Regarding “Sacred Geometries”: an interview to Rafael Penroz


1. First of all could you summarize your artistic career? Could you talk about your beginnings and the key milestones of your career? 

I am a visual artist born in Chile (1964) and naturalized Mexican. Bachelor of Arts and Master in Cultural Studies. I have participated in more than 50 collective exhibitions in Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, USA, Canada, Ecuador and France, and 10 one man shows in Chile and Mexico. Selected by the curatorial Mexican magazine m’ART, as one of the 40 collectible emerging artists in Mexico (2010). Two of my paintings are part of the permanent collection of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Castro, Chile, and the Museum of the Island of Cozumel, Mexico. Professor at the School of Arts of Yucatan (ESAY) since 2005. As curator and art manager my project “Galería DEmergencia” was funded from 2013 to 2015 by the government, with the purpose of promoting the emerging visual arts in Yucatán. In 2015 I was awarded the Municipal Fund for Visual Arts of the City of Mérida with the project “MayaOP”, activity that originated my current project: Sacred Geometries. Three works which are part of this series, were selected in the XI Florence Biennale 2017, and awarded the Lorenzo il Magnifico medal for first prize in drawing, graphics and calligraphy.

At the present I am in the process of completing the Sacred Geometries series with the purpose of editing an art book featuring my drawings and watercolors in a reasoned catalogue containing a selection of the most relevant geometrical  forms of postclassical maya art of Yucatán. I started my career as a painter after studying art in Canada (Ontario College of Arts and McMaster University) and finally completed my BA in the University of Chile, Santiago. I participated in the XV international art biennal of Valparaiso in 1987 and represented my country in the Ist encounter of Latin American Young Artists in Brasilia, Brazil in 1988. By 1990 painting was devalued and neoconceptualism was in vogue. At the time I had the impression that neoconceptualism was an overrated yet underpaied form of design. So I decided to make a career in design. I was a creative director for three advertising agencies in Chile until I migrated to Mexico city in 1997 pursuing a cosmopolitan yet latin way of life. In Mexico I became a set designer for movie and TV art directors and resumed my career as a painter. In 2005 I was invited to found an art school, the Escuela Superior de Artes de Yucatán (ESAY) in which I still work as a drawing and art theory professor. Between 2011 and 2012 I studied a master’s degree in Cultural Studies specializing in Visual Culture.Today I can declare that my art is a hybrid between painting, design and visual culture theory. My goal as an artist is to participate successfully in the European art market as a means to develop a collective movement for a renaissance of maya art in Yucatan.

2. We know that you are working at a very important and ambitious project, “Sacred Geometries”. Could you explain it? What about its origins, reasons, and goals?

After the post classical Mayan era in Yucatan, (1000 AD) the excess of population and the depletion of natural resources led to an ecological imbalance causing migrations and wars for the acquisition of new land for food and resources. This event is known today as the “collapse of Mayan culture”. Later came the Spanish conquest, and in the mid 19th century, the exploitation of the henequen fiber, which transformed more than 50% of the state’s land into a monoculture plantation industry. Monocultures not only lead to the loss of biological diversity but also to a loss of cultural identity. The henequen industry monopolized the economic activities of Mayan communities for over a century. Colonization and violent modernization of society inhibited the proliferation of traditional ritual geometry. For a short period, post revolutionary corporate art rescued a few patterns integrating them in a vernacular avant-garde architectural style known as “Neomayan”.

Today, the reproduction of Yucatan Maya traditional geometric patterns is almost inexistent. Reference sources are found only in archaeological papers or academic thesis. Around 2 million tourists visit Yucatan every year, and sadly they will never know if the design in their souvenir comes from Yucatan, Guatemala, Belize, Chiapas or China. I am raising funds to catalogue these extraordinary and unique patterns, as a reference source for our future designers, artists and craftsmen. The main idea is to realize a complete research and a unique catalogue, oriented towards the general public. Although it will not be an academic investigation, experts in the archaeological, anthropological and epigraphic studies, specially concerning interpretative hypotheses, will certify its contents. This publication fulfills a long awaited aspiration and it’s a tribute to Mayan culture, ancient and contemporary. The idea regarding my artistic production is to use the documented forms to create original patterns which I will include in the catalogue as an example of how can creators benefit from these forms as a resource for producing art and design with appellation of origin. An important goal, regarding my interests as an artist is to create a social form of contemporary art, a decolonial form of aesthetics, which can be clearly differentiated from whimsy forms of egocentric and individualistic art that saturates the market and devaluates the work of serious investigators/artists.

3. Could you talk about the Mayan symbology in relation to the project?

Mayan symbology contained in the patterns is geometrical abstractions on the ancient gods and represent Mayan cosmogony, which still is in force among contemporary Mayas. Although the present forms of representing the sacred are syncretic and hybridized with western iconography the cosmovision remains practically the same. So most of the figures represent the universal order as conceived by the Maya people conveying a heavenly world or upper world, an earthly (middle world) plane and an underworld. The cardinal points are also represented in cuadrifoil flowers and concentric squares, social order in textile patterns, palm tree leaves, feathers, seashells, and cosmic space-time in the depiction of the sun, constellations, rattle snake patterns and other natural forms which suggest celestial geometry.

4. Could you also tell us something more about media, technique, style, and expressive language concerning the project? 

The painting and graphic project which consists in the creation of different patterns using the geometrical forms of late classical and post\classical mayan art documented from the buildings found in Yucatan, function as a body of work as well as a resource to renew local interest in Maya art heritage. Since the project is based on social impact and will benefit cultural industries in the region, in this early stage the pieces won’t be expensive. A fair price is necessary to reach more collectors and to create a conscience regarding the exciting idea of a Mayan geometric art renaissance. Due to this, I decided to work with watercolor on cotton paper and to use silkscreen impressions for the patterns. This way every work is unique since I mix a manual technique with print. It is not serial and the patterns can be printed over any color or mixture of colors desired. The result resembles modernist OP art, specially the art of Bridget Riley which I admire, with a distinct Maya style.

5. In conclusion, what are the cultural and social implications of this project?

Social implications are many. If my pieces sell well, I will be able to publish my catalogue and spread the knowledge documented in my investigations. Artists, craftsmen, cultural and other industries will have a reference source to utilize and renew local design in many areas, as far as creativity can go. A further step is going to be taken regarding cultural independence for the Maya people, who will benefit in many ways if they start looking at their heritage instead of looking obsessively towards the U.S. and Europe. When they visit us in Merida, tourists are surprised by the European influence in the general aesthetics of the peninsula. It’s time they become impressed by the originality of Maya design. Since the beginning of the 20th century, many artists have insisted in the importance of appreciating Mayan art and culture. This has been done but in a general way considering that the Maya area covers the south of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. In this project I am adding some precision to aesthetic enjoyment, making of public domain a specific stile originated in the Yucatan peninsula. So another benefit is differentiation and the creation of design with appellation of origin. In this way, I hope that my collectors become, along with my students and myself, active part of a social aesthetical movement.


Rafael Penroz website