Director's Statement: Often, people of Mexican heritage stress the European part of their family background, but the Aztec, Mayan, and other indigenous elements are also important. The Aztecs, and the Mayas before them, created complex civilizations with magnificent architecture and elaborate mythologies, and their cultures are surely deserving of respect. And of course, after the Spanish conquest, these people did not simply vanish. Not only do most Mexicans today have ancestors that were Aztec, or Maya, or Olmec, or Toltec, but there are many people in the country today that are purely one of these ethnicities. My purpose in creating this documentary was to show how two California artists of Mexican heritage have used their art to connect with these cultures.
In addition to this larger purpose, the actual art that these two artists bring to us is fresh and original. The delightful, colorful cartonería of Rubén Guzmán, as well as the many, varied creations of Ernesto Hernández Olmos are well worth discovering. Guzmán stressed using found materials and garbage to create his work at a time before recycling became a household watch-world. Hernández Olmos is particularly multitalented, making cremanic flutes on which he plays his original compositions, carving drums which he then plays, painting murals, and on and on.
Director's Bio: A filmmaker since 2004, Ma is essentially self-taught. Her work has screened and been in festivals in eight countries on four continents. Best known for Masters of Rhythm the Afro-Peruvian Way and the soon-to-be-released Flamenco: the Land Is Still Fertile, she produces and directs in both English and Spanish, and in certain respects considers herself an international version of Les Blank. Her passions are music, dance, art, and cross-cultural understanding; and she tries to combine each of these elements in her work, whether documentary, narrative, or experimental. Her earlier careers (history professor, lawyer, and non-profit administrator) also have a significant effect on her filmmaking.
Rubén Guzmán, focus of the first half of this documentary, is a cartoneria artist. As he explains, cartoneria is like paper mache except that it is art, and not simply a craft. It originated in Mexico (birthplace of Guzmán) and he studied with the grandsons of the great proponent of the art form, Pedro Linares.
Guzmán lives in Oakland where he works with youth and community organizations in addition to creating his art. In terms of cartonería, he started by making small pieces related to Aztec mythology but now makes giant figures as well, either drawn from his Mexican heritage or, in the case of a commission from Disneyland, figures of dragons that hark back to Quetzacóatl, the feathered serpent of the Aztecs.
Ernesto Hernández Olmos is perhaps best known - and rightfully so - for his magic flute of fire which he made himself out of clay. He has also made other flutes, as well as a menagerie of small animals such as frogs, snakes, and an aligator head. Ceramics, as he explained to me, is his favorite art - but he is more than a ceramicist and musician. He is also a painter and muralist whose work can be seen on walls in Oakland, Berkeley, and other San Francisco Bay Area cities. Plus he is a dancer and a drummer.
Hernández Olmos, who appropriately enough is Olmec, came to California from the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca about 20 years ago and settled in Oakland. Like Guzmán, he has worked with youth and community organizations, and his art has appeared in many venues in the Bay Area. He interests himself in many of Mexico's great civilizations and their cultural traditions, and considers himself to be a shaman who carries on the religious and spiritual traditions of his ancestors.
Hershell West, host for the interview with Rubén Guzmán, is himself an artist and it was with that in mind that we chose him to do the honors. As a black artist, he is a painter especially interested in both nature and the black experience. He has executed several murals in south Florida and the San Francisco Bay Area, and has also acted as assistant to muralist John Wehrle.
West has been very active in promoting the arts. He was president of the Oakland and the Richmond Arts & Culture Commission, and president of the board of the Richmond Art Center and Oakland's Pro Arts. He has worked extensively with at-risk youth through the Richmond Art Center, Alameda County Juvenile facility, and others. We featured him in our documentary, The Artist in Society: Talking with Hershell West, which screened in film festivals in three countries on two continents.