Maria Thereza Alves

Recipes for Survival
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The Return of a Lake


The Return of a Lake, 2012

Installation commissioned by dOCUMENTA 13, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Kassel 2012.

A lake was desiccated in the region of Chalco near Mexico City in the early 20th century.

A Spanish immigrant wanted the land underneath the lake to add to his possessions – he would become Mexico’s second richest man. This catastrophic event in 1908 caused the collapse of the region’s commerce and adversely affected the livelihood of 24 indigenous villages and towns.

This one man-made disaster in Chalco continues to have adverse affects that still plague the region with floods, contaminated water, land subsidence and the resulting destruction to infrastructure such as sewage pipes, large cracks which damage hundreds of houses, lack of drinking water and most recently earthquakes.

In 2009, Alves began working with the Museo Comunitario del Valle de Xico (Community Museum of Xico Valley) who requested that this history be made visible. The Return of a Lake consists of three elements. There is an installation that is a contemporary model of the colonial process in Valle de Xico.

A second element of the work is the re-creation of a chinampa. (An indigenously engineered artificial island for highly productive hydro-agriculture. Before the Spanish invasion in the 16th century, twenty million tons of maize was produced annually in this chinampa region which fed a population of 170,000 people.) The re-creation of the pre-Hispanic chinampa which the artist and the local community of Lake Chalco made is not only the unearthing of the history of indigenous America but also of its culture which continues to be buried by the dominant Spanish culture. It is the unearthing of the different voices which constitute the Americas. It is an ethnography for a continual history of the Americas, and which involves social research, the community and its engagement. What is returning is not just a lake but the possibility of a way of life that includes social and environmental engagement that can allow for a flourishing culture in sustainable development.

The third element is a book which is an artist’s attempt at both solidarity and investigation, at the request of the community which wants their history acknowledged.
The book has been coordinated by Alves as a compilation of the different voices, her own (as a Brazilian artist previously having lived in the Mexico for eight years) but principally of the residents of the Valley of Xico and Tláhuac, and of the committed activists, academics, scientists and historians who have, throughout the centuries until the present day, resisted the elimination of the indigenous social and cultural heritage of the Americas and without European legacy would remain pathetically unquestioned.
As an artist’s book, it shows how artistic practice can work towards expanding the field of knowledge and unveiling traditional, unquestioned versions of history which continue to surface through corrupted political practices and to the detriment of entire communities.

The lake, now known as Lake Tláhuac-Xico (the names of the two communities that make up the area where the lake is returning), is now returning because pluvial waters are being captured by a depression that has formed as a result of land subsidence and the ensuing lowering of the lakebed due to the excessive pumping out of the underground water that is sent to Mexico City.

The Return of a Lake questions the fashionable notion of “post-colonization” with an investigation of how colonial practices such as the ongoing appropriation of native people’s lands, culture and livelihood continue in place as a quotidian reality for indigenous communities and obstruct the possibility of a viable and ecologically sustainable future for all members of Mexican society.

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