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  • Writer's pictureVigilance

Revolutionizing the Universal: Mary Paz Cervera’s Toda Persona.

Updated: Jan 30, 2023

Mary Paz Cervera Todas Personas Tiene Instalation (detail) ceramic and metal 2021

In the 1980s, universalism became a dirty word, and rightfully so. It was long-overdue that what should never have happened in the first place be upheaved; that is, Western colonialism and the creation of its global, capitalist, racist infrastructure along with the construction of the third and first worlds where the West, as the self-appointed first, designated itself the rightful taker from its shackled global south. Like the gendered, racial and class-based inclusivity of a London gentleman’s club, this was, paradoxically, a universalism of exclusivity that functioned through the necessary invisiblization of the necessarily exploited so that the few could reap (one could serendipitously slant rhyme: rape) profits. Sound familiar?

Emerging in the US and the UK academies in the 1980s, however, postcolonial theory ruptured this universalism that was based on dehumanizing, and thereby excluding, the exploited from any access to human rights. It began to give voice to the disenfranchised, the erased, the disappeared and to expose the fact that there is nothing universal about a universalism that kept the majority of humanity out and, with its insidious evolution into the equally hypocritical neoliberalism of the present, is still far from anything ‘post.’ And, yet, is there a universal ‘human’ experience that resides beneath the serrating disparities of the haves and the have nothings? Is it delusionally utopian to even consider this? Can humanity as all occupants of the same earth ever connect, universally, on some level? Is it possible to access our shared ‘humanness’ (whatever that means at the moment)? In her exhibition, Todas Personas, at the Centro de Arte, Queretaro, Mexico, Mexican artist Mary Paz Cervera seems to say ‘si.’ And her ‘si’ resides in revolutionizing the one-sided story of displaced peoples by including the exploiter and exposing the real protagonist in the underside of his creation. Todas Personas presents (or presences) contemporary migration as shared by those struggling to access their human rights, and by those watching from the sidelines from within their tidy and brutal borders: both are imprisoned by the same culture of exploitation.

Mary Paz Cervera Todas Personas Tiene Instalation ceramic and metal 2021

“Todas Personas Tiene,” the first of three installations in Todas Personas, is a series of ceramic heads in cages that look like they have been arbitrarily strewn and fixed where they fell as instantaneous artifacts. Some lay on their sides as rocks one would step over on a path, others look skywards embalmed by indifference, and some continue to stare, dead-ahead, through the viewer, eyes eternally fixed on their right to dignity. There are three cages; each one is a pillar and together, they are a monument that gives voice to those who never make it: to the silenced and the excluded who languish in detention camps on the cusp of the American dream or to those who sacrifice everything to land on the European side of the Mediterranean still alive—and to those who didn’t reach the detention camps at all.

The cages are held together by bands of concrete. These bands of concrete can be seen as the foundations of the border fences migrants risk their lives to somehow get through; but Cervera’s fences, her borders, are no longer linear, a line that could possibly be crossed. The fences, like the buildings of the detainment camps the migrants come up against when they finally get to the border or reach the shore, now enclose the migrants, and the installation is a memorial displaying their remains as taxonomies of no-more-hope.

Mary Paz Cervera Todas Personas Tiene Instalation (detail) ceramic and metal 2021

Immobilized, like temporal dissections, the artist has rendered her heads fixed in a moment in the process of their decomposition. The features of each are incarcerated in their erasure and, through their ceramic stasis, we cannot avoid witnessing individual lives disappear into just another migrant, just another one of millions fighting to access their human rights. In the words of Hannah Arendt, German philosopher and Holocaust survivor:

“Being able to depart from where we will is the prototypical gesture of being free, as limitation of freedom of movement has from time immemorial been the precondition for enslavement.” [1]

Contemporary migrants are doubly enslaved: both in their reason for risking everything to leave the conditions of enslavement in their home countries, to the border fences and overloaded boats where, far too often, after scouring journeys on foot from Central America to the Mexico/ US border and from Central Africa to the shores of Libya, they can no longer depart.

