Blog / Artist Interviews

Seeds of Knowledge / Countering Erasure

Mónica Alcázar-Duarte x Bindi Vora

POSTED: 03 April 2024

Artist Mónica Alcázar-Duarte discusses her experience of living in-between cultures and considers how being a migrant has shaped her practice and her way of seeing and thinking

Mónica Alcázar-Duarte is a multidisciplinary visual artist. Originally from Mexico and of indigenous descent, she now lives and works in the UK. Through photography and film, Alcázar-Duarte intervenes and appears in her work in order to make complex power structures visible.

In this conversation, the artist speaks with senior curator Bindi Vora on the occasion of her first UK solo exhibition Digital Clouds Don’t Carry Rain at Autograph in London. They discuss her work with augmented reality, addressing issues of alienation, indigenous ecology and colonial legacies in Mexico.

Bindi Vora (BV): Mónica, it has been such a wonderful journey to work closely with you as you've developed this new body of work over the last few years. I am acutely aware that your works grapple with being located between two contexts – Mexico and Britain and the legacies of their imperial pasts. How do these juxtapositions play out when conceptualising or contextualising your work?

Mónica Alcázar-Duarte (MAD):
Living ‘in-between’ makes it difficult to classify or contain one’s identity, you don’t quite belong in any box. Although, in many ways my work is not perceived as British enough, I distinctly remember being told a few years ago that my work was not ‘Latin American’ enough. This statement came from an European institution. What was particularly unsettling was that their gaze, and their perception of what Mexican art needed to look like, was not fulfilled by my work in their opinion.

The Náhuatl word 'nepantla' best describes what I am going through now and how this feeds into my work. The concept of nepantla, often cited in Chicano and Latino anthropology, was first used by the Aztecs while living through colonisation. It is both a noun and a verb. On the one hand it literally refers to the area between two bodies of water, and on the other it also refers to the action of walking between cultural territories. It could be compared to the liminal, or the uncanny, as well as the idea of the in-between. Although I think it goes further due to its original context, being first used during the colonisation of Tenochtitlán, and the later process of configuring Mexico as a territory with a single identity.

K’aaxal ja’ - Mayan Thunder deity, from the series Digital Clouds Don't Carry Rain, 2023-24

I have been living in Britain for 23 years now, and this has helped me understand certain aspects about Mexico that would be very difficult for me to discern while inside the country. Conversely, being from Mexico aids my understanding of legacies of coloniality and post-coloniality which are still very much present in Latin America. What has become truly interesting to me recently is seeing how these interconnected histories and geographies overlap, and how these reverberations become embedded in the ecological crisis we live in today. It makes me think of the book by Isabel Wilkerson Caste, The Origins of Our Discontents, in which she connects histories and territories as prevailing systems of power that are still used today in our society in a highly insidious manner. When you stand in-between legacies, cultures, geographies, the invisibility of these systems of power become evident.

BV: In some ways the sense of being located ‘in-between’ raises more questions of identity and perception. I am interested in how you have used augmented reality to navigate these broader issues, whilst concurrently considering the geographical contexts in which we experience time, difference and marginality. Why is this important to your practice?

I recently came to realise that my ongoing interest in non-linear narratives is very much rooted in my Latin American upbringing, specifically ideas around the simultaneity and circularity of time that is ever present in Mesoamerican cultures.

I grew up in Mexico City and then Chihuahua, and experienced a sense of ‘unbelonging’ and isolation that only became evident to me as I grew older and read the works of writers such as Rosario Castellanos, Elena Garro, Juan Rulfo and Julio Cortázar. These writers opened an infinite source of words, ideas and theories that helped me to articulate what it means to be an outsider, to recognise and embrace the chaos, pain, and beauty within the feeling of being on the fringes.

In my work AR has become a tool to explore unseen structures of power, rendering them visible and accessible via our mobile phones.

