Following the destruction of a copy of his 2003 codex The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals by a visitor to the Loveland Museum/Gallery in Colorado in October of 2010, a rattled Enrique Chagoya returned to Shark’s Ink last summer to complete the latest addition to his ongoing body of book works. Escape from Fantasylandia: An Illegal Alien’s Survival Guide demonstrates Chagoya’s steady commitment to his artistic process—what he calls “reverse anthropology.”
Irreverent, satirical, complex, and engaging, Chagoya’s codices propose alternative histories and revive the lost book traditions of Mesoamerica, known only through the handful of books that survive from the vast libraries the Spanish found in the 16th century. His works are true to their Mesoamerican antecedents in form, reading from right to left and paginated with Maya numerals made of dots and dashes. Chagoya limits his use of the Western written word, instead favoring pictorial signifiers combined with the glyph-based syllabaries of the Mitzec-Zapotec, Nahua (of whom the Aztec were members), and Maya cultures. The books are also printed on amate paper (made from the bark of the wild fig tree) and folded in the traditional accordion style. Within these parameters, the artist sets out epic cultural exchanges in which he “cannibalizes” Western culture in the same way that traditional Mesoamerican cultures have been appropriated into contemporary Mexican and U.S. culture.
Chagoya’s books have taken various formats, from handmade, unique works to a number of small editions with Shark’s Ink, as well as a large-run publication by City Lights Books in San Francisco. The subjects are often inspired by events in the news. Escape from Fantasylandia: An Illegal Alien’s Survival Guide contains a number of references to recent headlines. The artist describes the book as “about the economic collapse, and also … utopian collapse (the arrival of dystopia).” On the top of page two, a man sleeps in a hammock above the figure 9.2% (the jobless rate at the time the artist was working on the book) and a stack of money, an intentionally ambiguous reference to contemporary employment problems. On the next page, a boy struggles to stay afloat in stormy seas, surrounded by speech bubbles in Japanese, an allusion to the March 2011 tsunami. (Page nine also shows a nuclear reactor on fire, surrounded by water.) On the fifth page, meteors shower onto a graph that depicts the falling value of an unspecified hedge fund, and the sixth spread opens with a house in flames, recalling the ongoing mortgage crisis. Such topical allusions continue through the length of the book, held together by the meandering figure of the plumed serpent god Quetzalcoatl.
The lower two-thirds of each page merge Colonial-era Latin American engravings with icons from indigenous Mexican culture and occasional U.S. pop culture images, such as the comic strip figure Little Lulu. Many of the pre-modern images provide a Biblical counterpoint, steeped in the complex iconography of Latin American Catholicism, to news events. For example, an image of Adam and Eve sharing an apple beneath a tree in which a serpent slithers implies a relationship between “original sin” and the economic pickle in which we now find ourselves. The fourth page features a comical white man with an aggressively grinning, impeccably groomed and oiled head (reminiscent of a 1950s ad) on the body of a man in 18th-century European dress who shakes hands with a skeleton—their exchange is blessed by a winged devil behind. This is one of a few skeletons in the book, a symbol that Chagoya uses in its Pre-Columbian sense of change and renewal rather than its darker European association with death. As noted by the artist, the Maya and Aztec believed that life on earth was an illusion and the afterlife was reality—in the artist’s words, “when one died he/she [would] wake up, and [go] to heaven (the idea of hell was not part of pre-Hispanic religions). So there is a celebratory end—and a celebratory beginning—in such pre-Columbian mythology which I would like to subliminally imply within the whole book.”
Like each of Chagoya’s prior codices, Escape from Fantasylandia: An Illegal Alien’s Survival Guide leads us on a path into a foreign world, providing just enough familiar material to entice—we become anthropologists of our own time, seeing ourselves through the lens of the other. Chagoya revives the ancient codex form as a thoroughly engaging and enriching entertainment: amusing, erudite, clever, and poignant.