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COVID-19 in Mexican Folk Art

Gerald Dilley

Published in the issue.

During a vestry meeting in March, our rector, Rev. Graeme Napier, presented his ideas on how we at St. John’s in the Village could continue our ministry of supporting musicians, writers and artists during the pandemic. This later prompted me to think about art and artists in general, and it occurred to me that the reaction to the pandemic of “us regular folks” somehow should be documented in art. As an academically trained (but non-practicing) social historian, I have always been disappointed when our take on a significant event has gone unrecorded in this way.

I collect Mexican folk art collaboratively painted by Flor Palomares and Gonzalo Palacios of Puebla, Mexico. Over the years we have become good friends, and during my yearly visit to Puebla we enjoy sitting together in one of the city’s beautiful outdoor cafes discussing possible subjects for new paintings. The pandemic has kept me at home, but we have continued to brainstorm ideas via emails and phone calls. After I saw their first work depicting the virus, we quickly decided to collaborate on paintings focused on COVID-19.

Flor and Gonzalo specialize in a particular type of Mexican folk art called “ex voto” or “retablo,” which first appeared in the 16th century and became extremely popular in the 19th. It is a votive painting about the size of a license plate that gives thanks for, or in some cases requests, divine help in solving a problem or saving the petitioner from some sort of harm. A few just show an appreciation for some unsolicited development or occurrence. Whatever its nature, each ex voto depicts the saint involved and a description of the favor, miracle or action performed. My friends use this ex voto format to explore various aspects of Mexican culture, as well as current social problems, often with an element of humor. Nevertheless, no matter the degree of seriousness or the subject matter, each one is an authentic expression of faith well within the context of traditional Mexican Christianity.

During the last several months our collaboration has resulted in a number of works focused on different aspects of people’s reactions to the pandemic. However, the first one pictured below, and by far my favorite, is their own work. The other four represent our combined efforts. I came up with the ideas, wrote the narratives, and roughly (very roughly) sketched the pictorial parts or suggested photographs to be used as a basis for the painting. Flor and Gonzalo were left with the far more difficult task of executing them, as shown here with the English translation of the narratives.

Click on any of the images below to view a slideshow.