In Conversation with Baltazar Melo

Afro-Hybrid Images in Motion

In this interview, Mexican artist Baltazar Castellano Melo talks about his work, Afro-Mestizos and the Black communities in Guerrero, Mexico.

C&AL: This work speaks about new blacknesses. What are they and what are the new worlds that are being created and deployed in them?

BCM: What this work means is that African origin is intertwined with and shared in all the spaces and territories where the Black diaspora of Latin America arrived, those shared traits that are represented in those new worlds, which are each of the people in their country, in their place, and in the representations of their culture and heritage. Those new blacknesses are the result of new forced migrations, in turn a result of violence because of lack of opportunities and of all those countries that have suffered natural disasters and whose inhabitants are today seeking the “American dream,” but they remain on the path sharing those new hybridities.

C&AL: Why are those worlds important? 

BCM: Obviously, they are important because memory has been rooted out, erased, and white-washed. In other words, whiteness in art is determined as beautiful and as human and as modern. But what does not fit into this whiteness is something that has no humanity, that is not beautiful, and lives, supposedly, in a state of backwardness. Each new world breaks these stereotypes of beauty. So, these new blacknesses form because of the migrations and the coexistence of people communicating. We see the integration of Afro-Mexican people into art and their representations in the same pieces.

C&AL: You also work a lot with youth in your community in Guerrero on historical memory projects related to Afro-descendent identities and territorial attachment. Could you describe the life of those youth and the work you do together?

BCM: Actually, it is the anthropologist Olga Manzano who works on that. My focus is more on creating art, teaching techniques and seeking to sustain the Afro-descendent identity project. It is a new name, which has not been around for even twenty years in the territory. I, as a former member of the Maroon Cultural Center, which was a group that Father Glyn formed in the 1990s. Father Glyn was an Afro-American from Trinidad and Tobago, who realized that people with dark skin living on the coast refer to themselves as black, not Afro-Mexican. So, after getting to know who I was, my history and my memory, it was about communicating that to the youth. Olga Manzano does the investigative work, and she does that work to be able to get the youth to know themselves and to recognize themselves in the characters we recreate. And we do this work in the Guerrero Community. It has more to do with teamwork than individual work. In Mexico, people’s knowledge and self-recognition as Afro is very limited. Only the youth between 19 and 30 years old know what being Afro-descendent is.

There is a log of marginalization, discrimination, abandoned villages where there is no healthcare, education. What we do, for instance through Raíz de la Ceiba, our collective, is go to the communities and give workshops. We are not going to change the world, but we are going to change a child, a youth, to sow their seeds, to rewrite their own identity through art. Less violence, less migration, more culture.

C&AL: Your work is like unfurling a long story which you tell us in minute detail using particular media – like city murals – which allows us to truly immerse ourselves into the fragments of memory, but that is not all. Can you talk to us, first, about the role of murals in your work and what they tell us?

BCM: As I mentioned, the murals begin in the community, with Raíz de la Ceiba. The essence of the community mural is to know and reproduce the memory of this territory, and it is made together with the youth. I have been making murals at the Maroon Cultural Center for a long time, but a little while afterward I started focusing on graphics. And we realized that murals were an important part for people to re-appropriate space and to appropriate their memory, which was very important. Then, we were invited to the Afro-American project where the first national and international murals were made together with several Panamanian artists. Olga Manzano and I continued painting until we got to the last mural in Spain, which represents the history of blackness, but also the history of the mestizo and of indigenous women who were also part of this great important black history. On a side note, it is important for the murals to be made in the community because they tell us their stories, which have been erased from memory. We also brought new stories which they did not know.

C&AL: Now, you also create votive offerings in the form of box paintings that contain specific objects. Can you explain what those votive offerings are and what stories they contain?

BCM: This was an idea Olga Manzano and I worked on jointly with her research on the history of miracles. The votive offerings are miracles given by Saints, such as Saint Jude Thaddeus whom we have in the Virgen of Guadeloupe folder, San Isidro Labrador, the Virgin of Juquila, the Virgin of the Star, The Sacred Child de Atocha, Saint Cecilia, which are the most significant saints. They are all data that Olga collected, and I generated. In two panels, one metal and the other a lithograph, we saw the number seven as a cabalistic number and it was ironic to Catholic and Christian things, for instance that part of syncretism where the Saint was hiding behind the original one. So, it is like a syncretism, too, of my black roots. And so that is how Olga and I produced the mural project. She drew the panel and I started painting the votive offerings in the front and that is a panel that I liked a lot because it reproduces Afro-memory through Catholic syncretism. It should be noted that votive offerings are a tradition in Mexico where painters have an innate style. They are not trained, they make votive offerings to thank the Saints and leave them in the chapels. That is where we got our inspiration from. It’s Mexican folk art.

Baltazar Melo is a painter, engraver, sculptor, dancer and musician, with a degree in Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts of Oaxaca. He is from Cuajinicuilapa, Mexico and his work is dedicated to showing the cultural richness of the Black communities of his hometown. He draws inspiration from the stories of oral memory from a boat, from Mother Africa, from the daily life of his village and from the history of others when they tell it. 

Serine Ahefa Mekoun is a writer and multimedia journalist working between Brussels and West Africa. She writes about artists’ communities and how they activate social change in post-colonial contexts.

Translation: Sara Hanaburgh