Le kaxaan mako'ob
Those Who ExploreMonday, December 16, 2019
Tulum is a tourist destination of worldwide renown. Much has been said about its gastronomy, barefoot luxury and electronic music festivals, however, little is known of its history, separate from any colonial order.
One of the principle charms of Tzama (Tulum) is the lifestyle of the inhabitants of this cosmopolitan place that urges the enjoyment of magic’s sophisticated sedition. Since night first fell here, the place we now call Tulum has been an axis of life and death. It is not by chance that native dinosaur bones like those of the Panthera balamoides, have been found in cenotes, as well as perfectly fossilized bones of the earliest inhabitants of the continent, such as those of Naia or the young man of Chan Hol—not to mention panchronic creatures who refuse to disappear, such as the stromatolites. Perhaps that is why all kinds of witches and traffickers have passed along Tulum’s coasts, from violent Francisco Montejo and pirate Francis Drake to Osho and Pablo Escobar and even Carlos Castaneda. We have all swum the shores of Quintana Roo looking for (or escaping from) something.
I would like to invite you, le Kaxaan mako'ob (those who explore) to discover three routes, three paths along which Tulum’s artistic and aesthetic practices have been developed. Led by four guides, Gonzalo Guerrero, María Uicab, Jerónimo de Aguilar and Don Juan Peón Contreras, we will tour the town, trying to clear away the fog of marketing and the impertinent influences of social media to experience the knowledge safeguarded by images.
Camino del Guerrero: The Path of the Warrior
From the first colonizing expeditions, Tulum and Xel Há have awoken the skeptical spirits of their inhabitants. This happened with Gonzalo Guerrero and María Uicab, our guides to the Camino del Guerrero.
Gonzalo Guerrero shipwrecked in 1511 and was captured in Chetumal, today located in the state of Quintana Roo, very close to Tulum. He impressed the Maya with his abilities, for which reason the chief decided to arrange for Guerrero to marry his daughter. During the colonial conflicts, Gonzalo Guerrero fought on the side of the Maya against the Spanish crown. In the words of Luis Barjau:
"[Gonzalo] Guerrero represented the other face of the invasion, the human one. He and his legitimate consort are our diaphanous grandparents, unchangeable beyond the diatribes of time." (Barjau, 2012)
María Uicab was the main priestess of the Santuario de la Cruz Parlante. During the 19th century the Mayan people rose up in arms against the government of Mexico and Yucatán in a conflict known as the Caste War. For almost 100 years Tulum has been a territory of uprisings, and at the head of the cruzoob (the Mayan fighters) was María Uicab.
"María Uicab was an interpreter of the Cruz Parlante, respected by her hierarchy as a queen, spiritual guide and military strategist for the Mayan rebels who called themselves cruzoob. She interpreted the orders of the Cruz Parlante to organize Mayan movements and attack strategies against the ladino or white people of the Yucatán during the Caste War."
Diverse initiatives and artistic projects kept María Uicab’s and Gonzalo Guerrero’s fighting spirits alive:
Tinasah is a muralist collective founded in 2018 that adapted urban art tactics to the informal town of Tulum. They are responsable for a large part of the works in the town’s public spaces. The independent, autonomous initiative is financed by local businesses. Some of the artists, like Emma Rubens or Alaniz, seek to reclaim the indigenous towns and daily life of the local inhabitants through large-scale portraits of members of the community. The collective aims to build links to young people with its artistic practices. With this goal in mind they have organized a schedule for the painting of 12 murals with themes of social integration and environmental preservation, which are the central themes of concern among Tulum’s population.
Along the same line, other noteworthy projects that deal with public space and community participation are Los Amigos de la Esquina (which serves as a cultural center for children and youth), the collective actions of #Makers Tulum, Sendero Verde and Embajada de la Bicicleta.
Along the Camino del Guerrero, another platform that systematically resists the colonizing onslaught is Aki Aora, an artist residency created in 2017 that is also an annual festival of the same name. Led by Sally Montes, its vision is clear: all the elements of the festival must be recyclable or made of recycled materials, they must not generate environmental impact and they must support interaction among the different levels of the social structure.
Aki Aora offers workshops and urban interventions, biohacking, performances, digital art and sonic art conceived for the local population. It’s important to mention that this is the only festival in Tulum that promotes its activities in the Mayan language and through the media consumed by the community, such as Radio Candela, one of the few radio stations in Maya in the world.
Some of the artists who have collaborated with Aki Aora include: Jacob Kikegaard with sound spaces; Interspecific with explorations of non-human communication through technology; the Fallen Fruit collective, Ana Gabriela García from Terremoto and Sebastián Terrones with his action Del Paraíso al #Paradise. All these activities carried out under the framework of Aki Aora must have a community-oriented focus, and they are the materialization of proposals that support social inclusion and preserve the environment.
Following the path to reclaim native peoples and underline the incongruities of our era, we must also recognize the efforts of Serge Barbeau and Alejandro Durán.
