In Conversation with Koral Carballo

Afro-Descendants In Mexico: “We Were Always Here”

Mexican photographer and artist Koral Carballo spoke to Contemporary And Latin America (C&AL) about the heritage and present situation of Afro-descendants in Mexico, about artistic activism as a tool for raising awareness and about discovering her own identity.

C&AL: Do you think there is an awareness of the Afro-Mexican past in today’s Mexico?

KC: I think we are going through an awakening of the Afro-Mexican consciousness, but there is still much to be done before the historical debt of the Mexican State to the Afro population can be repaid. At the moment, the main drivers of this awareness are Afro-Mexican activists, and we are grateful that they are mobilizing this kind of epistemology among ordinary citizens. While academia generated a lot of research on the Afro-descendant population, the knowledge kind of just stayed there. In a way, I want to apply my project within artistic activism, because at the end of the day, it talks about black history and people of African descent should have access to their own history.

C&AL: The title for the first chapter of your project is “There are no Afro people”, and it refers to the denial of African roots in Mexican society. How prevalent is that denial today?

KC: In Mexico we have people who openly identify as Afro-descendants, but there are also those who don’t. There are people with dark skin who will insist, that “No, there are no blacks here!” In the popular vocabulary, the expression “You are black” basically means “you are ugly”. The good thing is that, at least in Coyolillo, young people are promoting an acceptance of Afro-descendants and questioning the traditional canons of beauty.

This year is going to be historic because a population census will take place, and so, for the first time in over 500 years, people of African descent are going to be registered. On July 31, 2019 there was constitutional recognition, but the census will be crucial for public policies to move forward. That being said, there is still a long way to go before people begin to self-identify and stop denying our African roots.

C&AL: How has your work received by the Mexican art world and is there an interest or concrete plans to create inclusive spaces for Afro and indigenous artists?

KC: Actually, last year was the first time my work was exhibited in my country.

For the presentation I chose the Zócalo [main square] of Puebla, a town with a large population of Afro-descendants. Because it was presented in a public space, the work challenged a lot of people; it was a very interesting experience.

C&AL: There seems to be an institutional recognition of Mexican Afro-descendants, but beyond this, are there specific public calls for Afro artists, and if so, how are they received?

KC: There are very few artists who identify as Afro-Mexicans. The important thing is that, thanks to activism, those of us who do, encourage recognition among the young and provide them with the tools to tell their own stories.

C&AL: In recent years there seems to have been a kind of “trend” among artists and international cultural agents who are not themselves of Afro or indigenous descent, but who deal with these issues. To what extent is this problematic? And where is the line between being an ally and being an opportunist?

KC: I think that in this struggle we definitely need allies. In the beginning, when I was still unaware about my own background, I felt like an ally; over time however and through the process of recognition, it has become part of who I am and something I want to talk about.

Over time I have realized that each of us has a background that links to this issue for some reason, we are not only here because it is fashionable. The interesting thing is to see why we are linked, why we really want to investigate the issue, discuss it. Surely, there will be opportunists, but there are also very interesting people. For example, academic Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán, a Mexican anthropologist with a Caucasian phenotype, pioneered studies on African descent in Mexico. People like him are definitely allies and their work sensitizes more people.

C&AL: What are your plans for the future as an artist?

KC: First of all, to finish the project We Were Always Here; two chapters are still unfinished. The third chapter, where I want to analyze the Afro-descendant route from a historical reinterpretation, and the fourth chapter, which deals with the Afro-Mexican struggle and activism. A while back, I met Sergio Peñalosa, one of the pioneers of the Afro-descendant struggle in Costa Chica, in the state of Guerrero. He told me that we are witnessing a generational shift, and I realized that in Coyolillo I have young friends who are now taking the reins of the Afro struggle. I find their courage incredible and very inspiring and that’s why I want to include them in the project.

At the same time, I am preparing a street intervention in Coyolillo. I take portraits of Afro-Mexicans, but I also engage with them and we talk about what they are interested in, how they would like to see themselves, and so forth. For the creation of the exhibition proposal, I am working closely with them, because I want them to feel represented and loved. During the exhibition I want to create a happening which will become the fifth chapter of We Were Always Here. It is an open and dynamic project. It has become a standing joke when I say that “I arrived in Coyolillo in 2014 and I haven’t been able to leave.”

Interview by Raquel Villar-Pérez. She is a Spanish curator and author and lives in the UK.

Translation from Spanish by Zarifa Mohamad Petersen