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Francis Alÿs paints Ciudad Juárez

The Economist writes about Francis Alÿs’s new exhibition at David Zwirner, which depicts Ciudad Juárez through various small paintings. Alÿs, who has lived in Mexico since the mid-1980s, doesn’t shy away from Juárez’s history of conflict. Read the article in partial below, or in full via The Economist.

IN REACTION to the destruction of a city, Picasso painted “Guernica”, depicting the bombing of the Spanish town in 1937. Though the painting was widely celebrated, Jean-Paul Sartre later expressed scepticism that it had ever “won over a single heart to the Spanish cause”. For Sartre the painting sidestepped political reality by turning “cruelty into abstract figures”. This same question, of art’s usefulness in the face of massive human suffering, provides the animating force behind an exhibition by the Belgian-born artist Francis Alÿs, at the David Zwirner Gallery in London, about life in the once prosperous U.S.-Mexico border town of Ciudad Juárez.

It is a well-known, though still shocking, statistic that over 60,000 people were killed in Mexico’s drug wars between 2006-2012. The residents of Ciudad Juárez have suffered a terrible share of this violence over the years—for a time the city had the highest homicide rate in the world. Along with the gang violence, a worrying proportion of murders in the city have become known as feminicidio, the gruesome murders of women. As many as 1,500 women are thought to have been killed in this way in Ciudad Juárez since 1993.

It might seem unlikely that an artist like Francis Alÿs would be able to engage in any meaningful way with life in Ciudad Juárez. He is known for a poetic and absurdist mentality, sending a peacock as his representative to the Venice Biennial of 2001, for example, or arranging for a troop of Household Cavalry to march through the centre of London in 2004. Yet the sensitive and understated works on display here pack a powerful punch. Mr Alÿs has lived in Mexico City since 1986, and frequently collaborates with artists from his adopted home, so he is no uninformed outsider when if comes to life in Mexico.

*Francis Alÿs, “Linchados,” 2010. Oil on canvas on wood. Image courtesy David Zwirner