Lotería Huasteca by Alec Dempster
Lotería Huasteca presents 54 striking woodblock prints alongside text that provides insight into the traditional art, music, food, ritual and dance of the Huasteca region of Eastern Mexico.
Home to an ethnically and linguistically diverse population, the Huasteca region of Eastern Mexico defies geographic and political boundaries and is instead known for its kaleidoscope of indigenous cultures rich in traditional art, music and dance.
In Lotería Huasteca, author, visual artist and musician Alec Dempster illustrates the traditions and music of the Huasteca region with a series of woodblock prints and accompanying explanatory texts that capture the style and history of the region and its people. Organized in the form of the popular household game of lotería, Dempster’s words and images provide a fascinating mix of cultural reference, music history and artwork, which together form an educational game that imparts a tantalizing taste of the vibrant and diverse world of the Huasteca.
2016—ForeWord IndieFab Book of the Year Award,
This is celebration sincere and genuine, an appreciation by an artist whose love for his art and for his subject shines through every print
Categorizing Alec Dempster’s Lotería Huasteca as an art book is tricky. Nominally a book of themed woodblock prints based on an eastern Mexican subculture, the book’s scope is actually far broader. It stretches beyond the merely visual, incorporating history, music, mythology, and even food into a creation that reads more like a tour de force than an artistic collection.
While the theme of this collection is the culture of the Huasteca region of eastern Mexico, the lens through which Dempster views it adds layers of interpretation to his work. His organizational principle is the lotería, an ancient game originally played in Italy and Spain and still played in Mexico. Using a complicated system of cards, luck, and almost arcane traditional interpretations of symbols, it performs the magic trick of producing money from nowhere, generally for charitable causes. Likewise, the cards that Dempster has created, as well as the brief explanations that accompany each one, evoke awe and resonance. It is impossible to read this book without coming away richer in understanding of an old and beautiful corner of the world.
Dempster’s visual work is deeply complex, its individual subjects ranging from innocuous-seeming representations of ordinary life to symbols recalling Jungian archetypes. Though the accompanying text enriches their connection to Huasteca culture, particularly for audiences who might not be personally familiar with the region, the prints also stand on their own quite well. In addition to the contrast of stark black and white, Dempster’s work constantly joins aggressive angles with flowing lines in an active, almost dance-like synergy.
In fact, the images evoke music both overtly and subtly. This is a book with a soundtrack of guitars, tambores, and violins. With a bare few words and a strong musician presence in the artwork itself, the author implies that this culture is inseparable from its music, and vice versa. Just like with the relatively modern sensibilities of cane wine and the musical instrument the rabel, music is woven into Huasteca history and Huasteca history is woven into its mythology. Anyone who cracks the cover of this unique book can expect to find themselves seeking out the melodies that helped to inspire its creation.
It is impossible to look at these prints and not be drawn in, desirous for more. Footnoted and lovingly researched, Lotería Huasteca is a beautiful combination of the author’s lived experience in eastern Mexico, his emotional impression of the Huasteca region, and his zealous self-education about the roots of the culture he celebrates. This is celebration sincere and genuine, an appreciation by an artist whose love for his art and for his subject shines through every print.
Lotería Huasteca reads like a tarot card spread of a vital, mythologically infused world. It’s a land where poets cry out, "Let the music resume!" and a mighty cosmic caiman battles an even mightier corn god. Challenging, fascinating, and often deep, it is a glimpse into an intoxicatingly rich culture and a sure pick for those who appreciate art and for fans of Mexican cultures.
—Anna Call, Foreword Reviews
‘Alec Dempster draws without fear. His gutsy woodcuts are infused with a profound respect for Mexican culture.’
—Kevin McCloskey, Illustration Concentration
‘I highly recommend this book to all relief printmakers. Beyond the enjoyment of the images as a whole, and the opportunity to learn about the history and culture, the expressive nature of the renderings is engaging. The dynamic backgrounds and patterning may serve as a primer for carving and choices in the black and white dance of woodcuts. These qualities make this an important book to use as a cultural and carving reference for years to come.’
—Sarah Whorf, Block & Burin
Excerpt from book
My first foray into the Huasteca region began with an overnight bus journey from Xalapa, the capital of the state of Veracruz. Sleep was difficult due to stops in small towns along the way, and when the bus came to my final destination in Naranjos it was still dark. I dragged my feet and belongings to a place by the curb, beside a tower of freshly made rounds of white cheese placed carefully between moist banana leaves. Eventually, a pickup truck parked in front of the terminal and the driver was greeted enthusiastically by a group of fellow travellers who had assembled around me. It turned out that we were all headed for the same music festival in ’Citla’, an hour’s drive up into the hills. Most of us clambered into the back, and from there we were privy to a majestic sunrise over the rolling hills of the Otontepec mountain range. I had no idea I was setting out on a journey that would eventually result in a book, nine years later.
