Australia Now: Ancient Mexican Codex - Octavio García Alvarado

By Sean Davey


Octavio García Alvarado

Ancient Mexican Codex

27 November – 14 December

Huw Davies Gallery @ PhotoAccess,

Manuka Arts Centre, Canberra ACT


A desire to explore personal and cultural heritage has led recent ANU School of Art graduate Octavio García Alvarado to produce his most recent body of work, Ancient Mexican Codex, now showing at Huw Davies Gallery at PhotoAccess in Canberra. The exhibition consists of six framed photographic chemigram dyptichs that have each been made onsite at the PhotoAccess darkroom, as part of Octavio’s EASS (Emerging Artist Support Scheme) Artist Residency Program.

Octavio found inspiration for this series of work in the form of an ancient manuscript from the Mixtec culture in Oaxaca, Mexico, which now resides (like may sacred items from all over the world) in the British Museum. Octavio’s artist statement explains the original manuscript:

The Mixtec Codex is an ancient screen fold manuscript from the Mixtec culture (the Mesoamerican culture from the Oaxaca region), made from animal skin or bark paper around 1000 AD. The manuscript narrates the lives of the Mixtec royalty, and was most probably stolen by the Spanish conquistadors Hernan and Fernando Cortéz, and sent to the Emperor Charles V in 1519.

Originally painted in rich earthy colours, the codex depicts the sacred history of the Mixtecs, but with special attention to ‘eight deer’, a Mixtec king mentioned several times throughout the manuscript. The codex records the rituals of passage, such as births and marriages. By using a hieroglyph like narrative, the lives of kings and warriors is told. Countless figures wearing elaborate costumes are depicted in frontal or profile perspective, or ingeniously in both perspectives at times. The Mixtec Codex uses the same calendar as the Aztecs and Mayas, with a 360 day year, and the year's numbers are indicated by a system of dots and figures: monkeys, vultures, rabbits, deers, snakes. The codex in its own aesthetic is a highly sophisticated document of the epic narratives of Mixtec history, and has a unique place in the history of Mesoamerican civilisations.

Octavio’s exhibition installation is very pleasing to view in the smallish space of the Huw Davies Gallery, the six panoramic size works sitting very well in the corridor-like space. The formal hang of the framed images contrasts delightfully to the intensity of the works themselves, which on closer inspection reveal an incredible amount of intricate and delicate work. When seeing the works in person, there is no doubt at the many hours and effort that has gone into the production of these chemigram prints.

As contemporary photography continues to march forward into the realm of overly conceptual and often under-thought art, it is refreshing and exciting to see an artist utilising techniques of darkroom photographic practice to produce works. Octavio touches on his technical inspiration in his artist statement:

By using experimental photography in this case, camera less techniques, to manipulate the surfaces of black and white photographic paper, I aim to expand on a technique invented by the Belgian photographer Pierre Cordierin the 1950's; the Chemigram. Cordier's work, and the artists that have followed his technique, focus on an abstract realm close to abstract expressionism. My influences also come from the cutting paper techniques (papel picado) used in México from ancient timesto the present day. This process has taken me on a journey between figurative and abstract work that has enabled me to empower the codex with new life. 





Image titles: 01: Exhibition installation 02: Exhibition installation 03: Two Currents Meet for the First Time (2014). Chemigram, B&W RC glossy paper, 71cm x 28cm, unique edition. 04: Two Currents Meet for the First Time (2014). Chemigram, B&W RC glossy paper, 71cm x 28cm, unique edition. (Detail) 05: The Army (2014). Chemigram, B&W RC glossy paper, 71cm x 28cm, unique edition. 06: Three Warriors in Battle Gear Crossing a Body of Water and Conquering a Town on a Hill (2014). Chemigram, B&W RC glossy paper, 71cm x 28cm, unique edition.