However, those of us reading the newspapers or watching the news-reports from the other side of the fences are there too. Not literally, of course. It goes without saying that it is the antithesis or privilege to be risking your life escaping a war-torn country. However, we are there, in the cages, existentially entrapped by our enslaved condition of stilted empathy for whom the continued colonialism of our nation states and the heartless ideology of individualism is responsible for. Cervera’s representations of human-heads cast aside in their cages tell the tale of oblivious privilege and unacknowledged complicity perhaps more loudly than what they physically represent. Cervera’s heads of our fallen-fellow-humans speak the universal truth that everything is connected, and that includes, of course, those who benefit from their falling.

“Look: you are a part of this making,” Todas Personas Tiene calls as the artist writes

in her statement: “toda persona suma desde varios ángulos, una prepuesta del viaje migratorio/ Every person sums up the migratory journey from various angles.”

MDF y papel periódico 2020

The installation “Derecho a solicitor a reconocimiento de la condición de refugiado” (The right to request recognition of refugee status); “Derecho a la dignidad humana” (The right of human dignity); “Derecho a la libertad de tránsito” (The right to freedom of movement); “Derecho a no a la no discriminación” (The right to no discrimination) ; “Derecho a no ser criminalizado” (The right to not be criminalized); “Derecho a un alojamiento digno” (The right to decent accommodation); “Derecho a la protección de la unidada familiar” (The right to keeping families together) has no name. No single name anyway. All of the human rights listed comprise the whole. Expressed in letters dressed in newspaper articles, Cervera writes the results of each phrase, the inevitable violence in life bereft of dignity. Letters hang from the ceiling. Each letter is a part of a word and each word is a part of a sentence that tells a part of the story of the violence inflicted on those without access to human rights; each sentence is a part of a suspended paragraph as each suspended paragraph criss-crosses with another to defy the linearity of reductionist perception. Hanging as curtains, these barriers of text are not solid, though; the text and the reality that it documents could be pushed aside and walked through—migrated past—towards an anew if we, a todos, really want to.

MDF y papel periódico 2020

Around the corner, there are paintings of the rolls of barbed wire that are so common in Mexico—and all of the designated ‘third world’—lining the tops of walls as finishing touches on forbidden transcendence. The final barbs, so to pun, of keeping the disenfranchised out paradoxically keep the privileged in. These are different kinds of prisons. The wealthy of the third world, those whom one would think are enjoying all the human rights available, risk their safety, their human right to life, by going beyond the walls that protect their privilege.[2]

Divinia Protección 1 y 2 Collage sobre papel de alogodón 130 x 300 cm; 40 x 300 cm 2020

Ambivalence in art is meant to dislodge, unravel the perceived real and offer the viewer a renewed perspective. Through these wall-length paintings of barbed wire, the artist tells the story of the normalization of impassability. The paintings are ink on cotton and, the ink, as the primary medium that documents and records ‘truth,’ was watered down to the extent that it started to wash itself away. The barbed wire, as a quintessential symbol and material of ‘Keep Out,’ is dissolving in its own making and smudges, yet again, into another erasure of all that it represents. Or does it? If this repetition the only thing going on? Or, with a gesture of revolutionary ambivalence, is this a dissolution of exclusion, as the rolls of barbed wire are washed away and offer a possibility for renewal, for making again? Could Cervera’s barbed wire be an act of disappearing colonial erasure and dissolving the barrier from both sides? ‘Si’ says Cervera as she gifts us her paintings of division and violence—again with evocative ambivalence—as Divinia Protección (Divine Protection) and the edges, the barbs, with a joyful wide-open swirl-painted gestures, become an unimpeded migration. Divine. Protected. Mutual.