Serge Barbeau took it upon himself to make portraits of the direct descendants of the leaders of the Caste War, a conflict between the Mayan people and the Mexican government that ended in the early 20th century. Últimos Testigos is a trilingual phonebook, edited by Hirmer Publisher, that seeks to reevaluate the memories of this rebellion. Once again, the portrait seems to be a tactic for recording disobedience.
Alejandro Durán utilizes assemblies and interventions in the natural environment to reflect on sustainability. He understands that the trash collected in Sian Ka'an could be reorganized into a museum experience. His project Washed Up eloquently expresses the consequences of cultural suicide by consumerism, which we are all living.
We must also call attention to the photographs and installations of Pepe Soho, who revisits the Caribbean landscape using imagination and photomontage.
This group of initiatives raises its fists high and tries to counterattack the onslaught of land developers and enemies of what came from the ancestors.
El Camino de la Dominación: The Path of Domination
As there are powers that fight against colonial practices, there must be those who administer those practices.
Our guide on this path is Jerónimo de Aguilar, the interpreter of the Conquistadores. He shipwrecked along with Gonzálo Guerrero and was enslaved by the Maya near Cancun. He is a critical figure in establishing communications between Hernán Cortés and the Native Americans, as he was an interpreter and fought for the Christian conversion of the indigenous peoples.
In tune with colonial interests, we find annual festivals that are best omitted and spaces that impose the exchange of fetishized objects as the center of artistic practices.
It’s worth mentioning the interventions in public spaces that Olivia Steel carried out in Tulum in 2017 as part of her project Public Display of Awareness, posting traffic signs bearing phrases such as "Follow that dream,” "Be present" and “Breathe," focused on reinforcing the marketing of Tulum as a spiritual, paradisiacal place for wealthy tourists, precarious and in formal for a large part of the local population, since people who do not speak English should also be able to receive messages to awaken their consciousness.
El Camino Místico: The Path of the Mystic
At the end of the 19th century, during the complex conjuncture of the Caste War, a citizen from Merida decided to form a committee to evangelize and negotiate with the Máasewualo'ob (the Mayan rebels). The mission was transformed into a mystical adventure that ends with the imprisonment of Don Juan Peón Contreras y Dorada (a merchant from Honduras).
During his incursion into Mayan lands and entering into contact with the ceremonial centers of Cruz Parlante, Don Juan Peón Contreras, second director of the museum of the Yucatán and speaker of Maayat'aan (the Yucatecan Mayan language), experiences a mystical revelation, discovering spiritual truths that transform his ways of thinking and those of the Mayan communities he visited:
"In my humble opinion, Yucatán is the mysterious land of promises, a valley with rocks of the city of Judah during the reign of Jehoshaphat, where the Israelites, descendants of Isaac and Jacob, founded the cities of Saaci and Cobjá, anagrams that prove their origin."
On this mystical path of humans overwhelmed by divine manifestations in the Mexican Caribbean we find the buildings of Roth (Jorge Eduardo Neira Sterkel): Azulik and Azulik Uh May, developed between 2017 and 2019.
Together with the unexpected holistic design by Eduardo Neira Sterkeland his art director Claudia Paetzold, the spaces of Sfer Ik Museion are the product of a revelation.
Upon entering any of the buildings molded by Roth’s imagination, we face ancestral intuitions and we resonate at the correct frequency to read the untimely grammar of contemporary art. The necessary dialog between the organic and the artificial in the works by Gabriel Rico and Margo Turshina; the network that knits together our world unfolding before our eyes with the creations of Neto; the alchemical practices and the old gods in bronze that emerge from the works by Rochelle Goldberg; the transformation of material in the sculptures of Kelly Akashi; the video-installations by Oscar Metsavath, or the 250 pendulums by Tatiana Trouve are the creations that encourage us to stick our fingers into the holes of the mask and explore other levels of reality.
It is curious how these spaces, which are the opposite of the white cube, can expand the way we read the works. There are no 90º angles, nor straight lines, nor walls. Despite these singularities, Ik Lab and Azulik Uh May are the only spaces in Tulum that have a formal museography and curation at an international level. The singular architectural design potentializes the enjoyment of knowledge that images hold.
Roth and Claudia have managed to synchronize Tulum with the time zone of world-class art, maintaining the mysterious and savage essence of the jungle. Sfer Ik Museion is a generator of experiences and revelations that opened its doors in 2019. Exploring its exhibit spaces we live a process similar to what St John the Baptist lived when he entered into contact with the priests of the Cruz Parlant: we see the need to recognize the indestructible in every entity that surrounds us.
To comprehend what is singular about Tulum, we must also consider the contributions of archeologists and diving spelunkers such as Pilar Luna (the first submarine archeologist and a pioneer of subaquatic archeology in Mexico) and Jerónimo Avilés (Direector of the Museo de la Prehistoria), cultural syncretism, hybridization and cross-culturalization, healing rituals and practices of distinct ancestral cultures, and yoga, as the town is considered a global capital for yoga and the superstitions and practices inherited from the New Age movement.
In finishing our tour, it becomes clear that Tulum, with its 10 short years as an independent municipality and its population of 23,000 inhabitants, is developing a cultural scene—still just an embryo—that in a couple of years will surprise us with unpredictable fruit.