Color in Two Vibrant Cultures: Contemporary Mexican and Cambodian Art

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Historically, cultural traditions in Asia and South America have played a large role in artistic style and content in those respective regions. From ancient pictographs to passionate paintings depicting a region’s triumphs and losses, art records memories of millennia past. Symbols of the past can still be found in modern art. In Mexico, pieces may combine the culture of the Aztecs with Catholic symbols. Cambodian artworks might depict traditional colors and a remembrance of the pain caused by the Khmer Rouge genocide. While adding a modern touch to their works, contemporary artists in Cambodia and Mexico use traditional symbolism and color in different ways to pay homage to their respective cultures. Teang ‘Din’ Borin and Favio ‘Curiot’ Martinez are examples of such contemporary artists that each take inspiration from their individual countries and cultures.

Hundreds of years ago, Khmer art was etched into the walls of prominent Cambodian temples. Many ancient documents, books, and artworks were burned during the Khmer Rouge during the 20th century. This unfortunate erasure of history has left behind very few pieces of art from ancient Cambodia. Wall carvings in the surviving temples, such as Angkor Wat, are some of the last remaining examples of the ancient Khmer style of art. These carvings often depicted royalty, soldiers riding war elephants, and Apsara dancers. Apsara dancers, which have been present in Khmer culture since the 7th century, actually originated in Buddhist and Hindu mythology. According to Hindu mythology, the dancers were beautiful female nymphs from heaven that protected the gods from mortals by hypnotizing them with their slow, mesmerizing dance movements (Carruthers). The Khmer people believed these angels would bring good fortune and fertility to the royal family. Traditionally, the dancers wore ornate headdresses in gold, colorful silk costumes, and jewelry on every limb. They would also bend the fingers back in an elegant shape, representing the blooming of a flower. The Cambodian born self-taught artist, Din, would often travel to ancient temples with carvings of Apsara dancing and use them as a reference for his paintings (Pisei).

Din began his career as an architect, but his paintings are a departure from structure – they often depict the graceful, fluid movements of Apsara (Pisei). Din takes the symbol of a traditional Apsara dancer and places it over an abstract background. Many of the dancers appear like they are floating. Din often paints a monochromatic background on his canvas and then uses pops of color to highlight the features of the dancers, making them stand out (Vachon). This creates a beautiful balance of the bold colors and ethereal atmosphere. In the piece, ‘Apsara’, Din uses a bright scarlet background and, for contrast, a turquoise costume on the dancer. He also adorns the dancer with a gold headdress and golden jewels. In Khmer tradition, gold represents fortune and red represents power and strength. The turquoise accents are a pop of fresh color, displaying the balance between traditional and contemporary aspects of the Cambodian culture. The use of color in this piece is powerful, and complements the elegance of the dancer. It is interesting to note the rigidity of the dancer’s arms in this piece, especially when compared with the whimsical skirt. While the black undertones near the dancer’s hips give structure and form, that is lost as the skirt disintegrates into feathery shards. This highlights the elegant movement of the dancer, while the upper body displays the precision and strength required for Apsara dancing. This effect provides a seamless transition from the dancer’s body to the background, uniting the dancer with the ether. Although this painting significantly highlights only a few colors, they are bold and bright.

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Rather than idolizing angels, the Aztec people revered nature and animals, and their art reflected this admiration. Their art also included spiritual iconography. “The gods were often depicted, and they themselves often resembled animals of various kinds. The drawings of the gods were often sharp and angular, brightly colored” (Ancient Aztec Art). One example of this is ‘Quetzalcoatl’, who was a powerful deity thought to be a mixture of a plumed bird and a rattle snake (Cartwright). In the modern Mexican culture, art can often depict these same Aztec gods, or perhaps warriors, interacting with natural objects like the sun, water, snakes, and birds. These pieces typically use a lot of bright color, which may relate to the significance of color in the Mexican culture. The Maya people were able to create vibrant colored dyes from their natural surroundings. From bird feathers to tree lichen, these native peoples used the plants and animals around them as a source for red, blue, yellow, green, and more. These dyes could be used to color wool for clothing, or to decorate the faces of those being sacrificed to the gods. People used the resources available to them in that region, which is now Mexico. This rich history of color can reveal much about the cultural traditions of the ancestors of the Mexican people. “Color is such a subjective thing, but in Mexico it is a powerful inheritance from pre-Columbian ancestors” (‘What Colors Tell Us About the History of Mexico’).

