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Artist Profile

Saúl Kak


Status: Threatened

Saúl Kak talks about his artistic work during the event “Art as a strategy for the defense of territories and freedom of expression”. Photo courtesy of @ivanmezafoto.

Consulte el artículo en español aquí

Saúl Kak is a plastic artist and filmmaker born in Nuevo Esquipulas Guayabal, Rayón, Chiapas. A graduate of the University of Sciences and Arts of Chiapas, Kak stands out for his political activism. Through his work, he addresses the political and social complexities that affect the Zoque indigenous community, exploring topics such as forced migration and the oppression mechanisms used against indigenous peoples.

His work, sponsored and supported by the MUY Gallery, not only seeks to vindicate indigenous heritage but also to grant an artistic voice to a tradition that, until now, has been strongly silenced. Through audiovisual documentaries, Kak denounces the impact of disasters on many rural communities.

His pictorial works, marked by vibrant colors typical of Central American cultures, reflect the Zoque worldview and address issues such as the uprooting caused by the construction of the Chicoasén II dam. Series like "The Flood and Survival" explore the consequences of the unfulfilled promise of modernity, while exhibitions like "Self-consultation with art" criticize manipulated popular consultations that cede indigenous territories.

Kak has made his mark in the audiovisual field with films such as "The Black Jungle" (2016), which offers a profound portrait of Zoque culture and globalization from his unique perspective. Likewise, he presented "Echoes of the Volcano" (2019), a short film illustrating the consequences of the eruption of the Chichonal volcano in 1982 in his hometown, highlighting the challenges faced by displaced communities in the region. His work has transcended borders, being exhibited internationally and demonstrating the impact and relevance of his art beyond Chiapas.

Saúl Kak is one of the renowned artists featured in the curatorial project "Art: Territories of Denunciation," which was inaugurated on April 6, 2024, at the Tlatelolco University Cultural Center (CDMX). This project brings together artists from El Salvador, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, who present diverse artistic and community practices addressing the struggle and denunciation against forced migration, extractive megaprojects, and the violence affecting their territories. ARC’s regional representative for Latin America, Alessandro Zagato, took advantage of this opportunity to ask Saúl some questions about his participation in this important event.

Photo from the event “Art as a strategy for the defense of territories and freedom of expression”. Photo courtesy of @ivanmezafoto.

How has your artistic trajectory evolved over time?

In my opinion, we all go through a transition in our artistic process. At first, I was very interested in learning the technique; that was what caught my attention the most. However, along the way, I realized other things and began to value ideas and ways of thinking that art represents more. For me, art is a space where you can speak, dialogue, and express ideas for others to become familiar with.

I remember an important moment in my community, when we were children and dances filled us with joy. However, when a Catholic religious leader arrived in the community and began to label those practices as bad, as pagan festivities, many were accused of being witches. For me, these dances and rituals were a source of happiness. When they stopped being practiced, I perceived a profound emptiness and sadness in the community. It was then that I decided that to keep  the memory and joy of my people alive, I had to capture it in paintings.

This is how, in my experience, painting became an artistic expression to preserve the culture and memory of my people. My artistic work develops according to the time and social context in which we live, always reflecting on my identity and closeness to my region. For example, currently, my reflection focuses on the struggle in defense of territory and against extractivism. I consider artistic creation as largely based on the historical and social contexts we face.

How do you integrate the fight against extractivism into your work? What role does art play in the defense of territory and the rights of indigenous peoples?

I have been reflecting on the devastating impact that hydroelectric dams have had on our communities. Entire towns have been flooded, including sacred places and architectural structures of great value, both from the Mesoamerican and colonial periods. This process has involved the sacrifice of our lands in the name of alleged progress and modernization.

This reflection made me doubt the discourse of progress and modernization driven by institutions and companies. Do they really benefit us or just deceive us? This question became more relevant when seeing the persistent problems with the supply of electricity to our community, despite the supposed benefits of these developments.

The Caravan of June 22, 2017 / Saul Kak/ 2023. Photo courtesy of @ivanmezafoto

The cycle repeats itself over and over again. Just when we thought we had overcome one phase, a new project emerges that perpetuates the same story of dispossession and destruction of our territory. I realized that it was necessary to speak out about this reality. My community, the Zoque people, has been systematically forgotten, marginalized, and exploited. We can no longer allow this to continue. We need to stop this cycle of destruction and do it peacefully, using art as a tool for expression and denunciation.

