Artist’s discussion Saturday, August 3, 1-2:30pm
The indigenous people known as “Cora” live in western Mexico’s rugged Sierra del Nayar mountains in the state of Nayarit, bounded by the states of Sinaloa and Durango to the north, Jalisco to the south. The Cora’s remote and difficult to reach location, combined with with their fierce response to Spanish conquerers explains why they retain so much of their pre-Hispanic belief system within a loose Catholic framework.
The Coras or Náayerite, as they call themselves, were not subjugated by the Spanish until the Sierra del Nayar region was conquered in 1722 by Juan de la Torre. It was incorporated into the Crown’s lands under the title of the New Kingdom of Toledo. The Jesuits then took charge of evangelizing the indigenous people in the region and gathered them into towns founded around mission churches. After the Jesuits were expelled by the Cora in 1767, the influence of Catholicism became intermittent and remains so today.
Santa Teresa, with about 1,500 inhabitants, is one of the most remote of the villages in Nayarit. From Guadalajara it takes 10 to 11 hours by car to reach there. The road is rough and the villagers like it that way, better to maintain their isolation and keep outsiders away.
Celebrations are held all year round in Santa Teresa, but the most important is the “Judea” Holy Week celebration which incorporates Catholic customs and symbols with Cora beliefs in a entirely unique way. While there is a Catholic priest who says Mass at his home in the village, no priests are involved in the celebrations, and activities all center on the church built in 1874 by the villagers after the Jesuit-initiated church was destroyed. The Judea celebrations are nominally Christian and they depict the death and resurrection of Christ in the larger context of a battle of good versus evil.
Judea begins on the Wednesday before Easter. In the morning men with tall sticks run around the periphery of the village to mark its boundaries and “Close the Glory.” In the afternoon families gather in the church and receive blessings from their patriarchs.
On Thursday morning men and boys gather at the home of the “Guardian,” a village elder who assumes this position for five years. He and his group of respected village elders or “mayordomos” form a brotherhood that oversees the Holy Week activities. Outside his home, males of all ages paint themselves in black and white and undergo a symbolic metamorphosis into “judios” (Jews) or “borrados” (erased ones). The atmosphere is raucus and there is much jostling leading to the onset of mock battles that will take place over the next three days. Some of the older men wear a traditional woven straw hat with leather details, while younger men favor hats covered with brightly covered ribbons. In earlier times, the men wore short white pants of folded cloth, but today many are in jeans or cutoffs.
Off to the side of the Guardian’s home, women decorate eggs with simple dyes and a black paint. Later these were placed throughout the plaza by an old woman. On this day, women are not allowed to wear their hair in braids or pulled back with combs. In the afternoon they gather in the front of the church and submit to symbolic hair cuts. Throughout the afternoon groups of painted men roam around the village looking for the “Centurions,” two men on horseback. In the front of the church interior a wooden stairway that seems to harken back to a prehistoric stgepped pyramid leads to the elevated altar. Candles and greenery line the sides of the stairway and the church is thick with decorations made of natural materials like palm fronds. In the early evening a procession of all the townspeople departs from the plaza and slowly circles the village. The wooden saints from the church are placed on small paliquins and held high above the crowd. Women carry bowls with burning copal and the air is filled with its smoke and perfume. Back at the church the saints—Teresa, Joseph, Anthony, James, Michael the Archangel, the Holy Child of Atocha and Our Lady of Sorrows—are kissed and blessed before being covered again under the watchful eyes of a small group. The Centurions on horseback continue to ride in and out of the plaza on their horses, one white and the other black.
On the morning of Good Friday the town is quiet except for the sound of drums and flutes in the background. In the church, eight women gather in a corner with a huge bag of cotton bolls which they clean of burrs and then gently stretch out into flat, round discs. Little girls clean fresh flowers and place them around the church. The elderly church cantor pulls out his book of handwritten songs and shows it to us. Suddenly a large group enters the church. Palm fronds that have been blessed are distributed to members of the eager crowd who will take them home for good luck in the coming year. And at 12:20 pm, just as the crowd calms down, the judios storm in and begin to destroy the steps leading to the altar. There is mayhem as the altar is stripped of its decorations and the steps are demolished, symbolizing the crucifixion of Christ. Just outside the church, men read imaginary text on banana leaves. Others begin to collect their sticks, a sign that something is about to happen. The two Centurions ride into the plaza on their horses and ritual battles begin. Another procession with the wooden saints circles the town and the church is quiet once again. At 3:30 pm a black shroud in the church, Santo Entierro, the symbol of the dead Christ, is decorated with the cotton discs representing clouds and ribbons. Two hours later the shroud is carried in a quick, soundless procession around the village. The Centurions appear once again and the battles continue and strengthen in intensity throughout the evening and into the night.
On Holy Saturday the exhausted warriors continue to wage war, and men with drums and flutes continue to make music, always in the background. Two donkeys appear with a man in a curly black wig, perhaps a signal for the borrados to storm again into the church. They separate into two groups with an aisle in the middle and lay down on ther floor, writhing as if in pain. Historic photographs of the Judea show the borrados sliding on their backs out of the church and onto the plaza, but this group stays inside. Soon they run out. As one of the few humorous moments in the four-day celebration, they lift the skirts of young girls amid screams and laughter, looking for the Centurion. Inside the church a small ceremony takes place with seven people who are blessed with sticks with ribbons. Across the plaza a group of men assemble in heated discussion. Fireworks go off, the Centurions ride out of town and Judea is over for another year.
