Now Reading
Jamie Martinez: The Shadow of Colonialism

Jamie Martinez: The Shadow of Colonialism

Installation view. “Jamie Martinez: The Shadow of Colonialism” at Ghostmachine. Image by courtesy of the artist and Ghostmachine.

The inflatable Christopher Columbus “doll” installed in the back of the Tribeca-based gallery Ghostmachine goofily puffs itself up in the gallery’s crowded back corner, confidently sticking out its giant chest to lord sternly over its surroundings as it climbs toward the ceiling. The larger-than-life 15-foot plastic effigy billows out a bloated but familiar narrative of the triumphant conquistador who will always win.

Before it quickly deflates.

The message is clean. It breathes in and out and that is all, giving it an air of purity worthy of Minimalism. But at the same time, The Shadow of Colonialism is complicated and layered. In it, artist Jamie Martinez co-founder of the artist-run space, embraces the absurdity of our present moment. Through his imaginative creation of the “doll” and its repetitive comedic mash-up, alongside clay sculptures based on pre-Columbian archetypes, Martinez, born in Ibagué, Colombia, and raised in the United States, is attempting to understand not victimization but the mysterious present we all live in, astride a couple of beleaguered continents similarly grappling with labored breath and long colonial shadows.

Jamie Martinez, The Rise and Fall of Christopher Columbus, 2024, vinyl, thread, acrylic paint, timer/remote control, and air blower, H 15 feet x W 9 feet x D 7.5 feet

The swaggering ends as quickly as it began as the bulging conquistador suddenly sucks all air out of the room, desperately gasping for the intoxicating power and stature he was fully packed with only moments ago but that now is on the decline after a rapid rise. He is only a perceived threat. Humans are vulnerable but also fleshy and real. Columbus the symbol flattens out messily on the floor, a withering pile of rubbery, in this case custom-made, plastic bravado. The more the compressed air machine hooked up to this inflatable monster, giving him the oxygenated fix he so desperately needs, breathes in and out, the more we realize the cartoon explorer really IS stuffed and not just situated in the corner and that this is neither a good fit nor a good look for him. He is way too big for his cramped, assigned space. There’s plenty of room but Martinez tied him up so he can’t fit in. We notice he is four or five feet too tall for the gallery ceiling when full, with his head and neck undergoing major contortions every time to expand fully. One minute he is pushed up against the ceiling and the space’s lighting and plumbing, the next he is emptily sprawled across the tile floor, fully collapsed, with his deflated face seeming to timidly mutter with the pushed out, mushed together marginalized voices and alternative histories left in his wake, the wake of The Conquistadors.

Instead of easily shaming others for traits perceived as undesirable or shameful by projecting out his dark side, Martinez is asking us to join him in analyzing our own complicated place in the world. He even thanks Summer Johnke, a licensed, trauma-focused Social Worker for her “professional insights and contributions” in the press release.

Certainly Martinez, but perhaps also Johnke and independent curator Emireth Herrera Valdés, who curated the show, born in Saltillo, Mexico and based in New York,quotinge Carl Jung’s wisdom about ‘The Shadow,’ a hidden, repressed, inferior place within us, a gift from our dark animal ancestors but also gilded, sacred and powerful. This artwork is a commentary on that virtual place where colonialism and history intersect with spirituality and mysticism.

Jamie Martinez Ghostmachine
Installation view. “Jamie Martinez: The Shadow of Colonialism” at Ghostmachine. Image by courtesy of the artist and Ghostmachine.

Martinez’s exhibition also features a handful of smaller works including four clay-covered transformed book objects. “Clay symbolizes reclamation and endurance in the afterlife,” Martinez tells me. He also explains that one book, containing the conquistador Hernán Cortés’ letters to Emperor Charles V between 1519 and 1526 recounting Spain’s early presence in Mexico was so full of “conquest and exploitation” that Martinez decided to employ an indigenous tradition to turn the book into an other-worldly power object: he cleansed crystals with salt and water under a special full “worm” moon of March 25th, 2024 in which the early bird gets it. Martinez then uses the energized fluorite to engulf the book object as a symbol of protection from evil. A book about Francisco Pizarro and his brother and another on the “Last Stand of the Aztecs” are covered with green fluorite. Another one on Cortes is adorned with pink crystals. A red book with the word “con” (from “conquistador”) and with other famous Spanish names—Montezuma, for one— peek through the swallowed-up cover, which is decorated with some beautiful hieroglyphs by Martinez.

He has a knack for this sort of sacred cartooning. A giant brown clay shield is also covered with hieroglyphs. Blue and red hands seem to extend out, a possible beak of gold and animal heads are posing questions to the collective unconscious from and to ancient cultures. Aztecs in Mexico, Mayans in Central America, and sophisticated Inca civilizations from the Andes near where Martinez’s people come from in Colombia, a land named for Christopher Columbus of all people combine with other tribes and ideas in both a powerful yelp and a cry for help.

Jamie Martinez Ghostmachine
Jamie Martinez. “Christopher Columbus Trapped,” 2024. Purchased Christopher Columbus ready-made resin sculpture covered with non-fired clay oil paint and green aventurine. H 12” x W 4.5” x D 4.” Courtesy of Ghostmachine. 

