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Lila Downs' songs speak to Demian Flores' artists in exhibit at USC

Demian Flores, a graphic artist and painter, and Lila Downs, a singer-songwriter, combine song and artwork to create 'Pecados y Milagros' at USC Fisher Museum of Art.

November 19, 2013|By Reed Johnson

Like folk art and fine art, or mezcal and worms, sins and miracles might seem like a very odd couple. But for Demián Flores and Lila Downs, mixing pecados (sins) and milagros (miracles) proved to be a potent combination.

Flores is a Oaxacan graphic artist and painter who often creates mash-ups of pop-culture and pre-Columbian imagery. Critics' darling Downs is a Oaxaca-born, Mexican American singer-songwriter. She's known for her theatrical stage persona and a syncretic musical style that cross-stitches elements of jazz, hip-hop, rock and ranchera.

For years, Flores and Downs had known each other distantly. Occasionally they crossed paths in Oaxaca, the poor, southern Mexican state that is popular with tourists because of its rich indigenous culture and camera-ready landscapes.

"I've been a follower of her music for many years," Flores said in Spanish during a recent L.A. stopover. "And little by little we began to form a friendship."

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This fall, at the USC Fisher Museum of Art, the fruits of that friendship, "Pecados y Milagros," inspired by Downs' Grammy-winning 2011 album of the same name, are on display.

It's a set of listening stations alongside 15 retablos, or ex-votos, a painting genre dating to the Middle Ages that combines folk-art motifs and Roman Catholic iconography. Retablos are rendered on small rectangles of thin metal or leather, and give thanks to the Virgin Mary, God or a saint for favors received and prayers answered through intercession, generally in relief of sin, suffering or looming danger.

A possibly apocryphal story says the tradition took root in the New World when Columbus arrived in Santo Domingo and offered a reliquary to the Virgin Mary.

"In Mexico, the indigenous gods were absorbed and transformed through the images of the gods that came from Europe," Flores said. "The thing that's interesting about the ex-voto is that it's a combination of two components, a visual part and a textual part, and one doesn't exist without the other."

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The impetus for the collaboration dates to 2006, when a months-long strike by thousands of schoolteachers turned the picturesque state capital, Oaxaca city, into a barricaded combat zone. Eventually the strike was brutally put down by police, after a number of deaths and injuries were reported on both sides.

Speaking by phone, Downs said that during the Oaxacan conflict she became aware of Flores' work in recruiting young artists to develop projects at La Curtiduría, his Oaxaca city workshop. The young artists "were expressing or venting their anger with the whole situation through artwork," Downs said.

Around that time, Downs began putting together the album that would become "Pecados y Milagros."

"I mentioned to him, 'What do you think if we do a project together based on these songs?'" Downs said.

Each of the 15 retablos was shaped by the lyrics to a different song from Downs' album and assigned to a different Mexican contemporary artist chosen by Flores, among them Marco Arce, Daniel Lezama, Dr. Lakra and Alfredo Vilchis. Many of the resulting artworks address timeless afflictions — drunkenness, illness, poverty.

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Others wrestle with contemporary calamities. One is the drug-related violence that has left 70,000 Mexicans dead since 2006. Arce's retablo, a horizontal grid comprising eight black and white engravings, recounts a 2001 journey in which he and a companion were assaulted and beaten with pistol butts in Mexico City.

Patricia Soriano's "Xochipitzahua" depicts a deadly hurricane that devastated Veracruz state, and gives thanks to an indigenous incarnation of the Virgin for blessing the region with a miraculous harvest the following year.

Each artist was encouraged to use as much or little of the lyrics as he or she liked, and to follow his or own stylistic vision. Dr. Lakra, for example, drew on his background as a tattoo artist. CHema Skandal! converted the text in his retablo into a kind of shorthand cursive style he calls "linguistic contraction," resembling the phonetic shortcuts used in tweets. One of the older artists, Jose Luis Sanchez Rull, shows an obvious debt to the grainy underground comic mannerisms of R. Crumb.

"It was a way to respond with an aesthetic vision against the social barbarity that one was living through," Flores said. "What Oaxaca was going through was like a civil war that lasted for two years." 

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"Pecados y Milagros" is part of a larger group exhibition at the Fisher, "Drawn to Language," that is running through Dec. 7. It includes installations by five artists that probe the interface between text and imagery.

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