to Zapata and Villa… So it was a little difficult for me to understand in the beginning… the Virgin of Guadalupe was something we didn’t care much about.” (Chagoya and Karlstrom.) []
  20. Anticipating this in later editions, the paper is now calendared or pre-stretched, but it is still highly sensitive to changes in humidity (Shark email to the author). The history and traditional uses of the paper are important to Chagoya, see Chagoya, “A Lost Continent,” 265 and Chagoya and Karlstom. For further discussion of printing problems, see Rice’s statement in Codex Espangliensis, 2000, unpaginated. []
  21. The series began in 1997 and is ongoing; see Hickson, Borderlandia Unbound,” 16. []
  22. Horace Mitchell Miner, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” American Anthropologist 58, no. 3 (June 1956): 503-507. The original text can be viewed on the website of Michigan State University (reprinted with permission). []
  23. Email interview with the author. []
  24. Chagoya and Karlstrom. []
  25. Hickson, “Borderlandia Unbound,” 16. []
  26. Chagoya, “A Lost Continent,” 262-273. []
  27. In 1982 the Codex Tonalamatl Aubin was taken from the Bibliothèque nationale by the Mexican journalist José Luis Castañeda, acting on nationalist convictions; he then gave it to the Instituto National de Antropología e Historia (INAH). See José Rabasa, Tell Me the Story of How I Conquered You: Elsewheres and Ethnosuicide in the Colonial Mesoamerican World (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011), 209, note 1. As of 2009, the INAH and the Biblothèque nationale were working on an agreement, which would allow the book to remain on “permanent loan” to the INAH. []
  28. This concept was also realized in his multiples The Enlightened Savage, 2002 (ed. 30, Trillium Press, Brisbane, CA); and Pyramid Scheme, 2009 (ed. 40, Electric Works, San Francisco, CA). []
  29. Susan Seligson. []
  30. Jennifer González, “Introduction” in Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Patrol, 2000, unpaginated. []
  31. Chagoya and Karlstrom. []
  32. Discussed in Hickson, 15; see also George Adams Gallery, New York (“Big and Little Drawings,” May 20 – Jul 2, 2004). []
  33. For further discussion of these two distinct categories, see Hickson, “Borderlandia Unbound,” 14 and 15-16. The artist also says “editorial cartooning… expresses itself better in some of my charcoal drawings” (Seligson). []
  34. Email interview with the author. []
  35. After some detailed but incomplete discussion, Goldman concludes her essay rather abruptly with an apology that “there has not been space enough to do justice to Chagoya’s immersion in Catholic imagery” and summarily categorizes his work as an embodiment of Latino liberation theology without further elaboration (“Subversive Vocabulary,” 22). Hickman’s essay is couched as an “abbreviated guide” and concludes that “Chagoya seems to locate the otherworldly place where…fantasy worlds collide” (“Borderlandia Unbound,” 16). Storr’s essay focuses on the heterogeneous nature of Chagoya’s work and its “purposely playful spirit” (“Stratagies,” 32). Perez discusses the work in terms of history, analyzing the forgotten or overlooked truths revealed in his imagery, and concludes “Perhaps he is unable to suggest a completely new mapping of the world…but while exposing the overbearingly exotic and stereotypical, he certainly undermines it” (“Simultaneous Dimensions,” 41). []
  36. Chagoya and Karlstrom. []
  37. Hickson, “Borderlandia Unbound,” 18. []
  38. Deming, “Interview with Enrique Chagoya.” []
  39. Chagoya and Karlstrom. []