Curiot is a Mexican artist who also uses gods and mythical creatures in his art. His imagined creatures are inspired by ancient cultures where people worshipped gods associated with animals or natural phenomena, such as the Aztecs. Curiot uses sharp angles and vibrant colors to interpret the mythical deities in his art, mirroring the artistic style of the Aztec people. However, Curiot enjoys “creating characters that are part of tribes and cultures that end up having their own history” (Curiot). He does not simply wish to retell old tales, but to create his own history by adding a twist to the traditional symbolism and imagery. The artist also adds human elements to many of his paintings to show the imbalance of nature. Curiot’s piece, ‘Cosmic Dance’, depicts a vibrant mythical deity. This being has feathers on its legs, an ornate, mask-like face, knees that resemble Quetzalcoatl, and a torso made of cosmic dust. Curiot uses a cornucopia of colors to depict the dancing deity, who seems to have a humor to its movements, reminiscent of a court jester. He also incorporated skulls along the figure’s neck, perhaps as a reference to the history of Día De Los Muertos in Mexican culture (Jobson). While this design is heavily influenced by the artist’s ancestral history, it is made modern through the use of vivid colors that the Aztec people did not have access to during their time. The deity contained inside Curiot’s imagination truly comes to life in this piece.

Din and Curiot each use culture, color, and imagination differently in their works. Mythological creatures combined with a modern flair are featured in both artist’s work. The culturally significant beings in each piece are portrayed in a similar pose. Din uses this pose to pay homage to traditional Apsara dance movements, while Curiot uses the pose to give personality to his imagined deity. While Din’s character has no defined legs and seems to float, Curiot gives his whimsical creature legs and a platform to stand on. This is interesting because it contrasts the supposed use of color in each piece. Both Din’s and Curiot’s pieces are brightly colored, though Din’s dancer and colors give a feeling of peace while Curiot’s piece is energized and whimsical. Din chose to use a few meaningful colors, intentionally chosen to reflect the tradition of Apsara and make the dancer stand out from the solid background. Curiot’s background colors are less contrasting than Din’s, yet the Aztec-inspired character still jumps off the canvas because it contains so many bold colors. Both artists chose to use meaningful colors in their respective heritages with a modern twist; Din uses the Khmer red and gold with a pop of turquoise and Curiot uses a highly pigmented version of the Mexican red, yellow, and green with other colors as highlights. Both artists use bright colors to create a vivid landscape that the viewer can almost jump into; these pieces spark the imagination.

Comparing art from Cambodia and Mexico is intriguing because both cultures seem to place emphasis on color and on ancestral heritage. The Cambodian and Mexican people have survived through tremendous tragedies, yet the contemporary art seems to highlight the positive aspects of history and the incredible strength of their people. These themes are present in ‘Apsara’ and ‘Cosmic Dance’, along with a modern understanding of effective color usage. These two pieces demonstrate that one should not forget where they come from in the pursuit of originality. The use of traditional themes and colors breathes life into contemporary art, which is evidenced in both Cambodia and Mexico.

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Color in Two Vibrant Cultures: Contemporary Mexican and Cambodian Art. (2023, March 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 17, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/color-in-two-vibrant-cultures-contemporary-mexican-and-cambodian-art/
“Color in Two Vibrant Cultures: Contemporary Mexican and Cambodian Art.” Edubirdie, 01 Mar. 2023, edubirdie.com/examples/color-in-two-vibrant-cultures-contemporary-mexican-and-cambodian-art/
Color in Two Vibrant Cultures: Contemporary Mexican and Cambodian Art. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/color-in-two-vibrant-cultures-contemporary-mexican-and-cambodian-art/> [Accessed 17 May 2024].
Color in Two Vibrant Cultures: Contemporary Mexican and Cambodian Art [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Mar 01 [cited 2024 May 17]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/color-in-two-vibrant-cultures-contemporary-mexican-and-cambodian-art/
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