Interview with Jorge Rojas
Interview with the Artist, featured in Issue No. 2 of the UMOCA 2021 Newsletter
Tell us about your current UMOCA exhibition in the Projects Gallery:
I’ve created a new Corn Mandala, the fifth in an ongoing series of temporary site-specific installations made from maize that I began 10 years ago. My mandalas are inspired by the significance of corn in Mexican and other Mesoamerican cultures, as well as by other spiritual traditions like Hinduism and Buddhism and their sacred art. But instead of using materials such as sand, flowers, and paint to make my mandalas (as tantric Buddhists famously do), I use corn kernels to celebrate the importance of maize for Indigenous cultures in the Americas.
The mosaics and murals made of seeds and grains in Tepoztlan, Morelos (the state in Mexico where I was born) are also an inspiration. Of course, Native American cultures also consider corn sacred. For instance, among the Pueblo Indians, the different colors of corn represent different directions in space. For the Hopi, yellow represents north, white represents east, red represents south, blue represents west, and black represents “above.” For centuries, the Hopi and other native peoples have grown maize in each of these colors.
I’m also inspired by literary works like the Popol Vuh, an ancient text recounting the mythology and history of the Mayan K’iche’ people, as well as by the 1949 novel Hombres de Maiz, by Guatemalan Nobel Prize winner Miguel Ángel Asturias. In that text, Asturias explores Mesoamerican rituals, sacred traditions and commercialism’s effects on ancestral beliefs and cultural identity. In a similar way, my corn mandalas are about connecting with and rediscovering our cultural heritage.
Can you tell me about the role corn plays in your practice? In material and in concept?
Sure—I suppose there are at least two ways I might answer that question. First, I’m interested in using organic materials like beeswax and corn because they are alive and possess a unique energy. Maize is the sacred food source of the Americas and cultures across the continent have long worshiped Maize as a deity of plenty. The Navajo speak of human prototypes created from corn—and Shaman in many Mesoamerican cultures have used corn as a divination tool. According to Aztec religion, Quetzalcoatl, “The Feathered Serpent” was the god who provided humans with their first corn to plant. The Popol Vuh explains that the archetypes of the K’iche’ Mayas were four perfect humans made by the gods of maize mixed with their own blood. The Corn Mother or Goddess is often linked to renewal of life, fertility and protection. And other Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Olmec, worshiped the maize god as one of the most important sources of life and reproduction. Several figurines found at Teotihuacán were representations of the goddess, with a coiffure resembling a tasseled ear of maize.
But I also use corn because I feel a strong personal connection to it. It carries a rich and ancient history that I embrace and learn from—and my Mexican cultural roots add meaning to that connection. Professor Elena García-Martín has written thoughtfully about my performance work (in the book Performing Exile: Foreign Bodies), and she notes that my art often “moves fluidly between cultural grounds – from the space of Mayan divination to that of Westernized meditation, and from Mexican lucha libre to Western puppetry and international wrestling.” A good deal of this movement reflects my own lived experiences as an immigrant and foreign body in this country—and as Professor Garcia-Martin observes, these identities and themes regularly find their way into my work—“[and] question notions of nation, tradition, and identity… allowing [the artist] to exist as both a citizen and an exile simultaneously.” While I am very much aware of where I come from, and the role my cultural background plays in who I am and what I make, I realize that I am many things, from many places, made up of many cultures, and I’m not afraid to learn about, embrace and find connections between the teachings and wisdom of many cultures around me. I suppose this—as much as any explanation—most accurately captures the intercultural style I’ve developed in my art.
I also feel compelled to point out that at the end of the run of this exhibition, the corn I use will be planted in the earth and live on.
You explore spirituality in your work through your Tortilla Oracle performances and Corn Mandalas. How has that practice changed, shifted, or grown since their inception, if at all?
I feel like all my work in some way explores spirituality, but it has definitely deepened over the years. I’m interested in energy and how it can be accessed, channeled and transmitted through the creation of art. Some of the themes I explore include spiritual histories and interpretations of ancient rites and customs. These works have helped me to understand that I can connect my own spirituality and consciousness with all aspects of my artistic practice.
Both the Tortilla Oracle performances and Corn Mandalas center corn as something sacred. They involve ritual—the act of creating and holding sacred space—and meditation. The ritual involves preparation through fasting and prayer to invoke the Corn Goddess / Madre Maiz and ask for her blessing and guidance. I use corn because I feel a strong connection to it. It carries an ancient history and life force that I learn and draw from, and being from Mexico gives meaning to that connection. Corn mandalas interest me not only for their beauty and spiritual qualities, but also because they can help build bridges of understanding between cultures, creating and opening channels for a flow and exchange of ideas, helping people shed feelings of foreignness.
I love studying symbols and their meanings. In the past I’ve always created my own geometric designs for the Corn Mandalas. But this time I decided to try something new and use a more universal, timeless symbol that I hope will resonate deeply and broadly with the public. I chose my favorite symbol, The Flower of Life – an ancient symbol that holds significance in multiple cultures around the world. It is seen in ancient manuscripts, on the walls of temples and synagogues, and in art. It is believed to represent the cycle of creation and depict how all life comes from one singular source – represented by the circle in the middle of the pattern.
Some believe there is a secret meaning hidden within the Flower of Life, which is said to hold the most significant and sacred patterns of the universe. Others believe it is a sort of blueprint, with the fundamental patterns for everything—from atoms to planets and everything in between—captured inside it. Leonardo da Vinci was known to have studied the Flower of Life pattern, and he derived the five platonic solids as well as the Golden Ratio of Phi from the symbol. Choosing this symbol for my mandala has made it the most challenging and ambitious one to date—but I also hope it’s the most unifying.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with UMOCA supporters?
Yes. Please come and spend time with this artwork. My hope is that it will not only encourage people to think about our relationship to the food we eat, but also serve as an opportunity for meditation and connection. It is meant as a joyful celebration of abundance, fertility, renewal of life, healing and protection—an invitation for our community to be present in visualizing love, embrace presence, and lightness. It is an opportunity for us to decenter dominant conceptual paradigms that run across our world and societies: rationalism, materialism, heaviness.