Even if viewers know a little about the cultural and culinary history of Mexico, Gloria Carrasco’s exhibition at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City might appear to be a show dedicated to the phallus. The gallery is filled with dozens of variations on the same object—a long, tapered shape made in a multitude of materials from textiles to ceramics and colors from earthy browns to bright pinks. The pieces are painted, gilded, bandaged, appliquéd, tied, chained, shackled, or skewered. Some hang from the ceiling while others are propped against the wall. It’s a delightful and funny first impression.
These phalli are actually metlapiles, cylindrical-shaped stones used to grind maize on a metate (grindstone). Also called mano del metate (metate’s hand), the metlapil figures prominently (along with the metate) in Mexican art and culture; they are a nostalgic image of pre-conquest Mexico, as well as a symbol of women’s work and domesticity. But Carrasco’s show, Prófugos del Metate (Fugitives from the Metate), breaks this cliché open. The artist clearly enjoys exploiting the humorous contradiction of an object that simultaneously suggests the masculine and the feminine. In one work in particular, Mine Is Bigger than Yours (2014), the metlapil is explicitly presented as both an erect phallus and a symbol of feminist empowerment.
In another work, various large-scale metlapiles on a bed of stones lean against a wall. The artist clearly wants to play with what they might signify; the title, Entre Fusiles y Metlapiles (Between Rifles and Metlapiles) (2014), situates the viewer within a hermeneutic field that engages many possible meanings simultaneously; the artist, having created something that looks suspiciously like a bunch of cigars in an ashtray, seems to be winking at the viewer, saying that sometimes a cigar isn’t just a cigar.