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"Creencias"

May 1998 Galería OMR México, D.F.

By Keith Miller

As far as I understand, until recently the job of anthropology was to explain the mystic and everyday workings of uncivilized people to the intellectual world of the 'civilized.' The anthropologist would arrive at his field of study, a remote village in Africa or South America, for example, and would begin to investigate. With the help of informers from the village the anthropologist would then get to know the rituals and superstitions of the people until he or she 'understood' the target of study. At that point a text would be written, to be read by the civilized thus giving them more material to feel informed, knowledgeable and superior. While these interpretations passed from hand to hand between the lay people and professional intellectuals, the ethnic group which had been studied continued with their customs and practices not necessarily better nor worse.

In that sense these studies are a sort of intellectualized voyeurism with supposedly scientific ends. Science, then, justified the poetic desire of these anthropologists to understand the poetry and art of these strange and mysterious people. Without a doubt many of these researchers came across truly beautiful lessons which they were able to understand deeply and transmit without prejudicing the elements they had found and thus, in a sense, created a poetry of their own for a people who might never see the poetry of those Œothers¹.

Nevertheless, what is probably true in many of the cases is that the anthropologists who study (or studied) Œprimitive¹ peoples were never truly able to enter fully into the life of the people they study, or much less consider themselves Œone of them¹. I am thinking here about the personal diaries of Malinowsky, the patriarch of the field. His personal diaries reveal a person who not only saw the people he studied with amazement and incredulity but also with disgust and repulsion. Despite the beauty of his vision, seen in his Œauthorized¹ works, these alternate texts prove to be highly interesting when one thinks about the task of the anthropologist. Interesting because if we see the other as something completely distinct we then negate any similarity we might have with them, and, therefor, we deny the humanity which we grant ourselves from the outset.

With that in mind, I find interesting any kind of exploration similar to anthropology that comes not from the outside but instead from the very place or people being scrutinized. The photography of Maruch Santiz Gómez, in her show "Creencias"(Beliefs), offers the viewer a vision of the Chiapas community of Chamula, precisely from the point of view of one that comes from the same community. Beginning in the creative workshops offered by the state, Santiz Gómez has developed a sincere and moving body of work which tries to pass on the local knowledge, superstitions or beliefs, of the elders of the community to the world outside.

The pieces are made up of two parts: black and white photos with the description of the belief below written in Tzotzil, Spanish and English. The photos are simple but captivating and show the world of Chamula without making it picturesque or folkloric. Each photo is a visual explanation or demonstration of the belief written below it.

One of the pieces is called: "How to cure some who snores a lot". The photo shows us a person sleeping in a bed while a second person holds a sandal above his head, apparently about to hit the sleeper on the nose with it. Below it is written: "If someone snores a lot, you can hit him lightly on the nose with a sandal or insert a little lizard¹s tail up one nostril. By doing either of these things, that person will not snore again, because he will have to jump up awake".

The surprising thing about this work is that it presents a logic completely outside the western or modern conception without assuming the superiority of the viewer or the photographer. Instead of feeling better or more than what is seen in the photos one feels humbled by a knowledge so authentic and pure. So pure that science and modernity haven¹t been strong enough to abolish them. Although we laugh when we read the texts and "Creencias", it is not with a sarcastic tone but one of joy and respect. Because as much as we might know through science and other modern techniques, these realities will always be valid. Possibly because science can¹t explain things which it sees as absurd, things which give us reason to live, things like art, poetry and, finally, love.