About the Artist
The photography captures both the stunning high peaks and remote mountain ranges of Asia, as well as the living cultures and religious ceremonies in the faraway regions of the Great Himalayan Range, the Ghats of Varanasi, India, rituals in Guatemala and Mexico, and the stone monuments of Cambodia’s Khmer. Frej’s transcendent photography will transport the viewer to these places of mountain grandeur and still vibrant religious practice.
Frej and his wife Anne first visited Nepal in 1981 on a month-long trek around Manaslu, the eighth highest peak in the world. Inspired by the practice of Tibetan Buddhism they encountered in remote mountain villages, this trek led to a lifelong quest, documenting both the world’s highest peaks, as well as the resilient people living throughout the roof of the world.
They returned to Nepal in 1982, and in 1985, they took a two-year sabbatical walking to the base camps of the world’s highest peaks. Starting in the mountains of northern Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, the Frej’s walked over 3,000 miles on their personal pilgrimage through Pakistan, India, Nepal and Tibet. Throughout this sojourn, Asia’s highest peaks and their outposts of remote civilizations and religions provided a wealth of subject matter for photography, documenting peaks, people and ceremonies seen by only a few.
Their quest continued over next three decades, until the present, returning to the Himalayas many times, living in Central Asia and Afghanistan, and documenting not only mountains, but ancient religious ceremonies that still define a way of life for Asia’s Hindu, Bon and Buddhist peoples. Frej’s June of 2018 visit to the Indian Himalaya retraced the steps of India’s devout holy men, the Sadhus, to Gaumukh glacier, the source of the holy Ganges, and continued through Ladakh, visiting 24 remote monasteries and participating in ceremonies at Lamayuru and Hemis Monasteries.
Frej has also spent considerable time the past five years documenting both the religious rites of Mexico’s indigenous communities and the contemporary Maya, and the ancient cities their fore-bearers so skillfully created over a millennium ago. His images of Semana Santa, Dia de los Muertos and the Feast Day of San Ildefonso transport us to a place that imbues strong transformational power.
In 2014, his one-person photographic exhibition Enduring Cultures was featured at Galeria La Eskalera in Merida, Mexico. It included black and white and color photography from Afghanistan, Upper Mustang, Nepal, and San Agustin Etla, Oaxaca, Mexico. His photography was featured in a major exhibition which opened June 2015 at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, titled Tradicion, Devocion Y Vida: 80 years of Black and White Photography in New Mexico and Mexico. His photography on Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico was exhibited October-December 2015 in a one-person show at Peters Projects Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A number of his photographs were exhibited at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in their exhibitions Chimayo: A Pilgrimage through Two Centuries and Mirror Mirror: Frida Kahlo Photographs, in 2017. He was selected to participate in an exhibition titled Faith in New Mexico at Editions One Gallery in Santa Fe.
Peyton Wright Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has mounted several major exhibitions, including: The Maya, Photography by William Frej, 2016, of 32 large-scale, black and white photographs of Mexico’s remote, off-the-grid Mayan ruins; Ancient Kingdoms, Hidden Realms,2017, an exhibition highlighting the Mayan and Khmer kingdoms; Ritual of the Cora, 2019, documenting the Holy Week ceremonies of the Cora people in the Sierra del Nayarit, Mexico; Maya Ruins Revisited: In the Footsteps of Teobert Maler, 2020, a unique pairing of archival material with Frej’s current imagery of the same locations; Seasons of Ceremonies, 2021, chronicling religious rituals in Yucatán, Chiapas, and Oaxaca, Mexico and Rabinal, Guatemala; and Travels Across the Roof of the World, 2022, with his wife Anne Frej, chronicling a sweeping yet intimate view of the breathtaking peaks, splendid valleys, and extraordinary people of the Himalaya.
Frej’s photographs were also featured in one-person exhibitions, Nomads of Kyrgyzstan in Almaty, Kazakhstan in 2008 and Himalayan Pilgrimage at the Museum of Asia and the Pacific in Warsaw, Poland in 1998. His photographic work Taninbar to Tibet was featured in a one-person show at the Duta Fine Arts Museum and Gallery in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1991. Mr. Frej’s other exhibitions include the Tucson Art Center in 1972, The Eye Gallery in San Francisco in 1977, and the San Francisco Arts Festival in 1976 and 1977. His photographs of Peru received purchase awards from the San Francisco Arts Commission and the San Francisco Arts Festival in the 1970s.
His photographs of the Himalaya, India and Africa were featured in the Edwin Bernbaum book, Sacred Mountains of the World and his photographs of India’s Tilwara camel fair were highlighted in Adventure Travel Magazine. Mr. Frej’s photographic work is represented in numerous public and private collections throughout the United States, Europe and Asia.
He is represented by Peyton Wright Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
His book of black-and-white photographs, Maya Ruins Revisited: In the Footsteps of Teobert Maler (Peyton Wright Gallery, 2020), has won sixteen awards. His second book, Seasons of Ceremonies: Rites and Rituals in Guatemala and Mexico (Museum of New Mexico Press, 2021), has won thirteen awards including four “photography book of the year” awards and the Gold Medal Best Photography book for 2021 from Foreword Indies/Foreword Reviews.
View the current catalog