Over the last few years, researching and coming to better understand how knowledge is shaped, transmitted and owned has been integral to my practice. Being conscious of how knowledge is built and the conditions under which it is produced and disseminated serves as a reminder of how technology’s promise of a brighter future for everyone sounds particularly hollow, especially in our current era of technological advancement, where there are still assumptions regarding equality and access. I often wonder: who is this 'everyone'? This idea of a connected world is an abstraction that can be looked at in tandem with the propositions of modernity that we are continuously asked to buy into. I want to dissect the seamless transition from a colonial perspective to ideas of modernity. How do these evolutions take place?

Augmented reality (AR) interests me for many reasons, from its name (as if reality needs augmentation), to the ways in which it has become embedded in everyday working practices, including the production of mechanical or anatomical illustrations and the architectural design of spaces and forms. It generates such a rich territory for artistic expression.

In my work AR has become a tool to explore unseen structures of power, rendering them visible and accessible via our mobile phones. It is presented as superficially innocent and harmless but algorithms can create biases and influence ways of seeing. For example, biases are demonstrated in our engagement with social media: in how we post, retweet or hashtag our content. In my practice, AR has become a bridge between worlds that simultaneously mirror and deny each other.

Here to Be Caught, from the series Second Nature, 2021

200 Billion Per Year, from the series Second Nature, 2021

BV: Whilst you were developing the body of work that comprises Digital Clouds Don’t Carry Rain, you began looking further into your heritage and culture. What was this journey like?

The journey has taken me on several trajectories: from getting a DNA test, to starting to learn Maya, to making the first chapter of the film presented in the exhibition: U K'ux Kaj / Heart of sky, Mayan god of storms (2023-24).

Taking a DNA test came from my frustration of not getting answers about my family’s ancestry. The test showed that I am predominantly indigenous with my roots originating from South, Central and Northern Mexico, as well as a small percentage Native American. When I spoke about this with my father he casually mentioned that my great-grandfather was most probably from an indigenous community. Instances like this alter the family history that is recorded within our family photo albums, and my own family’s mythology of itself: the stories we tell each other and continue to tell to the next generation.

More crucially, it made me reexamine ideas of appropriation and the act of reclamation of these lost or otherwise rearticulated histories of knowledge. At so many levels I am still grappling with the process of what reclamation looks like, as I find myself within a social system that is constantly telling me where I belong. The struggle that comes from this process is something that I didn’t quite expect. I didn’t expect it to be contradictory at such a deep level. It is a personal process of decolonisation and unseeing that seems very much akin to peeling an onion but with this terrible fear that after all the layers are peeled back, I could be left with nothing. Quite possibly what compels me to make work is the need to face this void even though at times the process feels almost self-destructive.

This is why the idea of nepantla has been so important to me, as it brings some hope. Gloria Anzaldúa’s writing on Nepantla has offered a respite at times when I truly have felt at a complete loss. She describes nepantla as a perspective that defies binary structures and acknowledges rupture as an experience from within. For me her writing seeks to find a place beyond hybridity. Over the years I keep coming back to her book Light in the Dark: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality, which was published in 2015 - almost a decade after her death - in which she proposes the idea of layered and coexisting identities without hierarchies. She was one of my early influences and she truly made me feel the possibilities that could come with embracing being an inside-outsider.

BV: It seems to me that you are drawn to the potentials of language and the impact it can have on notions of migration and alienation. Why is spoken word so integral in your films?

Language is a source of understanding and defining. It is also a source of power. It is in the naming of the world that we claim ownership over it, or stewardship of it. For years English has been positioned as the language of science. This becomes problematic at a moment in time in which we find ourselves struggling to see a way through ecological crisis, not quite understanding that what we require is a different way of seeing or imagining for the future. I don’t have an answer to this crisis we are in, but I am clear that we can’t remain inactive. By actively participating in conversations, that may prompt more questions we may be able to seek answers together.