Finally, a small resin readymade action figure of Columbus painted gold is completely embedded in clay, transformed into a thick red Michelin Medellin tire man clutching either a tiny ship’s steering wheel or part of an assembly of pipes and valves in an industrial pneumatic air compressor.

Some of the artist books are displayed ritualistically on imitation plantain leaves, reclaiming the “American” narrative, all-but-covered with non-fired clay, acrylic paint, polyurethane, and the natural green worm-charged fluorite that glows in the dark while the giant inflatable Columbus doll presumably sleeps at night.

Columbus first landed on an island in The Bahamas called Guanahani and then traveled to what we now call Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic where smallpox was coincidentally, synchronistically introduced in 1507, where it then spread onto the mainland. There is no evidence of any smallpox-like diseases before the arrival of the Europeans. The native population had no immunity to this new epidemic which then aided handily in the Spaniards’ conquest of the Aztecs and the Incas. The disruptive population losses helped decimate the native populations. The Mayans had disappeared a millennium earlier, by the way, but not their descendants.

Ghostmachine Jamie Martinez
Jamie Martinez. “The Big CON – Letters from Mexico by Hernán Cortés to Charles V of Spain,” 2024. Purchased book covered with non-fired clay, acrylic paint, raw rose crystals, glue, polyurethane, H 12” x W8.5” xD3.” Courtesy of Ghostmachine.

It took fifty years, from 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, to 1542, when the large region the Europeans called New Granada was defeated, for the conquistadors to usurp what was already there—which was plenty. But as if to seal the deal, typhus broke out in 1546, influenza and smallpox together in 1558, smallpox again in 1589, diphtheria in 1614, and then measles in 1618, combined to put an end to the remaining cultures and killing millions.

It all became part of a new Viceroyalty of Peru with its capital in Lima: modern-day Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, Ecuador, and northern Brazil. Civilizations with records that reached back to beyond 12,000 BC were incorporated into the new “hybrid” entity that we know today. In Martinez’s native Colombia, some of the earliest known human civilization sites date back to the Paleoindian period from 18,000 BC.

In that area of New Granada about 10% of the species of the Earth still live today, the most biodiverse place on this planet. It was a search for “El Dorado,” a legendary “city of gold” that lured the Euro-conquistadors across the Andes mountains there. Perhaps the Spaniards eventually found the abundance they were looking for—worth its weight in gold today as well as any gold itself— and grabbed it all. The shadow of colonialism was cast. Shade was thrown.

Jamie Martinez. “After Life Shield, Teotihuacan Spider Woman,” 2024. Mesh, ink, paint, spell, oil paint and oil pastel, non-fired clay, and polyurethane 22” H x 25” W x 5” D approx. Courtesy of Ghostmachine. 

Five hundred years later while reclaiming the magical heritage of this loaded grab bag, how can one beware of baggage? In the media, on the streets, and in social media, buzzwords, and not-so-secret code seem custom-designed to impair original thought and reduce dialogue to a limited database of handy catchphrases, as easily accessed as the funny noises repeated by exotic talking birds found in South America’s precious rainforests. Our language was not designed. It evolved organically from centuries of human activity, much the way the birds can repeat human sounds after millions of years of evolution—without lips.

But while parrots and mynas can be taught to sound convincing and not offend, despite the occasional curse or expletive, we humans can lock people out and keep others confined with syllables, words, and phrases. Our voices, emanating from bags of air can create \ structures, boundaries, boxes, and prisons. Words create fences, shackles, walls, and razor wire. Barked sentences threaten free movement. Random thoughts, syllables, spontaneous experimental conjecture, and speculation, part of “shooting the shit,” can become impenetrable, toxic parameters, and sources of shame. Or the targets of shame.

Installation view. “Jamie Martinez: The Shadow of Colonialism” at Ghostmachine. Image by courtesy of the artist and Ghostmachine.

In this way the complex possibilities of a five-hundred-year-old trope like “Christopher Columbus” can become flattened and lifeless, bordering on meaninglessness. Perhaps that’s what was happening in the 1960s and 1970s when October 12th and then the “Monday Holiday” celebrations of “Columbus Day” became boring and inconsequential for an impressionable public school Boomer school kid like me. It took shouts of “Colonialism!” a few years later to breathe new life into dull classroom discussions. Now those same shouts waiver between destructive war cries and invitations to “explore” relevant but difficult topics. I can now see the early tales of Balboa and Magellan crossing the oceans by boat that I liked as a little kid were romanticized. In fact, the word “romance” evolves from the goings-on in the Latin of ancient Rome, where the root of the word colonization, “colere,” originally meant “to cultivate” or “to till the soil.” To colonize was to be a farmer, to inhabit.

Jamie Martinez’s The Shadow of Colonialism offers a choice: do we want to dig deep into the difficult layers of our history and breathe life into our discussions or do we prefer being superficial and hollow like empty layers of plastic that protect nothing but hot air?

Jamie Martinez: The Shadow of Colonialism was open through June 23, 2024, at Ghostmachine, 23 Monroe Street, NY, NY. 

You Might Also Like

Water-bound Semiotics of Displacement and Refuge

Israeli-born Sculptor Sheds Light on Mexican-American Border Crisis in New Exhibit

What's Your Reaction?
In Love
Not Sure
Scroll To Top