For Whom the Mountains Pray brings together a mix of materials, techniques and aesthetic strategies to explore the spiritual aspect of femicide in Oaxaca state, southern Mexico. Approaching from the gallery entrance, we see parallel rows of ‘Waterfall Mushrooms’ propped on metal rods, rooted in heavy metal bases. These mark some of the edges of the rectangular space of the installation. The mushrooms are made from papier-mâché, clay and paint, and extend upward and outward like blaring horns or strange flowers. Nourished by organic matter, vital for cycles of life and decay and linked to local ritual and religion, thinking with fungi and their fruiting bodies here offers a way of reflecting on notions of afterlives, healing, survival and transformation.
At one end of the space, the mushrooms lead towards a large, printed Google Earth image of the mountainous territory of La Sierra Madre de Oaxaca, where the remains of victims of femicide are suspected to be secretly buried. Mountains are marked with small, white, semi-opaque rectangles, hand-drawn with pencil. In front of the image is a large metal cross wrapped in gold tape. At the opposite end of the gallery is a fragmented image on paper of Dzahui, the Mixtec god of rain. Running through the middle of the church-like space, between two rows of ‘Waterfall Mushrooms’, a procession of ‘Black Mushrooms’ emerge from a grey brick base. These fungi are close together, and, unlike the ‘Waterfall Mushrooms’, it is not possible to walk between them. Each of these objects represents a stage of a life cycle: reanimated by the songs of the ‘Waterfall Mushrooms’, the ‘Black Mushrooms’ rise from death, pass through life, then descend into death again, forming an arching range.
In the place of missing women and in the absence of remains that could be properly buried and mourned, fruiting bodies spring. And with the ongoing failure of justice, lack of due process or official recognition of femicide, the mountains, according to Blejerman, become a potential mass burial site. Her installation works across the gaps of its different elements to confront and act as witness to gender-based violence and death in the face of disavowal. There is a belief here that artistic process and ritual have the potential to give form and meaning to an otherwise hopeless case. There is also a sense that channelling an idea of the sacred ─ one formed in the ambivalent overlap of pre-colonial Mixtec and Catholic traditions ─ is about mourning and remembrance, amplifying a claim for justice voiced through faith, ritual and the land.
Ghada Habib: How did the project come about?
Helen Blejerman: I was born in Catholic Mexico into a traditional Jewish family. Both ancestral strands of religion were part of our lives as we participated in ceremonies and rituals. As an adult, I migrated to the UK to become an artist and researcher, so exploring religion in connection to loss and finding the methods that would allow the investigation of this pathos was always on the table. The artist Doris Salcedo writes that it requires an artist to think across and beyond disaster. I began this exploration over a decade ago. However, my PhD work started during the global Covid pandemic when the number of women disappearing in Mexico increased to ten a day. I found out in conversations with people visiting the exhibition that the artwork has raised awareness about an ignored topic: in Mexico, as in other parts of the world, women are killed for being women, and justice is conspicuous by its absence.
Last year I exhibited a film that included traditional 3D animation techniques combined with ideas of heaven in Dante’s Divine Comedy. ‘Anima’ in Latin means ‘soul’, and this etymology of animation helped me consider its use as a concept to study the spiritual aspect of gender-based violence. In For Whom the Mountains Pray, I escaped traditional methods and created animation through the non-movement of static sculptures changing in each of the twelve plinths. This type of alternative animation seemed more suitable to understand through wire, paper and clay, what is alive in this brutal and unspeakable context. Visitors to the gallery mentioned that they felt the movement in the static installation, sensing the cycle of life.
GH: Could you please speak a little about this idea of the ‘spiritual aspect of femicide’? And why is it important for you to use the term femicide?
HB: French anthropologist Robert Hertz suggested a correspondence between the corpse’s decay, the bereaved and the soul’s journey. I created a model where fine art practice is at the centre of this interconnection. The work offers art practice as a body to the bodiless experience of the families that have not found their beloved’s remains, and as a language to contribute to the understanding of an unspeakable experience.
Studies have shown that some bereaved individuals suffer profoundly not only from the death of their loved one but also in their relationship with God and their faith. This exhibition adds loss due to murder and the absence of a body and a funeral as a layer to this spiritual relationship.
The work proposes a burial ritual and an afterlife for the unfound bodies, generously releasing nutrients and feeding everything that grows in these clandestine burial sites. The work asks whether, by understanding the soil of these sites and what grows in them, we could add to the socio-political and spiritual knowledge of the families in grief. This exhibition investigates fungi as a symbol of immortality in Oaxaca, of ‘Thanos’. And I wonder if clandestine burial sites due to femicide could be a teacher who shows an aspect of who we are. An aspect that we, as a society, bury.