In the case of the script for the film U K'ux Kaj / Heart of sky, Mayan god of storms I wanted to use language as a marker for two very different accounts of the same element: fire. Fire of course relates to the melting of the copper present in the work, but also as a symbol for ‘enlightenment’. The simultaneous meaning that occurs when using the two different narrators provokes questions related to meaning as experience, experience as testimony, and testimony as narrative. Language in the film becomes this layer in which the dialectic between erasure and assertion takes place; assertion as a contradictory reclaiming of sorts. For me this is the most violent of contradictions, having to erase parts of yourself in order to fit in and not live but survive. It is mind-blowing the amount of oppression that requires having an entire population just surviving throughout time.

For me it draws parallels to the moment in history when the Mesoamerican codices were burnt and destroyed in 1562 under Spanish colonial rule, only to then be re-written in Spanish; essentially being supervised under the coloniser’s gaze. Digital Clouds Don’t Carry Rain has been part of a process of mourning – acknowledging what we have already lost and which can’t be resurrected, while using the energy that mourning brings with it to activate these ideas further.

In our current timeline, our conception of the future deals with ideals of progress and infinite growth. It has quickly become an unsustainable fantasy that puts profit before life. We need schools, clinics and roads, but there must be a way in which we do not need a digital cloud that consumes 30 billion watts of power per year (New York Times, 2012)¹. This equals the energy produced by 30 nuclear plants, or 6.4 million households in a year.

Digital Clouds Don't Carry Rain, exhibition install at Autograph, London, 2024

T'aabal chukChuuk / Embers [detail], install at Autograph, London, 2024

BV: Casta paintings were a genre of art made in the 18th century in Mexico during Spanish colonialism to illustrate racist social hierarchies – classifying mixed race individuals within a ‘caste’ system. Could you speak about why you chose to mimic and reinterpret these poses in the work?

In 2018, during a visit to Mexico City, I came across an exhibition dedicated to casta paintings. The paintings were presented in the museum as important historical objects, with little reference to the ways in which these works served - and continue to serve - the exploitation of people in the Americas. The creation of a caste system, as depicted in these paintings, enabled the Spanish state to justify the erasure of indigenous cultures. By refuting the violent taxonomies of what these paintings stood for and the racial hierarchies they placed upon my ancestors, I want to reclaim a sense of dignity that counters these colonial knowledge structures.

BV: Would you be able to delve into the use of copper and the symbols in your work that are of significance in Mexico?

Copper appears in the images in the exhibition and also coats 56 flowers which form the installation at the centre of the exhibition. My use of copper is a reference to the lineage of its extraction in Mexico. It also refers to contemporary systems of extractivism. Mexico’s copper was extracted while it was being colonised, today it is the seventh largest producer of copper in the world.

The flowers on the masks, meanwhile, refer to the flora which is important to the Mayan stingless bee – also known as the Xunan-Kaab (Regal Lady Bee), first cultivated by the Maya more than 3,000 years ago in its natural habitat. This species of bee is struggling to survive today due to the rapid deforestation of the Yucatán Peninsula. However, communities who care for the bees are deeply connected to them.

Yum Kaax - Mayan Jungle deity, from the series Digital Clouds Don't Carry Rain, 2023-24

BV: Do you see these interventions such as the hand drawn elements that appear in the photographs for example, as a creation of a counter-archive?

The interventions such as the dots represent the data that shapes the landscape in the photographs. The patterns extracted from this data were produced by an algorithm inspired by how bees fly and pollinate - which then recur within the 3D printed flowers which make up the installation T'aabal chukChuuk / Embers (2024).

Archives and datasets appear as stable records. It is the language(s) used to order them and the choices made that often cause gaps in knowledge or context. There is so much subjectivity that goes into the assembly of an archive or dataset. I am interested in the biases behind methodologies that build bodies of knowledge.

BV: How does your environment, the specific local conditions, and the structures in which you work support the development of your practice?

In recent years a sense of place and geography has deeply shaped what I do and the ideas that end up becoming the work. This is not only referring to the immediate environment in which I find myself, which plays an integral part of it all, but also to the way in which one’s brain starts responding to where one is. Even though the work is rooted in long-term research, I do not plan much before making the work. Maybe this comes from my fascination with live performance, in which part of the magic is how unique each moment is. Even repetition of the same action will not bring the exact same result. It is very intuitive, and it doesn’t conform to more standardised ways of looking and constructing narratives and images. For this project I have moved from very extreme geographies, and so this has been both troubling and illuminating. The final output caused me to question my reasoning behind making the work many times. It has left me with many unsettling questions, opening a door to many years of work to come.