At the time I was familiar with son huasteco music, having listened to the legendary Trio Xoxocapa at La Sopa restaurant in Xalapa on many a Friday evening. My understanding of the huasteca region was facilitated by Arturo Castillo Tristán (a retired elementary school teacher, poet and cultural promoter) from whom I received a surprise phone call in 2004.
Arturo began by explaining that he was calling from Citlaltepec, and that he admired the artwork and recordings I had done related to the culture of southern Veracruz. He invited me to attend the upcoming son huasteco festival he was organizing, and enticed me with a place to stay and food to eat, as well as a space to exhibit my prints. This was an offer I could not refuse. A few weeks later I was in Citlaltepec, where I quickly grasped Arturo’s real motive, which was for me to become enamoured of the region, its people and its music.
Arturo, who was familiar with my lotería jarocha game, was eager for us to work together in the creation of a lotería huasteca based on the huasteco musical repertoire. Lotería is a game of chance similar to bingo. With origins in Italy and Spain, it has been played in Mexico since the seventeenth century by people from all walks of life. Whether sitting around the kitchen table or in a church courtyard, the players participate expectantly with their printed boards, observing the grid of colourful images as names are called from a deck of cards. To this day its popularity hasn’t waned; the game can be purchased at market stalls or stationery shops all over Mexico. A few pesos may be pooled at the start of each round, increasing the thrill of a possible win. The prizes may be even more enticing when lotería sessions are held to raise funds for initiatives such as refurbishing a church.
The illustrated cards are pulled from the deck by a caller who recites phrases alluding to a standard series of 54 images that include the frog, the ladder, the moon, the deer, the soldier and the sun. There are stock phrases such as "The blanket of the poor ... the sun!" or the caller can improvise something. For the lotería huasteca I illustrated 54 new themes relevant to the huasteca region printed with corresponding quatrains by Arturo Castillo Tristán.
Initially I hesitated to embark on the project since the culture of northern Veracruz and the rest of the Huasteca was foreign to me, unlike son jarocho, the folk music from southern Veracruz, which had become second nature after prolonged immersion, marriage and an inexplicable affinity for the music. The thought of the months it would take to create a completely new series of fifty-four prints for another lotería was also a consideration. Nonetheless, the ebullient weekend in Citlaltepec that followed was all it took for me to commit to the project. I succumbed to the percussive throb of collective dancing, the nimble fantasia of countless violinists, impromptu poetic duels between singers, an eye-opening stroll through a huastecan market and my first taste of zacahuil (an enormous tamale usually reserved for special occasions).
Back in Xalapa, I began in earnest by compiling a list of the traditional songs, called sones huastecos, that I thought might illustrate the new lotería, only to discover that several had the same titles as the sones jarochos constituting my lotería jarocha. To distinguish the two games we decided to focus on the region’s cultural diversity rather than limit the project to son huasteco, which is only one of the many components that define the Huasteca. With the help of huasteco scholars Román Güemes Jiménez and Nelly Iveth del Ángel Flores, I assembled a long list of potential subjects for the prints, which was whittled down to the fifty-four illustrations included in this book.
(Continued in Lotería Huasteca...)
‘The title is quite an understatement. In fact the book is not only a collection of the wonderful woodblocks by Dempster, which in itself would not be bad at all. But it is rather an illustrated encyclopedia of the rich Mexican Huastaca culture all together.
‘The texts accompanying the graphic works open up a completely unknown world to us, of the animals and the people that live in the Huasteca region, of their history and their products, the struggles for daily life and the historic background and myths. We can be pretty much overwhelmed just by reading all about it.
‘In addition Alec Dempster’s woodblocks are puns giving vivid image to the word plays, by combining the information in a humorous and rather surreal way. Just as in reality the game of the Lotería is often played in México by calling the simple name of the object together with a phrase that gives a humorous meaning, each one brings a smile to the readers face, just as if we would be part of the participants in that joyful game.’
Alec Dempster was born in Mexico City but moved to Toronto as a child. He later moved back to Mexico and settled in Xalapa, Veracruz, where his relief prints eventually became infused with the local tradition of son jarocho music. He has produced six CDs of son jarocho and has presented solo exhibitions of his prints throughout the world. Alec now lives in Toronto.
For more information please visit the Author’s website »