La Cucaracha: Pieter Hugo's powerful photographs of death, sexuality and spirituality in Mexico

Black Friday, Oaxaca de Juárez, 2018 © Pieter Hugo courtesy Huxley Parlour Gallery

These photographs by South African artist Pieter Hugo explore death, sexuality and spirituality in Mexico, and are the result of various trips to the country over two years.

Hugo travelled to the industrialised zone of Mexico City, the desert of Hermosillo and the mountainous regions of Ixtepec and San Cristobal, capturing a mix of individual portraits, vibrant and visceral landscapes, interior studies and still lifes.

He calls his series La Cucaracha, which is based on a traditional Spanish folk song popular in Mexico. The upbeat tune tells the story of a cockroach who struggles to walk with two back legs missing. The titular character can symbolise resilience in the face of hardship, becoming a metaphor for the extremes of Mexican life, where joy and tragedy coexist in the fabric of everyday existence.

"Mexico has a particular ethos and aesthetic; there is an acceptance that life has no glorious victory, no happy ending," says Hugo. "Humour, ritual, and a strong sense of community and an embrace of the inevitable make it possible to live with tragic and often unacceptable situations.

"There is a very different relationship with death here to what I am used to. If one looks beyond the clichés of dancing skeletons and sugar skulls, there's a deeply complicated connection with mortality. This necropolitical dynamic is most visible in contradictory expressions of honouring the afterlife, in the Day of the Dead celebrations and the brutal dismemberment of bodies by narco-traffickers.

"Alongside the flamboyance and high-pitched register of this series, there is the ordinariness of the everyday. I am drawn to the fabulousness of the banal and the banality of the exotic."

For the series, Hugo has drawn on Mexican history, as well as cultural, art historical and literary references, such as the mural From the Dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz to the Revolution (1957-66) by Communist artist David Alfaro Siqueiros.

While referencing Mexico's rich visual culture, Hugo's work attempts to investigate how ritual, tradition and community inspire the complex reconciliation between the extremes of life and death. He looks both to rituals of rites of passage, and their associated formal codes of conduct and dress, and also the broader rituals of religion, theatre and community. You'll also see how ritual impacts the physical body, creating compelling portraits that focus on tattoos, jewellery, of sweat on skin and scars.

Pieter Hugo: La Cucaracha will go on display at London's Huxley-Parlour gallery from 19 February until 14 March 2020. Discover more at pieterhugo.com.

First Communion, Mexico City, 2019 © Pieter Hugo courtesy Huxley Parlour Gallery

First Communion, Mexico City, 2019 © Pieter Hugo courtesy Huxley Parlour Gallery

Reclining Nude, Oaxaca de Juárez, 2018 © Pieter Hugo courtesy Huxley Parlour Gallery

Reclining Nude, Oaxaca de Juárez, 2018 © Pieter Hugo courtesy Huxley Parlour Gallery

Bordello, Oaxaca de Juárez, 2019 © Pieter Hugo courtesy Huxley Parlour Gallery

Bordello, Oaxaca de Juárez, 2019 © Pieter Hugo courtesy Huxley Parlour Gallery

The Snake Charmer, Hermosillo, 2019 © Pieter Hugo courtesy Huxley Parlour Gallery

The Snake Charmer, Hermosillo, 2019 © Pieter Hugo courtesy Huxley Parlour Gallery

Brujería, Juchitán de Zaragoza, 2018 © Pieter Hugo courtesy Huxley Parlour Gallery

Brujería, Juchitán de Zaragoza, 2018 © Pieter Hugo courtesy Huxley Parlour Gallery

The Asylum Seeker, Hermosillo, 2019 © Pieter Hugo courtesy Huxley Parlour Gallery

The Asylum Seeker, Hermosillo, 2019 © Pieter Hugo courtesy Huxley Parlour Gallery

Burning Bush, Oaxaca de Juárez, 2018 © Pieter Hugo courtesy Huxley Parlour Gallery

Burning Bush, Oaxaca de Juárez, 2018 © Pieter Hugo courtesy Huxley Parlour Gallery