José Antonio Gómez Rosas, a Mexican Master

A Gifted Ghost Known as “El Hotentote”

An air of legend and mystery surrounds the life and work of José Antonio Gómez Rosas, known as “El Hotentote”, and contemporary of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. In Mexican art history, only vague traces of this extraordinary personality linger. Heriberto Paredes takes a closer look at the legend for Contemporary And (C&) América Latina.

Those who knew him, either at the art school where he created most of his work or who encountered him on his frequent walks through the Mexican capital, all asserted to the fact that he was ambidextrous. Painters and sculptors recount that it was a proper spectacle to watch him work: he would pass the brush or pencil from one hand to the other, or sometimes even use both hands simultaneously. With his critical vision of the great Mexican artists of his time, Gómez Rosas consolidated himself as an uncomfortable, mocking, acid and everything but docile painter on an art scene that was being consumed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which governed Mexico for 72 years. A contemporary of legendary artists such as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, El Hotentote expressed his criticism in ridiculing paintings.

José Antonio Gómez Rosas lost his father when he was just a young child. Together with his mother and his siblings he moved first to the Mexican state Guerrero. Later, the family settled down in Mexico City in the blue-collar neighborhood La Merced. Even today, one encounters aspects of traditional popular culture in this neighborhood, that are scarcely found anywhere else.

Originally an indigenous neighborhood, the Merced became home to hundreds of migrants and Lebanese refugees, fleeing from the Ottoman Empire and bringing with them their customs and their culinary traditions. They mixed with manual laborers, indigenous women selling food in the street and entire families who each year organized the most colorful imaginable religious celebrations.

The streets of La Merced, brimming with bars and brothels, became an intimate and decisive reference for the artistic vision which El Hotentote later developed as an adult. One central aspect of the neighborhood would be central: the inequality.

In 1936, an uncle helped José Antonio enrol in the National School of Plastic Arts, the mythical place from where the leading Mexican artists emerged/graduated. Very soon, the artist began to rebel against traditional artistic and pedagogical forms, and even complement them with his own experiences. But today, El Hotentote’s work does not appear in the main pages of the catalogues of Mexican painters, apparently not worthy of great tributes. Many of his murals in bars and popular “cantinas” have been lost. This highly controversial character is almost a ghost: sometimes there is a faint trace, sometimes only the sensation of a fleeting presence.

And yet, in his work it is possible to determine some characteristics that place El Hotentote in an outstanding position in Latin American art. What stands out in his paintings is the capacity to ironically comment on the contradictions of the society in which he lived. He presented contradicting characters in close relation, always with indigenous or mestizo features. A rich range of colors gave strength to the lines and thematically it recreated environments that were not in line with the official discourse of progress and instead reflected the inequality of the city in which it moved.

But it is in his monumental paintings, known as “telones” (“curtains”), that Hotentote criticized with greater force the contradictions of his contemporaries, who received large sums of money from the government to paint the revolution. On his curtains, Gómez Rosas painted not only Diego Rivera as a huge balloon about to burst, and Frida Kahlo, whom he put in the body of a deer. He also pointed out those who in charge of the cultural institutions or who in some way constructed the “National Culture”. A native of the suburban environments and of the night, El Hotentote was also invited to decorate such emblematic bars as Salón México, the Ba-ba-lú and other famous establishments of the forties and fifties.