From ancestral garments of prickly weeds, via ink made of dissolved guns, Our Dark Materials now takes us to paper, that most unassuming of everyday surfaces. If we only know machine-made writing paper, newspapers and books, then we see only one side of the story. Into Gabriel Rivera’s paper pulp goes cotton, local plant fibre, pigments and minerals that transform this ordinary material into a richly textured base to hold personal memory and cultural continuity. Through art incorporating performance, traditional dyes, research into Aztec herbals, and sculptural forms, Rivera repurposes the skills and methods used to make garments and books. In this photo essay, you’ll find hybrid forms full of depth and poetry, soft lines, frayed edges and family history. CR
The sculptures, in form, are inspired by the charro suit, the formal attire that Mexican cowboys wear during charreadas, or Mexican rodeos. My father, Bonifacio Rivera, was a charro and his suit was gifted to me after his passing over a year ago. I decided to duplicate the suit via patternmaking, make it anew, and deconstruct it into sculptures that I like to call ‘rested forms’.
Constructed from artisanal paper developed with master papermaker Alberto Hernandez of Papel Oaxaca in San Agustin Etla, the sculptures are primarily made from ixtle (a fibre that comes from the native agave or maguey plant, grown in Oaxaca to make mezcal) and cotton pulp. I dyed the pulp with locally sourced natural dyes. Other materials used in the sculptures such as mica, ceramic, yarns, iron, and textiles were also locally sourced from and/or developed with various artisanal craft makers in Oaxaca. Here, to accompany my text, I share images of the materials, the processes and making of one of the sculptures titled Tovero. Tovero is based on the jacket of my father’s charro suit.
It’s been said in various ways that museums are where art goes to die. I’m ambivalent about that idea but there is precedent to that train of thought. One being the wall labels that are placed next to artworks that list the name of the artist, the title of the work, the year it was completed, and the materials used to make the artwork. These wall labels in museums are called ‘tombstones’. Tombstones in intent are informational, not unlike the labels that hang from a garment, with the brand name, where it was made and what it’s made from. But I find tombstones to be more than just information or more accurately, they’re like façades. They conceal as much as they reveal, specifically in the list of materials given.
Since my work leans towards craft making, the list of materials on a tombstone for an artwork of mine is important to me. I put in the time and labour to understand what my materials are, how they are made, where they come from, their history and whose hands they have passed through. As I work with so many organic materials I’ve come to understand they had lives too, in the form of plants, insects, worms, and in geological time, minerals. In their lives, my materials pass through a network of hands. These hands are the caretakers that help them grow, thrive and remain nourished. These hands also become the custodians of their remnants, of what they leave behind after their lives. A little of what you will see in these images below is the work of all those hands and the lived lives of those materials, in the form of dyes, threads, paper, and clay.
When I work with my materials, I think of all the hands they have passed through to arrive at my own: the spinners, the weavers, the farmers, the papermakers, the vendors, and nameless others. All the energy, time, and care to cultivate and transform these materials. I’m incredibly grateful and proud to be a part of that continuity of passing hands.
I think of all the hands they have passed through to arrive at my own: the spinners, the weavers, the farmers, the papermakers, the vendors, and nameless others.
So for me, in many ways, tombstones fall short in what I would consider a comprehensive list of the materials I use in my work. Not only in certain materials typically disregarded in tombstones such as water, sunlight and air but also all the labour and energy from the network of hands I mentioned. I find it important to have this kind of perception of my materials because it supports a wide relational understanding of interconnection and interdependence. My process with my materials is a micro experience with a macro outlook. It’s a subjective, individual process with an objective collective understanding.
In saying all this I want to take the time to acknowledge and give gratitude to all those hands, all those living materials that have given energy to my work. Because it is a network, seen or otherwise, and I am just one part of it.
To give gratitude seems like an endless task when considering the scope I speak of, but I do feel gratitude should be voiced and perhaps even centred. Because tombstones are façades, and none of this is perfect, but this, all of this, is a faint but intended resurrection of all that has passed through my hands.