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Nahum B. Zenil
Nombrar al Silencio

by Blanca Bercial

"Silence is the backbone of all my work", stated Nahum B. Zenil in 1995.[1] The mutest sound, and at the same time, the noisiest one, becomes the bone structure of a pictorial and literary work that has marked an iconographic milestone in the Mexican art scene. Silence becomes present when we name it. And through creation, we materialize what we did not think exists. How do we call what we have not yet named? Through art.


Nahum B. Zenil grew up in El Tecomate, an isolated ranch in the Chicontepec de Tejada province, Mexico. His first years passed surrounded by the sound of the rain and the sound of rumors. He was born in the family ranch on the first day of the year 1947. As an omen, the number one would accompany him throughout his childhood, until this number added up, leading later to a sort of trinity.


The spatial and cultural geography that defined his childhood, influenced his introspectiveness as a response to the society that surrounded him. Raised by his mother and his grandmother, his father figure became a void that Zenil fills with religion. He saw in the Virgin of Guadalupe a maternal figure, and in Christ, a paternal one.


At the age of twelve, Zenil moves to Mexico City. Suddenly, the ranch becomes silent. The bustle of the city breaks his individuality. He becomes one more in the tide of people that inhabit the Mexican metropolis. Zenil enrolls himself in the School of Teachers, following in the footsteps of his father, who had dedicated his life to this career.


In 1968, he enrolled in the National School of Fine Arts, also called La Esmeralda. Although his initiation into painting followed abstractionism, popular at the time, Zenil never felt this artistic movement as a transmitter of his message, which required a more direct communication with the receiver. Thus, he found in figuration his style, and in the work of Rufino Tamayo and José Luis Cuevas, an inspiration. Another of his muses came from Catholic iconography present in colonial art, which according to the artist “had a huge impact on me. I began to paint saints and began to identify with them. I also began to represent myself in the saints and the Virgin of Guadalupe as ways that could protect me from society."[2]


The telluric colors of his works adhere to a past time, to the earth. Zenil states: “I have long wanted to give my work an air of nostalgia. I remembered seeing old yellowed postcards and letters and I wanted my work to have those same characteristics. I tried to achieve this by applying various sepia baths to my drawings. I wanted to evoke everything that records the passage of time."[3]


Zenil's works are an open, direct conversation between artist and viewer. An intimate letter, written on an old paper, of the kind found in an old chest of drawers in a childhood home, with direct messages about the sacredness of love and life, about being and letting be, about what is imposed or what-it-should-be and all its faults.


Text and image find a complementary balance in Zenil’s work, which makes his message even more direct. Writing, a refuge for introspection and loneliness, is also a medium that has accompanied the artist since his youth, as his poetry reflects.


The viewer, contrary to what might seem, is not a voyeur, nor is the artist an exhibitionist or a narcissist. It is a no-frills message that shows what our eyes had been denied. Perhaps the object of analysis in Zenil's work is not his self-portraiture, but our gaze.


The iconography of his work is an interrelated confluence of various themes that respond to each other. The concept of nation, family, Catholic religion, and sexual identity irrigate the imagery of his work, in which one depends on the other in a cultural intersection with questions of identity.


The sacredness in his work is fed by the texts that consecrate his images and the personification of angels. That of being the symbolic son of Christ himself and of the Virgin. A personal search with a message of empathy, tolerance, and love.


Nahum Zenil's work has been critically analyzed by various scholars in the 1990s, including Edward J. Sullivan, cited in this text. Recently, critical theory towards his work has been expanded with the analysis of the scholar Sofía Solís, whose thesis informs this article. Solís' interpretation no longer only analyzes the artist's work from the context of Mexican nationalism, but also includes a genealogy of the homosexual movement in Mexico. And in the same way, the theory of performativity is included to explain the creation of identities. According to Solís, the artist's self-portrait and the repetition of his identity is a message in itself. Repetition is the message, a repetition to unlink Mexicanness from normative patterns, by including Zenil’s discourse within it. Quoting the author of this theory:


Nahum B. Zenil's painting is presented as a plastic depiction that critiques the model of heterosexuality linked with the definition of national identity. His work is introduced within the terrain of resistance by inscribing homosexual desire within a repetitive discourse that transgresses the gender norm. The parodic performance of his pieces contributes to changing the concepts of national identity and sexual identity and questions the legitimacy and timeliness of their definitions. In this sense, Zenil's pieces are outlined as a critical agent that overwhelms the uniformity of gender and advocates openness, the inclusion of sexual and cultural diversity.[4]


Thus, the reiteration of his self-portrait is a way of repeating his own identity as many times as needed to narrate others’ non-normative identities as well. Himself becomes an icon for those whose identities are not in dialogue with a national and religious discourse.


Solís' thesis is that "the pictorial work of Nahum B. Zenil jeopardizes the discursive harmony that has held national identity and sexual identity attached to the traces of the nationalist plane."[5] According to the author, the constant reiteration of the homosexual desire that can be seen in Zenil's work displaces the monolithic vision of the existing gender norm in the country. This 2013 dissertation answers the question posed by Sullivan in his essay at the end of the nineties of the last century: “The element that resides in the most recesses of Zenil's imagery is the constant dilemma of how to define, with visual analogies, his position as a gay man in the Mexican society of his time."[6] According to Solís, it is precisely the reiteration that defines this position. Thus, Zenil disassociates Mexicanness from normative patterns and interferes his sexual identity within national values.


Zenil's subject matter and iconographies are interconnected. There is no reading of his figuration in isolation from national identity, religion, family, and sexuality. In the first wave of criticisms of his work, nudity was placed before the rest of the themes, which remained in the background, as if body figuration and context could be dissociated. How to tell anyone that their sexual identity is not identified with Mexican nationality if they were born and raised in Mexico? His work weaves threads that connect his being and his identity to the place and culture where he grew up. Zenil's work manages to connect a kind of unity or identity shaped by the trinity of the nation, religion, and homosexual desire.


[1] Cristina Pacheco, “Between Sexuality and Guilt (Entre la curiosidad y la culpa),” in Nahum B. Zenil. Witness to the Self, Testigo del Ser (The Mexican Museum, 1996), 29.

[2] Edward J. Sullivan, “Witness to the Self (Testigo del Ser),” in Nahum B. Zenil. Witness to the Self, Testigo del Ser (The Mexican Museum, 1996), 15.

[3] Edward J. Sullivan, “Witness to the Self (Testigo del Ser),” in Nahum B. Zenil. Witness to the Self, Testigo del Ser (The Mexican Museum, 1996), 13.

[4] Sofía Solís, “De indio y española, mestizo. La pintura de Nahum B. Zenil: identidad nacional e identidad sexual,” PhD diss., (Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona, 2013), 194.

[5] Sofía Solís, “De indio y española, mestizo. La pintura de Nahum B. Zenil: identidad nacional e identidad sexual,” PhD diss., (Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona, 2013), 13.

[6] Edward J. Sullivan, “Witness to the Self (Testigo del Ser),” in Nahum B. Zenil. Witness to the Self, Testigo del Ser (The Mexican Museum, 1996), 10.

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