Alec Dempster explores roots via images and words

Ontario artist Alec Dempster was born in Mexico but moved to Canada with his family when he was five years old. He recently came out with a unique two-fold expression of his heritage with the book Lotería Jarocha: Linoleum Prints, published by The Porcupine’s Quill, and with the CD, Nuevos Caminos A Santiago (New Roads to Santiago), produced by Anona Music. Lynne Van Luven talked to Dempster via email, after listening obsessively to the CD and reading his book.

Alec, I’m a bit confused about the “birth order” here: which did you do first, the book or the CD, and how did one give rise to each other?

First, in 1999-2000, I did the prints which appear in the book. Then Kali and I released our first CD in 2006. We released our second CD, Nuevos Caminos a Santiago, in May 2012. Around that time, I had already started writing the texts for the book. Composing, arranging and recording was very absorbing. I wasn’t able to think about anything else. The same occurred with the writing of the texts. I didn’t stop playing, but I was not creating much new music–although we were working on eight new compositions in the same period with support from a Popular Music Grant from the Ontario Arts Council. We were a bit late submitting our grant report because I was so involved with the book project and then promoting the launch.

I have been to Vera Cruz, Mexico, and to Xalapa as well, so I did know a little bit about “son jarocho,” but I was totally ignorant about the role Lotería plays in Mexican and Latin American social life. Can you explain it a bit more for this gringa? It seems to have a vital cultural importance.

I was attracted to lotería because the graphics are so engrained in Mexican popular culture, even though most of the images aren’t very “Mexican.” The loterías I have created have more Mexican iconography than the traditional lotería. It does raise the question of what and who is Mexican. I am like that in a sense: born in Mexico but not brought up with lotería by parents who are not Mexican. However, I was exposed to a broad range of Latin American and Spanish culture, mostly through my father’s friends. The cultural importance of lotería has to do with the fact that most people in Mexico played lotería with their parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters and cousins. I have seen people really enjoy the playing of the lotería but I think the pleasure lies as much in the fact that the family is doing it together as in the playing of the game itself. I have also seen it in more public social events such as church fundraisers in outdoor venues. There are certainly places where more importance is given to the lotería as a past-time like Cosamalopan in Southern Veracruz. I have heard that Campeche has a unique version of the lotería. I am not sure about Northern Mexico. In order to do my loterías, I  did not do a lot of research into the game itself. I did some but my focus was on the themes I had chosen for my loterías.

As you just mentioned, you have a fascinating background: you were born in Mexico City, came to Canada as a young boy, and then were raised in Toronto. How old were you when you returned to Mexico to live, how long were you there, and what were you looking for?

I must have been about 20 when I returned to Mexico for the first time, and my Spanish was quite basic. I went to see the film Danzón which takes place in Veracruz, and enjoyed it but didn’t understand much of the dialogue. I knew enough to get around and stay out of trouble — it seems I was there on two occasions for a month each. The second time I think my grandfather had given me some money to take driving lessons but I spent it on a plane ticket, and I still don’t know how to drive.  The first trip I had no expectations but planned to visit a small town in the hills called Quetzalan, because I had a vague recollection of the place . . . there where some striking photographs my parents took when we went there and I must have been about three. Other than that, I spent time in Mexico City visiting museums, markets and also Tepoztlán, where I eventually lived for a year. Although I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, I was extremely happy being in Mexico. It helped that my hosts where my padrino and his wife, two of the most generous people you could imagine and extremely connected with diverse aspects of Mexican culture. Good cooks as well. I ended up very taken by Mexican artists such as the muralists, and Tamayo as well as Toledo but Mexico City is also a place where you are likely to see exhibitions of contemporary art of all kinds from all over the world.

The linocuts in Loteria Jarocha are beautiful, and the descriptions you have created of them teach a reader a great deal about this aspect of Mexican culture. Are these stories and images in danger of being lost as the great wheel of Americanismo grinds away at your birth-country’s traditions?

The word “Americanismo” has a different connotation for me. I  know you mean USA which is definitely imposing itself on Mexico as it does all over. Canada also is exploiting Mexico’s mineral resources. A Canadian project to do open air silver mining close to the Port of Veracruz has been put on hold due to grass-roots resistance. Stories are always in danger of disappearing without the pervasive influence of foreign cultural domination. However, stories and traditions also have the ability to resist, as well as absorb new elements. Good things have also come from the US, such as the remarkable interest in son jarocho from people living in California to name just one state. The result has been culural exchange, economic growth for instrument makers, and musicians who are constantly travelling to the USA. to teach and perform. This year, three different groups that use son jarocho as an important part of their music were nominated for awards. That said,  there are languages disappearing, ceremonies being forgotten and many stories  are no longer passed on from one generation to the next.

You sing with your wife, Kali Nino, on Nuevos Caminos a Santiago. Is your musical group Café Con Pan something new, and how does it tie in with your artistic self?

Our musical collaboration goes back quite a few years, but Café Con Pan became something quite different and more ambitious since we moved to Toronto in 2009. We had performed here before that but it is only recently that we have made such an effort to forge our own identity within the framework of son jarocho. We continue to play the traditional repertoire but are also playing our own songs which we want to be recognized for. I feel like two different people, the musician and the visual artist, but they complement each other because my visual art often adorns our CDs, posters and even clothes that we wear on stage. I fell fortunate to be able to jump from one art form to another while I also realize that sometimes one discipline will require complete attention. It is not always possible to juggle the two.