- Associated Press - Friday, July 1, 2011

MEXICO CITY (AP) - Dozens of plastic foam heads rain onto the stage. Four drug traffickers in fringed jackets and sparkly pink cowboy hats bat them into the audience with toy AK-47s. All the while, the cast croons, “Let them slit our throats, let them pack us up … let them not ask any questions, let them not investigate.”

This is cabaret, Mexico style. Las Reinas Chulas, or the Beautiful Queens, parody drug violence in a show the women first produced in 2005 and that still fills nightclubs around Mexico, including a performance in the tourist town of Taxco this weekend.

Like other aspects of Mexican society, violence now pervades the arts. From paintings to movies to opera, the killings and kidnappings that dominate headlines are now the topic du jour for artists trying to process what’s happening to their country. Many artists say they also hope their work helps to spark change in a society that seems to be growing numb to the daily bloodshed.

Dead bodies, blindfolded and hands tied, blot bucolic landscape paintings. Pieces of a car window shattered in a shootout provide material for glittery bracelets that are part of an art installation. A famous narco-ballad about a female drug trafficker who kills her lover becomes an opera.

“Art always tries to talk about where we are heading,” said Ana Francis Mor, a performer with Las Reinas Chulas, who have been invited to perform in the U.S. and Europe. “It’s a thermometer for society.”

Even as the art flourishes, audience reaction and public support have been mixed, mirroring Mexico’s ambivalence about how to cope with the wave of violence that government figures show has so far taken at least 35,000 lives. Other estimates peg the body count at around 40,000.

“Every day we hear about the corruption, the killings, the impunity, and it feels like all of that is closer and closer to us, yet no one does anything, no one says anything” said Semiramis Huerta, a cabaret actress in another show, “The United Narcos of Mexico,” which closes with corrupt police and drug traffickers dancing in a chorus line.

Mexican art has long reflected the country’s violent history, from the murals of Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros that dramatized the horrors of the Mexican Revolution to novels and narcocorridos detailing in word and song the entrails of the drug trade.

Narco themes have been showing up in visual arts for at least a decade, especially in states such as Sinaloa, home to a powerful cartel of the same name, where violence long predated President Felipe Calderon’s late 2006 crackdown on organized crime. But in the last two years, more exhibits have gone national and even international, and the sheer amount of such art has climbed.

A movie, starkly titled “Hell,” about a town overtaken by a drug lord who is also the mayor, swept the Arieles, the Mexican Oscars, this year. A Mexican art installation that reached the 2009 Venice Art Biennial in Italy includes a person mopping the bare floor with a mixture of water and blood.

Painter Ricardo Delgado Herbert showed his portraits of monster-like hit men holding handguns or automatic rifles at an exhibit of Latin American art in Miami Beach in March. The title of the collection, “Glorious Pistols from A to the Zetas,” refers to the Zetas drug cartel, which is notorious for its gruesome violence.

Now the 36-year-old artist from the city of Tampico is working on a series of paintings depicting drug traffickers and soldiers as both saviors and executioners in the Stations of the Cross. It’s his way of expressing how Mexicans are trapped in the crossfire between two forces that are neither completely good nor completely bad, Delgado Herbert said.

The artist grew up in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas listening to corridos and watching low-budget movies about cowboy detectives who chase after narcos.

He began painting the characters with crooked teeth and popped-out eyes in the aftermath of a 2004 shootout between soldiers and gunmen in Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas. He said that’s when he realized “those characters I heard about growing up were among us and were confronting us.”

“My work has been my constant complaint,” he said. “I paint what I don’t like.”

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