El Salvador was rocked by civil war in the 1980s with U.S-backed forces aiding in the subsequent killing of thousands that would mark the country and result in the fleeing of thousands of refugees to countries such as Canada. Osvaldo Ramirez Castillo's family was forced to leave El Salvador. The work in Bestiaries is autobiographical in this sense, it is from his personal background, culture and experience that Castillo engages when confronting the horrific while bearing witness to terrible atrocities. The refuge for the refugee is not a place of silence, nor a numbing of a former time. Castillo is capturing the ineffable. The raw, staggering images in the finely drawn details, and gently balanced colour draws one to horrific images of disembodied limbs, decapitations, mad dogs, and blood. These images are evocative of the pre-Columbian mythology, colonial references and civil war upon which he draws.
In the work Origen de un a especie (Origin of a Species) the tattooed image of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, whose hands are clasped in prayer mark the back of a haloed man who appears to be contained in a vase. The vase in medieval iconography is symbolic for the body of the Virgin as a vessel or carrier of life – Jesus as redemptor for the sins of the human race. The man's ghostly right hand is holding a lighted torch; an additional right hand is grasped to a machete. Another man, his left hand is marked by the Stigmata, the additional hand grasps a rope that appears to be attempting to tame the body of Quetzalcoatl whose body snakes throughout the image like a bloody scaled root. Quetzalcoatl feathered reptilian God symbol of death, resurrection and creator of the world. The man’s chest is a series of raw tendons; he sits atop a square pedestal, a magazine of bullets on his hips. The figures appear to sustain rival creation stories, the title of the work yet another. The fight in El Salvador was between the right and left, with different groups claiming legitimacy to rule with the United States backed Junta in power during the Civil War.
In December of 1981, the Batallon Atlacatl was responsible for the largest number of civilians murdered in the Americas in contemporary times, resulting in the death of over 900 people. A bestial fanged-tooth figure stands poised with rifle in hand in La raza Express, nearby are a truck full of sloppy men with knives and elements of American imperialism stuck about them – a Mickey mouse, an I love NY t-shirt amongst other ‘treasures’. The biblical parable has Lazarus comforted in Heaven because he accepted his worldly fate of poverty and suffering. The rich man who refused to help Lazarus was stricken to suffer eternally for his selfish behavior. In Hell, the rich man begs to Heaven for help but the chasm between the two was too wide. The parable references the brutality, and consequential physical suffering inflicted on its victims due to the nature of this horrific event by those in power who made choices as the rich man had in not aiding the helpless on earth. La raza implies a competition or a categorization, life as a race in the western sense (i.e. the idea of progress), biological (Darwinian) and/or the mistaken idea of race as a physical determinate for characteristics.
An extreme expression of anthropomorphism – animal and human hybrids are apparent throughout the work. Human heads are replaced by dogs, birds, reptiles and other species. Allegorically, animals have a role in the Christian view of the world to be under the rule of humans supporting the western concept of domination. Here they are fragmented, falling apart to be sometimes grotesquely reconfigured into things neither quite human nor animal. In Central America, hybridity has a long tradition seen representative of deities, this aspect possibly representative of inherent powers and position in worldview.
Castillo describes his work as a ‘personal act of revision’. How is memory served? How does one bear witness to the atrocities that forced one to flee? History is written by those who hold the pen providing closure to the past through legitimacy of the written word. Revision is always part of any story or history declared. Walter Benjamin claimed that “Naming is that by which nothing beyond it is communicated....”. But naming in metaphorical and allegorical terms does not necessarily provide closure, in this sense, it allows for a wider interpretation, acknowledgement and speaks to truth and reality in infinite terms. Casitillo's Bestiaries is multilayered, complex, multifarious and strikingly powerful in its details and implications. He reminds those who have never experienced war the capabilities of the human species and those left to remember its victims. Leanne L’Hirondelle