Betsabeé Romero is one of the rare artists to truly deserve the designation «culture creator». For many years now, she has been producing art of distinctly Mexican origin that at the same time entirely effortlessly conquers the international stage. Her art draws from the roots of the flourishing tradition of her country’s arte popular, which is so much more imaginative and alive than the bloodless academic repetition that has completely worn itself out over many generations in Mexico.
«In Latin America, everyone is always watching what is happening in Europe and translating it; classifying things according to what they learned from the Europeans. In Mexico, those who study art history don’t look for a local vocabulary to explain local phenomena, but rather prefer to use a language that only allows them to name what they already know. They address what happens in Latin America with the terms they studied in the U.S. or England». (B.R.) That is to say that any potential material for the production of art in Mexico is invariably subjected to the US/European gaze, which a priori determines what is conceivable and acceptable, or desirable, in terms of form and content.
In this context it seems improbable that in a machismo country like Mexico, of all places, an educated female artist would devote herself body and soul to cars and their paraphernalia—i.e. to a very male domain—as the subject of her art. In effect, Betsabeé Romero «feminizes» the ultimate macho ripper insignia «cars» and fundamentally re-semantizes automobiles and their tires, fenders, hoods, windshields, rearview mirrors, etc. And while she’s at it, she successfully disrupts our arrogant and rusty perception of art with her total disregard for elitist principles and maxims, finally debunking the imbecile differentiation between «high» and «low».
The car stands as a pars pro toto for so much in our ostensibly «modern» society. Far more than a mere object of use and even beyond a status symbol, the car has become a metaphor for modernity per se, for limitless mobility, for freedom itself, for the dream of infinite progress and unlimited speed, for productivity and consumerism, for dreams and utopias of both private and social nature, and not least for utter independence and rank masculinity.
And along comes Betsabeé, converting and deconstructing the car by semantically hybridizing it and transposing it into the space of art, assessing its cultural value, narrating all its existing stories and memories, endowing them with a new poetic expressiveness. She turns to the tires and wheels, too, harnessing a plethora of connotations: from the eye of the Aztec rain god Tlaloc to the Wheel of Fortuna, from the natural rubber exploited in earlier times to the fleeting imprint of tire tracks as a symbol of transience…
None of this should blind us to the fact that, for all her colorful and joyful, festively exuberant sensual aesthetics, at the bottom of her heart Betsabeé is a hard-core intellectual and political activist who deploys the beauty of her art as well as a means of seduction, much like a Trojan horse, to attract the attention of people who would not otherwise be interested in art. Eloquent examples of this are her meanwhile iconic «Ayate Car» or her «Carro Molotov,» which she created during a workshop at Casa Daros together with youths from a favela in Rio de Janeiro.
Betsabeé Romero has recognized the enormous significance of arte popular and has successfully integrated it into her art. She makes use of the revolutionary potential of this folk art, which has perpetually acted as resistencia cultural over the centuries. Betsabeé Romero fluently unites pre-Hispanic with so-called colonial art and with our present everyday culture in her oeuvre and actually brings together the tres culturas so much invoked in Mexico. In her art, political reflection can be poetic, and the supposedly banal can lead to beauty.
«We are all migrants of life.» (B.R.)
See also my interview with Betsabeé Romero in posts nos. 81 and 82 (June 19 and July 3, 2021).