On the final wall of the gallery space, “Desdibujando Fronteras” (Blurring Borders) is sighted from afar as a flock of birds. The large-scale panel leans against the gallery wall, suggestive of the possibility of falling; within the frame, the majority are, on first looking, birds pressed down linear, each life an immobilized brick. Indeed, even the birds, as the ultimate symbols and lives of liberty and transcendence cannot break free, yet.

Mary Paz Cervera Desdibujando Fronteras 146 x 350 cm 2020

As one moves closer and deeper into the intention of the work, we see that the birds are not only birds. The birds are made of maps of countries, municipalities, and topographies that, like the violence guaranteed when a person is deprived of all human rights, are a relentless grouping of locations and hurdles that a migrant has to get through when they are fighting for their freedom. In Cervera’s fusion of movement and stasis, the map-birds are a metaphor for contemporary migration as they try to fly within a wall that impedes their movement. Others, though, those who have made it to the top, are breaking through. They have surmounted this wall built of deprived freedom, their souring beings beginning to blur the border and fly free—as all life has the right to do.

Mary Paz Cervera Desdibujando Fronteras (detail) 2020

In a 2008 interview, Achille Mbembe explained how: “Postcolonial thinking stresses humanity-in-the-making, the humanity that will emerge once the colonial figures of the inhuman and of racial difference have been swept away.”[3] Cervera’s conceptual roots are the possibilities presented by the school of postcolonial theory that initiated the unravelling of a colonized epistemology (the nature and existence of being) as the way we have been constructed to think we are, and, therefore, always will be. However, artists and revolutionaries like Mary Paz Cervera are building upon what postcolonialism theory started and showing us how, yes, there is universal experience within a world of exploitation because the oppressor and oppressed are different sides of the same prison. The free cannot leave their privilege for fear of losing their freedom; the unfree are kept out so that they can never be free. All is stuck in stalemate. Todas Personas realizes the proposal of Mbembe’s humanity-in-the-making because, in Julie Bindel's words, “[t]he world awaits us.”[4]



[1] Hannah Arendt, German philosopher and Holocaust survivor, quoted in Andrea Dworkin Letters from a War Zone: Writings 1976-1989. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1989: 16. [2] One day, when I was driving with a friend through the Mexican countryside we passed through an exquisite forest of Eucalyptus trees. It was atypical glorious sunny Mexico day and the sun had warmed the Eucalyptus so their spicy intoxicating aroma filled the air. I asked my friend if we could stop and go for a little hike. He hesitated nervously. I said please please. He said it’s dangerous. I continued to say please please, so he begrudgingly agreed and we pulled over. I got out and was looking for a place to actually go for a walk, a trail perchance. We had stopped for only five minutes and my friend said, “We have to go now. It’s dangerous.” As a citizen of the nation state of Canada, where neoliberal extremes have not (yet) absolutely encroached upon our human rights, I am always surprised how the people of Mexico are under siege in their towns and compounds. Even the privileged (or one could say: especially the privileged) can’t roam freely. It’s obvious something is very wrong when people have to have security guards with semiautomatic rifles so as not to risk abduction. [3] Interview with Achille Mbembe 2008 “What is Post-Colonial Thinking” [4] Julie Bindel Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation. London: Constable, 2021: 222.


About the Writer:

Karen Moe is a writer, visual and performance artist and a feminist activist. She has a degree in English Literature and Feminist Theory. Her work focuses on systemic violence in patriarchy: be it gender, race, the environment or speciesism. She has been published in such magazines as Border Crossings, ArtSpace, WhiteHot and Revista 192. She is the editor and founder of this magazine, Vigilance: Fierce Feminisms. Karen has exhibited and performed across Canada, in the US and in Mexico. Her first book, Victim: a Feminist Manifesto from a Fierce Survivor, is being published on April 2nd, 2022. Karen lives in British Columbia, Canada and in Mexico City.

Check out Karen's author website and get the first 21-page preview of Victim: a Feminist Manifesto from a Fierce Survivor.


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