The Neo Folklore of Saner by Marina Garcia-Vasquez.
Edgar “Saner” Flores paints ceremonious masked men. As an internationally recognized street artist, his vibrant large-scale murals depict anthropomorphic characters to illustrate fables on walls against the bustling streetscapes of France, England, Peru, and Mexico. His whimsical figures, often drawn from indigenous Mexican masked dances, celebrate a sense of divinity often lost in complex urban cities.
Along one of the most trafficked streets in Mexico City, a Saner mural titled “Unión de un pueblo” or “Union of a People,” was painted on the side of the Hotel Reforma Avenue as part of the All City Canvas street art festival in 2012. Four masked characters assembled in a totem formation are stacked upon each other climbing and reaching for a radiating heart. The piece is cartoonish and cute and gets a tremendous amount of love on Instragram and street art blogs. Victor Celaya, co-founder of Arto and All City Canvas says, “It [the mural] represents the Mexican workforce, how we need each other in order to achieve greater things as a society and as a country. No matter how big or small you are, you are part of something bigger, and no little effort is useless.”
“Union de un Pueblo” (Union of the people.) 2012
The strength of Saner’s art is the opportunity to be at once human and divine. He paints dualities with his masked creatures: past and present, adult and child, real and imagined, historical and futuristic. The smallest details in a Saner mural, painting, or illustration are pregnant with meaning and the symbols he chooses: hearts, hands, and shovels mean a great deal to many people all over the world. The gallery Fifty24MX in Mexico City regularly book Saner for shows, Jonathan Levine Gallery in New York City exhibited the artist’s first United States solo show, and Swizz Beatz added a few of his paintings for his Dean Collection of art.
The Mexican tradition of masks dates back to pre-Columbian Maya and Aztec cultures and moves into post-colonial pastoral and agrarian communities honoring mixed-race and ties to the natural world. Masks cover human frailties and bring out a life of their own. They allow for individuals to take on other personas, other realms of being, removed from the limitation of one’s social standing.
“The Political Swindler”
In a mural painted in Fleury-Les-Aubrais, France titled “The Conquest of the New World by the Spanish Conquistadors,” or “La Conquista” Saner painted a hibiscus-hued portrait of lovers. The “conquest” is a double entendre of romance and the historical act of the Spanish arriving in the New World. In Saner’s mural, the Spaniard, dressed in armor, is in a kissing embrace with the Aztec while at the same time stabbing the Aztec in the back.
The illustrated print, “La Farsa” or “The Farce” contains one soldier and one politician in sheep’s clothing. Saner says, “The idea is a dance, like a ritual for a created lie. This piece highlights the lies the government tells us.”
The Department of Anthropology at California State University, Sacramento houses an online exhibit of Mexican masks through time titled, “In the Danced Masks, Masked Dances.” The collection traces the origins of popular masks, many of which we see present in Saner’s paintings: the jaguar head, the Tlacololero or farmer, and the tiger. Saner’s masks pull from traditions of the southern states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Chiapas but he also creates his own masks to create modern day deities.
Dr. Joyce M. Bishop the curator of the “Masked Dances” exhibit writes in the catalog, “In many cases, they [masked dances] provide a platform on which indigenous and working class Mexicans articulate resistance to political, religious, and cultural domination.” We see this come to life in Saner’s own ceremonious portraits. The characters are in dance, pontificating, and proclaiming order out of chaos.
The poet Octavio Paz described Mexican identity as a mask in The Labyrinth of Solitude in 1950. He penned the essay “Mexican Masks” about the Mexican male identity. Paz wrote, “He builds a wall of remoteness between reality and himself, a wall that is no less impenetrable for being invisible.” Paz’s masks camouflage the mestizo, a silent, invisible majority. The wearing of a mask is a symbolic compliance in the face of Spanish authority. By masking identity, the Mexican psyche, according to Paz becomes a collective nobody.
In 1996, a ski-masked Subcomandante Marcos, leader of the Zapatistas, a rebel movement fighting for the rights of the indigenous peoples of Mexico, told reporters, “Isn’t Mexican political culture a culture of hidden faces?” The Zapatistas went on to defend their use of masks, “Anyone can don a mask: The mask invites other oppressed and dissatisfied people to feel a part of the struggle.”
In Saner’s latest collection of paintings for the Jonathan Levine Gallery titled, Primitivo, his sovereign characters sit in the form of a portrait with an air of grace. The portraits in his latest collection depict both real and imagined beings in President Barak Obama and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in masks.
“The Black Charro.”
The two paintings are titled “The Political Swindler” and depict both sinister and elevated beings; those that stand with stature and still hide from public view. There are other portraits within Primitivo that are more playful and resilient like the masked mariachi with a jaguar face, “The Black Charro.” The pairing of the animal and human in this painting begs us to consider the act of music as a sacred incantation through time. The portraits of personas exude greatness in composition and size. The paintings commemorate individuals who command respect, each one contains a level of magical power.
Saner’s masks occlude, they hide the human within, but as fantastic animals they recover the will to communicate. Saner’s subjects offer a cross-section of modern Mexican society, and really, of all societies. In Saner’s work concealment is a means for greater communication with the world. Saner’s masks allow for the fabric of invention.
What better way to uncover an artist than to ask questions about his motivations and inspirations?
“The Political Swindler.”
Tell us about the masks you paint.
S: Most of my pieces are inspired by traditional Mexican masks and from other cities around the world. I generally seek to explore the roots, a sort of rebellion to the globalized world in which we live, and a tribute to all those traditions that have given me so many good memories. My masks are like my own rituals and this is my way of representing the mix we have between our past and present, traditions adapted to a different language and seeking to break the barrier of oblivion.
Do your masks work to neutralize emotion? Or are they extensions of their inner spirits?
S: The masks within my art serve to reveal my characters, as if in a mystical act they find a way to show themselves as they are, free of bias and with the convenience of not hiding anything. Whether they are angry, sad, happy, in love, well that depends on the viewer. It is up to them to define their dialogue with us.
Many of your works are political and even pieces in Primitivo were created with the 43 Ayotzinapa in mind. Your art crafts symbols of, often, brutal realities. What can those outside of Mexico learn from your art?
S: With my work I seek to lay down examples that everyone as individuals are exposed to: new methods of conquests, through things such as banks, advertising, the danger of having a government that pretends to care about its people, but its true interest is merely monetary. In the end, I’m only exposing situations, that if we look crudely at our surroundings, we may find them anywhere in the world, of course, some more than others.
A Mickey Mouse character comes up a lot in your work. How does he fit in with your other masked characters?
S: All the characters that I manage are undoubtedly an extension of some memory, or a symbol that serves to communicate an idea, Mickey Mouse, in my personal version, exemplifies the cultural exchange we have with the US, and depending on the context in which I paint my characters, they can create whole different adventures behind them.
Which artists are you influenced by?
S: I would say, Hieronymus Bosch aka “El Bosco”, Diego Velazquez, Caravaggio, Goya. Mexicans artists like Rufino Tamayo, Frida Kahlo, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jorge Gonzalez Camarena, among others who undoubtedly form part of my inspiration.
Is there a controversial topic you want to explore?
S: At the moment I think the issues that attract me the most are passion, anger, and the search for a different reality than the one we live in.
“President of the World.”
Marina Garcia-Vasquez is a contributing Arts writer for By Such and Such, she resides in Brooklyn. Original Pencil drawing of Saner by Eva Xia.