The mission of the Essence of Mexico is two-fold:
I. To photo document each of the important festivals of the indigenous cultures of Mexico at the turn of the 21st century, capturing their aesthetic beauty and their layers of cultural clues.
The project was inspired by the work of Carl Lumholz and Edward Sheriff Curtis, "The Shadowcatcher", who explored and documented indigenous people in North America a century ago. The roots of these festivals spring from ancient times when people began using significant artistic ingenuity to entreat and therefore interact with the influential deities that held sway over their lives in the multi-deistic pantheon that emanated from the agricultural cycle; in hopes of gaining favor in their struggle for balance and continuity. Moreover, "Festivals are a work of art, the creation of a magical, mythological moment when the people can transcend the mundane quality of their daily lives and drown their sorrows in the intoxication of a festival day", to quote Eric Wolf. “They are an essential reaffirmation of the identity of a group as well as important times of social interaction,” to quote Marta Turok. During a festival, the celebrants are literally steeped in the cultural activity that defines them. In a sense, the culture actually blooms releasing its essence,"The Essence of Mexico".
Many traditional festivals are at the point of extinction due to the encroachment of a modern consumerism society. Flowers and beautifully colored paper traditionally used in the manufacture of inspired festival ephemera, are being replaced by cheap, gaudy, store bought, plastic. Young people, potential recipients of unwritten rituals and traditions, have left their communities lured away by the promise of a better life constantly extolled by decades of television. Therefore, it is vitally important that a comprehensive resource be created from this rare collection of images of moments of traditional indigenous Mexican artistic ingenuity, as expressed by the important festivals of their more than sixty cultures, to preserve their integrity, beauty and significance for generations to come. The accomplishment of this goal will grant a kind of permanence to this fascinating ephemeral art form thereby preserving its cultural clues.
2. To preserve and share this body of work by creating a detailed descriptive guide, in narrative form and in a database format, to provide appropriate access to the archive.
The collection in its entirety will be housed by the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas at Austin. Additionally, the San Antonio Museum of Art’s, Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Latin American Art will preserve the originals of an elite, aesthetic selection of publishable images curated from the collection. (The Benson Collection at UT Austin will receive duplicate images of these selected originals to be archived by the Rockefeller Center). The images will be catalogued and correlated with pertinent anthropological and ethnographic information provided by experts on the depicted cultures, some of whom accompanied me on some of the photographic expeditions.
The Essence of Mexico Collection will serve as an important research archive for scholars of the Mexican culture by providing a window to these vestiges of ancient cultural activity and will be a genesis for future publications and exhibitions. Presenting the material on an aesthetic level will gain a wider audience expanding awareness, respect and understanding for people who are true participants in their landscape and very near to a place that we have long departed. The Essence of Mexico Collection is unique in that it encompasses the festivals of these cultures during the last decade of the 2nd millennium, providing an opportunity of comparative research during a specific time frame, as well as a convenient point of reference for future students of the Mexican culture.
Another goal of the project is to be able to share the images with those depicted in order to enhance their own appreciation of themselves, thereby encouraging continuance of their long, difficult struggle to maintain their cultural identities. These goals will be accomplished after the completion of Phase II, through traveling exhibits, the publication of catalogues, articles, a series of books and the creation of a website.
A group of tecuanes, actual gladiators of the central Guerrero Nahua rain-propitiating festivals. This particular group will square off against groups from two other barrios in traditional ritual combat originally staged to reinforce boundaries as well as experience pain to be propitiated to the rain god, syncretized with the holy cross. They are dancing on a Zitlaltepec, the mountaintop that touches the stars.