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Dissecting Devils in Arts of Resistance

If you were to visit Teloloapan, Guerrero, Mexico on September 16th in any given year, you’d likely see the town square swarmed with Devils. To commemorate an episode of a guerilla battle that took place during the war against Spain in the early 19th century, locals decked out in long leather jackets and contorted devil masks take to the streets, cracking whips and playfully scaring the town’s inhabitants. Bustling with music and chaos, this riotous annual carnival marks a disruption of the everyday, where routines are interrupted and time is suspended in flux.

This sense of rupture is distinguishable in both the design and presentation of material culture in MOA’s latest exhibition, Arts of Resistance: Politics and the Past in Latin America, on view until September 30th. “The idea is that there isn’t supposed to be a linear movement around the exhibition space to tell the narrative chronologically. Rather the narrative is more circular, more fluid,” says Laura Osorio Sunnucks, curator of Arts of Resistance and Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow. Divided into five themes, Arts of Resistance offers viewers multiple entry points into the ideas explored in the exhibition without a distinct beginning, middle or end.

Astucia Devil Costume, Mask, Crown made by Felipe Horta. MOA collection: 3289/7 a-c, a-h 8; Luzbel Devil Costume, Mask, Crown made by Felipe Horta. MOA collection: 3289/3 a-c, 9 a-c, 4. Purchase funded by the Michael O’Brian Family Foundation. Photo by Sarah Race.

One of the exhibition’s most striking sections is devoted to unpacking the contemporary significance of the Devil in Latin American culture as represented in Mexican devil costumes and masks. “This section was one of the hardest of the installations to design, to my mind, because I don’t think there’s anything creepier than museum installations where you see costumes without a person wearing them,” Laura recalls. “You are faced with a situation where something that is incredibly alive, experiential and multisensory is murdered.”

Here a collection of carnival costumes from Mexico are dissected—both literally and conceptually. Instead of using mounts or mannequins, the costumes are deconstructed into individual items and laid flat on long rectangular platforms designed to recall morgue tables. On one table, a pair of velvet trousers with a gold fringe is presented alongside a multi-colored sequined top and lavish cape with the word luzbel (“Lucifer”) embroidered in gold sequins across the collar. A serpent flanked in tinsel pom-poms rises from the crown of a metallic teal paper hat and at the end of the table sits an intricately carved devil mask gnashing its teeth. Presented as a dismembered cross-section, the individual components of the costume are purposefully presented as dead specimens to draw attention to their inherent objectification within the museum setting.

Mask made by Silvia Ioarra Cortés. 2017. Purchase funded by the Michael O’Brian Family Foundation. MOA collection: 3289/56ab. Photo by Sarah Race.

Aside from their overall unconventionality, one of the most arresting features of these morgue tables is the colour. Painted bright pink and covered in stucco, they certainly aren’t meant to pass for authentic pieces of autopsy equipment. In fact, the specific shade of pink was swatched from a series of masks included in the exhibition. Worn in Puebla, Mexico to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, these masks were designed as a mockery of white colonizers—their uncanny shade of pink an exaggeration of pale skin. As Laura explains, “The colour is a sense of Indigenous resistance,” with the double-use of the pink on the morgue tables further satirizing the colonial project of ethnographic display.

The tension between the bright, playful aesthetics and intense, politically charged subject matter of Arts of Resistance is palpable within the exhibition space. To demarcate each theme in the exhibition, sets of curved, sheer white curtains hang from the ceiling. Despite separating the gallery into five distinct spaces, sounds and colours bleed from one section to the next. “What works quite well is the sense that you can see but you can’t understand,” Laura says. “What I wanted here wasn’t to make people feel like they were looking at something aesthetically alien, dark, mysterious or primitive. I wanted people to feel uncomfortable and that they weren’t in control of the interpretation—rather it was the objects and space itself.”