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.
José Antonio Gómez Rosas, Rooster Crowing in the Sun, year unknown. In: La mano incontenible (eds. Tomás Zurian & Rafael C. Arvea), Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Mexico, 2002.
Emilio Baz Viaud, Portrait of El Hotentote, 1941. Watercolor. Collection of Andres Blaisten, Mexico, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), 2005.
José Antonio Gómez Rosas, Satirical mural with images of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and other Mexican artists and politicians. Date unknown.
José Antonio Gómez Rosas, Mime With Partner, 1951. Oil on canvas. In: La mano incontenible (eds. Tomás Zurian & Rafael C. Arvea), Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Mexico, 2002.
José Antonio Gómez Rosas, Portrait of a prostitute, year of creation unknown. In: La mano incontenible (eds. Tomás Zurian & Rafael C. Arvea), Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Mexico, 2002.
José Antonio Gómez Rosas, stained glass window of the Hostería de Santo Domingo, year of creation unknown.
The Mexican filmmaker Julio Pliego (1928-2007) once said, that El Hotentote was like “a monster”. But in today’s Mexico, that word could obscure the affectionate connotation of the description. In his adult age, José Antonio Gómez Rosas, born on October 16, 1917 in Orizaba, Veracruz, and also known as “El Hotetote”, reached a height of almost two meters. But in other ways as well he was a “monster”: an artist full of vitality and creative genius, someone who, after eating and drinking abundantly, would go on to embellish walls and screens with extraordinary strokes. The Hotentote always stood out, both for his talent and acute vision of his native Mexico, as well as for his impressive stature and size. Certainly, he never went unnoticed.
Gómez Rosas consolidated himself as an uncomfortable, mocking, acid and everything but docile painter.
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.
A legend is always closely related to his work: the invention of the mythical dream figures of mexican popular culture, the “alebrijes”. Everything seems to indicate that the planning of a mask dance forced Gómez Rosas to look for a person with perfect mastery of certain techniques used to make paper figures. He had created a design which combined parts of different animals and for this project, he chose Pedro Linares, one of the most representative creators of this zoomorphic art. “Give this devil wings”, El Hotentote supposedly told Linares, and asked him to create his design with paper and cardboard. According to the story, Linares was so inspired that he continued to create these figures until they became a Mexican tradition. Whether or not this story is true, the ingenuity of El Hotentote is still alive, in its own way, in the popular character of an art embraced by millions of people all over the world.
The “monster” Gómez Rosas, tall, corpulent and vital, and who preferred free art and free learning to creative and political commitments, died on January 1, 1977. It is time to rediscover him and recognize him as an extraordinary artist he was in more ways than one.
Heriberto Paredes is a Mexican journalist and photographer. He writes about art and stories of resistance.
Translation from Spanish by Zarifa Mohamad Petersen