United Nations Women defines femicide as an ‘intentional killing with a gender-related motivation that may be driven by discrimination towards women and girls, unequal power relations between women and men, or harmful social norms’. Forensic searches in Mexico related to femicide are full of corruption. The term is sometimes omitted in legal trials. Still, when women are killed because of their gender, the family becomes an essential part of an extensive structural network of survivors who fight for the cause with the power of rage. Any word, language or research that helps with understanding the horrendous subtleties of this type of murder and the impact this has on people and the global community is important. It also adds to the understanding of the contemporary experience of being a woman.
GH: You employ paper mâché techniques and materials that are used in rituals in Oaxaca, and draw inspiration from fungi which also have spiritual uses there. What was the experience of working with them?
HB: People in Oaxaca make papier mâché objects and animate them in ceremonies and rituals. The most notable example is the Giants of Oaxaca – a series of immense puppets controlled from inside by a local person. The marionettes’ heads are made of papier mâché and wire, and they dance in the streets amongst the community and neighbours, embodying a ceremony of devotion to the Virgin Mary and invocating God. These gigantic marionettes are part of the local social and religious realm. In the installation, the technique became a tool for investigating the intersections of gender-based violence, topography and beliefs about God and the afterlife.
The papier mâché sculptures create three rows that lead to the bottom of the gallery’s room, where a metal cross becomes the centre of the installation. Although technology has advanced in terms of finding clandestine burial sites, Mexican communities, often in poverty, use a cross made of two welded metal rods to search for bodies. People look for irregularities in the rural landscape and dig that soil, holding the horizontal piece with two hands and digging the ground with the lower point. This is how they find corpses. For a Catholic Society, the tool resembles Christ’s cross and additionally evokes divining techniques used to find metals, water or gemstones. I wonder if this ‘searching cross’ has a powerful and meaningful spiritual role in the psyche of the searchers.
This leads to the mushrooms in Oaxaca and the rites involving hallucinogenic plants. Participants in these ceremonies believed that they could visit paradise to converse with their deceased ancestors and that these liturgies were led by a select group of priests. Burial ceremonies and the lands where bodies are ‘resting’ were crucial to communicating with the dead and forming part of a larger ancestral mythology. The exhibition proposes ‘resurrection’ at the heart of art practice, showing the different stages of the ‘Black Mushroom’ through fifteen objects. I constructed them, and I destroyed some of them. The destruction allowed me to expose the process of making and the stages of the fungus, from its death to maturity and back to the seed of its conception. In this exhibition, fungi are the receptacles of the nutrients of undiscovered bodies, the trumpet that calls for life through its inner waterfalls, and the vehicle of resurrection.
GH: In the installation, short texts printed on paper are placed beside its different elements. Some of this text is informative while some is more suggestive and is reproduced throughout the space. Could you please speak about the role of the text in your installation?
HB: The text is part of this installation’s materiality. I want visitors to think about it as another object that provides a lens through which to understand the exhibition. I used the label next to the works to serve the narrative. For example, one series of labels says: ‘Waterfall Mushroom, praying for resurrection through nature’. The texts are repetitive, like the sound in a person’s mind when praying or the collective whisper in a Catholic church during a service. I like the idea of visitors reading this sentence in their mind as a prayer, and I hope this is part of the installation’s spiritual, mystical aspect.
GH: Many of the concerns you explore in this installation (e.g. burials, nature, remains, healing and transformation) are ones that you have thought about for a long time and through working with different mediums. Is there a relationship between the themes and the movement across mediums?
HB: My art process has not been linear or prescribed. Intuition, imagination and a fair amount of faith have been the pillars of making, and every work asks for its own medium. The efforts are spent exploring a topic through materials. For example, this work tries to contribute to the understanding of femicide in Oaxaca. I hope it also borrows from collective ideas on burials. I hope that every work is completed in the cells of the viewer, and it is like an antenna discovering something that needs to be said or felt collectively through the chosen medium, and it that makes us, you and I, feel less lonely in communion in front of art.
I have a practice led by research, and perform research based in practice. The work is conceived in the combination of thought and matter because art practice is research, and a body through which we see things that happen in the world more clearly and profoundly. I hope the installationwill live on in documentation, archive and the added discussion around femicide in Oaxaca as well as in the bodies, minds and expanded networks of the people that kindly visited it.
For Whom the Mountains Pray was exhibited at Post Hall Gallery, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, 14 – 26 August 2023.
Ghada Habib is writer and researcher based in Leeds.
 Amnesty International UK, Mexico: authorities failing victims of femicide as gender-based violence continues at a terrifying pace (2021) < https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/mexico-authorities-failing-victims-femicide-gender-based-violence-continues> [accessed 4 September 2023].
 United Nations Women, Five essential facts to know about femicide (2022) <https://www.unwomen.org/en/news-stories/feature-story/2022/11/five-essential-facts-to-know-about-femicide> [accessed 4 September 2023].