Dams not only represent the loss of lands and resources but also the destruction of our culture. We have lost our language, our sacred places, and have been forced to migrate. It's time to say enough. We cannot continue sacrificing our territory and our identity for the sake of economic development. Through art, I have found a way to express this struggle, a way to make our experiences visible and peacefully resist injustice.

My involvement in defending territory began when the government of Peña Nieto proposed the concession of 84,500 hectares of land for hydrocarbon extraction. Although initially there was a focus on demonstrations and marches, I decided to actively participate through art. Although it wasn't fully understood at first, I decided to carry out a ritual as a form of protest, recording it on video and distributing the dissatisfaction in my community. This initiative was shared on social media, helping to spread awareness of what was happening. I firmly believe in art as a peaceful tool for defending territory. It is a means of creative expression that can generate significant impact, and I oppose violence in demonstrations.

What are the risks involved in being an artist and activist in Chiapas? Have you faced any dangerous situations or censorship because of your work?

Being an artist and activist in Chiapas involves risks and you encounter various dangerous situations and censorship due to the work carried out. However, I believe that more than being an activist or artist, I am simply another member of the community who reflects on their surroundings and refuses to remain silent in the face of injustices.

Through art, I found a way to express my dissatisfaction and preserve the memory of my culture, especially when I realized that traditional practices were being threatened by the influence of religious figures who labeled them as witchcraft.

My art, which initially consisted of paintings and representations of community rituals, was soon misunderstood as a form of personal profit at the expense of the community. However, for me, it was vital to keep alive the culture that was fading before my eyes.

Etze /Saúl Kak Foto cortesía de @galeriamuy.

Censorship and mistrust not only come from outside the community but also arise from within, due to divisions and fragmentations generated by political and economic interests. Despite this, I continue to denounce injustices and face pressure to cease my documentation and expression work.

My struggle is not motivated by political affiliations, but by the cultural legacy and respect for the land and natural resources passed down by my ancestors. Although we have been the target of attempts to destroy our culture, we continue to resist and preserve our beliefs and values.

Which artists or movements have inspired you on your journey?

Primarily, I find inspiration in ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, especially our Zoque ancestors and Maya culture, which are closer to us. During my adolescence, while exploring towns and communities like Monte Albán, I was fascinated by the monumental architecture in sites like Bonampak and Palenque. However, as I delved deeper, I discovered aspects that had previously gone unnoticed, such as stelae, wall paintings, and ceramics. I was impressed by the sophistication of these artistic productions, which spoke to the life and culture of those ancient peoples. This initial discovery was what attracted me the most and remains my primary source of inspiration: Mesoamerican art. As time passed, this interest evolved and shaped my path.

How does your Zoque background and your connection with indigenous cosmovisions influence your art? What message would you like to convey to the world about the culture and values of indigenous peoples?

The influence of my Zoque background and my connection with indigenous cosmovisions is the fundamental basis of my art. This worldview, inherited from our ancestors, permeates every aspect of my work. We see the earth as a sacred entity and how we relate to it with respect and gratitude.

Our ancestors taught us that we must value and care for our natural resources, our mountains, our waters, and our rivers. It is not something simple for us; it is a deep connection that involves respect and reciprocity. When we sow in the field, we ask forgiveness from the earth for harming it and give offerings in gratitude for what it will provide us.

The arrival of companies with their machinery brings destruction without consideration, where the land is seen as a mere source of monetary wealth rather than a sacred being that nourishes and sustains us. This gap in thinking between indigenous cosmovisions and capitalist focus is evident, leading us to reflect on how to address the preservation of our environment.

We must be aware of our knowledge and nurture it, as through it we find the wisdom necessary to face current environmental challenges.

Alessandro Zagato, April 23, 2024. Alessandro Zagato is the Regional Representative for Latin America at the Artists at Risk Connection. Before joining PEN America, he conducted research at the University of Bergen. In 2013, he founded the Research Group on Art and Politics - GIAP - and its associated Casa Giap, a residency center for international artists and researchers. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Maynooth University, Ireland, and is the author of several publications. He resides in San Cristóbal de Las Casas (Chiapas, Mexico).

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