In Gods We Trust
March 3–April 15, 2023
Minerva Cuevas’s research-based, socially engaged art makes manifest the latent connections between ethno-nationalism, income inequality, the climate crisis, and neo-colonialism. Although born in Mexico City, she traces her roots to the state of Oaxaca, third in poverty after Chiapas and Guerrero, all with high concentrations of historically marginalized indigenous people. She began her practice in the nineties, a time when the art scene in Mexico City became a global force. Cuevas came to prominence with Mejor Vida Corp. (Better Life Corp.), a “corporation” she established in 1998 that practices what she calls “micro-sabotages,” such as distributing bar codes that participants could slap onto products in grocery stores to reduce their price or issuing international student IDs that would allow holders to apply for discounts. Cuevas’s success empowered her to launch rebranding campaigns that took aim at the criminal practices of major corporations such as Del Monte, successor to the notorious CIA-backed United Fruit Co., and its murderous anti-union practices in Guatemala. Much of the artwork of In Gods We Trust follows that rebranding strategy, concentrating on fossil fuel corporations’ hugely destructive impact on the environments and countries where they extract crude. Cuevas also includes mid-twentieth century magazine ads for oil companies. They are jaw-dropping in their racism and unintentionally ironic references to climate disasters, making them powerful arguments against extractive capitalism.
The Trust, made in 2022-2023, fills up an entire gallery wall with a bas-relief of sculpted plastic painted white that includes the Aztec deities Chalchiuhtlicue, goddess of water and fertility, and Tlazoltéotl, goddess of lust and vice. These two make an interesting juxtaposition, given the company that they keep in this mural. We also see corporate logos: the Pegasus of Mobil Oil, the octagonal glyph of Chase, Bank of America’s overlapping hatch marks, Shell Oil’s allusion to a coat of arms, the flower-sunburst of BP, the First Republic Bank eagle, and others. Cuevas equates these gigantic financial and oil entities with gods who power the world’s economies, which in turn provides the money to keep the whole enterprise going, the “fertility” of capitalism. It is our concupiscence for consumer goods, our “lust” for things, that enables these entities to destroy our ecosystems. Just as the gods cannot continue without the sacrifices that are their due, it is we, the multitudes who consume all the stuff and services of late-stage capitalism, that give life to these corporations, our gods. The series of heads of mythic beasts sacred to the Aztecs placed atop vintage oil barrels make a similar point. In Petro 11 (2023), the head of a jaguar, second only in importance to the serpent in the Aztec pantheon, sits atop an old Chevron barrel of universal gear lubricant. By placing the head on the barrel, Cuevas turns it and its petrochemical contents into a deity that we worship to this day, given our continuing fossil fuel dependence.
The pronouncements in the vintage magazine ads for oil companies are so outrageous they seem like parodies. A Mobilgas ad titled, “What’s Joe’s Tank Truck Doing Here?” shows Africans dressed in loin cloths and holding spears standing in front of grass huts and palm trees greeting a Mobilgas oil truck, while one man crouches in the foreground behind some grasses. The copy reads: “In trackless expanses of African desert, where it is 120° F. in the shade of a camel, staring natives are amazed to see motor trucks bringing petroleum products for new and vital uses” as if civilization finally comes to Africa in an oil truck. Other ads compare their products to tornadoes or lightning storms. An Esso ad headline reads “Humble Supplies the Energy of 10 Tornadoes to Power America’s Planes Each Day!” Present-day oil companies might think twice about that headline given that climate change has increased the frequency and intensity of tornadoes and other extreme weather events. While the sentiments in these ads are obviously dated, the fossil fuel industry’s disregard for the environmental chaos it unleashes have not changed. Cuevas, though her art, tells us that we must dismantle these toxic idols before they crush us.