For me the act of self-insertion is a way of countering erasure. Bodies, faces, presences like mine seem to be rendered invisible when conversations on space exploration, algorithmic bias, or scientific classification take place.

BV: In your film piece, U K'ux Kaj / Heart of sky, Mayan god of storms (2023-24), you emphasise the experiences of a multi-hyphenate identity – why is this format of communication so integral in the piece?

Erasure, recognition and reclamation all hold complexities when one attempts to define a single event. I have always been interested in layers of meaning, maybe as a result of not having a sense of my identity as something that is fixed and stable. When I was studying filmmaking in Mexico it became clear how evolving symbols and narratives play a part in this. I was very attracted to Latin American new wave cinema and so in a way it has played a part in my work ever since.

U K'ux Kaj is a result of years of research on the relationship between science, commerce and nature, with a particular focus on the overlaps of how language can be expressed or interpreted differently between varying contexts. For the film I wanted to find a point of entry into these overlaps, so the interplay of image, text and geography becomes this conduit, enabling some element of connection between the extremely different worlds that I am attempting to intersect.

For me the act of self-insertion is a way of countering erasure. Bodies, faces, presences like mine seem to be rendered invisible when conversations on space exploration, algorithmic bias, or scientific classification take place. Throughout my life these conversations have been dominated by those who have claimed to know better about the world. Through a neoliberal globalised world, communities are abstracted and generalised to a state where we have lost our own points of reference. Inserting myself evidences ideas of difference and absence in these contested spaces. We are living in a world that has disclosed its wild ‘liveness’ in all its force, a realm where new imaginaries will form and the hidden presence of my ancestors like my great-grandmother, my grandmother, as well as myself, are uncovered.

¹ James Glanz, The Cloud Factories: Power, Pollution and the Internet, published 22 September 2012 by The New York Times, accessed online here

Part of the exhibition


Mónica Alcázar-Duarte: Digital Clouds Don't Carry Rain

16 Feb – 1 Jun 2024
A free exhibition, interweaving issues of indigenous knowledge, colonial legacy and ecological urgency

Find out more

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Introducing Digital Clouds Don't Carry Rain

Highlighting five key motifs from the exhibition

Read blog post | 4 min read

VR Visit

Virtually visit highlights from the exhibition with this VR experience

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Behind the Algorithm: Migration, Mexican Women and Digital Bias

View our online gallery of Mónica Alcázar-Duarte's series Second Nature

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Banner image: Mónica Alcázar-Duarte, film still from U K’ux Kaj / Heart of sky, Mayan god of storms [detail], 2023-24 © and courtesy the artist. Supported by the National Geographic Society.

Images on page: 1) Mónica Alcázar-Duarte, K’aaxal ja’ - Mayan Thunder deity, from the series Digital Clouds Don’t Carry Rain, 2021-2023, © and courtesy the artist. 2) Mónica Alcázar-Duarte, Here to Be Caught, from the series Second Nature, 2021, © the artist. 3) Mónica Alcázar-Duarte, 200 Billion Per Year, from the series Second Nature, 2021, © the artist. 4) Mónica Alcázar-Duarte, film excerpt from U K’ux Kaj / Heart of sky, Mayan god of storms, 2023-24 © and courtesy the artist. Supported by the National Geographic Society. 5-6) Mónica Alcázar-Duarte: exhibition at Autograph. 16 February - 1 June 2024. Curated by Bindi Vora. Photograph by Kate Elliott. 7) Mónica Alcázar-Duarte, Yum Kaax - Mayan Jungle deity [film still], 2023-24 © and courtesy the artist. 8) Mónica Alcázar-Duarte, Ixchel - Mayan Moon and Birth deity from the series Digital Clouds Don’t Carry Rain, 2021-2023, © and courtesy the artist.