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La Cucaracha: Reviewed by Shannon Taggart

Book Review La Cucaracha Photographs by Pieter Hugo Reviewed by Shannon Taggart "Invited by the curator Francisco Berzunza to create a body of work on the themes of sexuality and death in Mexico, Pieter Hugo responded with La Cucaracha. The book is big, blood red, and opens with a picture of a disembodied head..."
La Cucaracha. By Pieter Hugo.
La Cucaracha  
Photographs by Pieter Hugo

RM, 2020. In English. 
136 pp., 56 illustrations, 12¼x13¾".

Invited by the curator Francisco Berzunza to create a body of work on the themes of sexuality and death in Mexico, Pieter Hugo responded with La Cucaracha. The book is big, blood red, and opens with a picture of a disembodied head. In the pages that follow, Hugo offers an electric memento mori captured in a land riddled by violence. As a photographer inspired by symbols and media images, Hugo draws here from the visual history of Catholic iconography, Biblical stories, Mexican folklore, Aztec culture, Renaissance painting, and drug cartel crime scenes. The result is a Mexican fever dream that retains the hallmarks of Hugo’s distinct oeuvre.

La Cucaracha’s hauntological narratives transport the past into the present: a child held horizontal, a slain gelding, and a man laid flat on a dolly reference a history of ritual sacrifice. Hugo invokes crime and its forensic aftermath: fake legs peek out from a blazing fire, a flayed body on an aluminum table reveals its interior torso, and an assault survivor presents his disfigured flesh to the camera. A woman with long hair and breasts caked in blood confronts the viewer, harkening Mexico’s victims of femicide. A wax sculpture of the Mexican icon Frida Kahlo gazes out as if she is witnessing a horror show. A burning bush and a crown of thorns imply that God is also watching.

La CucarachaBy Pieter Hugo.
La CucarachaBy Pieter Hugo.

Of Mexico, Hugo observes: “There is an acceptance that life has no glorious victory, no happy ending.” Naked figures—exiled Adams and Eves—populate the book: a couple embraces in a barren landscape, a sex worker poses suggestively, a massive snake coils around a man. Hugo mixes the mundane in with the metaphorical, taking care to represent Mexico’s innocent visions, including its fruits and flowers. His clothed subjects offer proof that the people’s daily life indeed goes on, and Hugo treats their resilience with reverence. Interspersed portraits — such as a chambermaid, a mango vendor, a photographer and his family, and a girl in her first communion dress—interrupt the spin of myth and history, periodically jolting the viewer into everyday reality.

La CucarachaBy Pieter Hugo.
La Cucaracha translates into ‘The Cockroach’, referencing the well-known tragi-comic Spanish folk song about a bug with missing legs, struggling to walk. Hugo explains: “The jingle-like refrain, combining humor and derogation, is tied deeply to the specific geopolitical, historical and pop-cultural expression of Mexico – a place where hyperviolence, the joyful treatment of death, extreme machismo, expanded viewpoints on gender, dogmatic Catholicism, a reverence for the supernatural, cyclic autocracies, the provision of equitable social housing, chronic desperation and a communal outlook have all somehow found a way to coexist.” Hugo’s cockroach analogy commends the country’s ability to march forward despite its imbalance. It also recognizes Mexico’s outsider status, such as in Trump’s America, where some denounce it as parasitic, corrupt and criminal.

One of the most triumphant moments in the book is Hugo’s three technicolor ‘Muxes’, which run consecutively. Ancient and modern at once, these ‘third-gendered’ men presenting as women carry on a tradition rooted in cross-dressing Aztec priests and the Mayan gods who embodied both sexes. Their prominent presence in La Cucaracha celebrates Mexico’s capacity to grapple with ambiguity, and to endure.

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*All Pieter Hugo quotes from: Hugo, Pieter (2019) ‘Finding a Home for your Demons’, July, The Eye of Photography.

La CucarachaBy Pieter Hugo.
La CucarachaBy Pieter Hugo.

Shannon Taggart is a photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has been exhibited and featured internationally and has been recognized by Nikon, Magnum Photos and the Inge Morath Foundation, American Photography, and the Alexia Foundation for World Peace. Her first monograph, S√ČANCE, was published by Fulgur Press in November 2019 and was named one of TIME’s best photobooks of the year.