Betsabee Romero, born in Mexico City in 1963, is one of the most recognized Hispanic artists of the 21st Century. Appearing in over 40 exhibitions in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Europe, her work is easily recognized for its incorporation of cars and car parts. Romero describes herself as a “mechanical artist” who makes art from discarded materials, particularly discarded car parts. She describes them as ‘’one of the worst waste products of the automobile industry.” Her decision to use automobiles was made when she visited Tijuana. She described it as “a rugged city, with eight million crossings a year into California, so rich. I saw that the car is a vehicle of meanings that in artistic language I could explore deeply. There, cars are used for everything except to move around and it is the first thing you buy when you cross illegally, to know that you have already passed from one world to the other…The largest yards are there, where they dispose of 10,000 cars a week.”
Romero holds an MFA in Art and an MS in Art History. She connects images from colonial history with the modern experience of the automobile. “Feathered Serpent” (2003) is composed of three used tires on which she has carved the image of the Mayan god Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent. Quetzalcoatl created the universe and humans, and the god represents light and goodness that stand against darkness and evil. In Mayan culture, sculptures of the gods were carved on buildings and also displayed as free-standing works. Natural rubber (Hevea Brasiliensis, indigenous to Brazil) produces a milky sap that is used to supply 30% of the world’s annual production of rubber. As she intended, Romero has integrated Pre-Columbian history with global consumption and recycling to create a relationship between the past and the present.
Romero’s titles are as much a comment on society as are her works of art themselves. “Wheeling Memory” (2003) continues the use Pre-Columbian designs with the addition of the concept of memory. By inking the image cut on the tire, as one would ink a woodcut or a metal plate, Romero uses the tire as a means of print communication. Several yards of the print on paper or fabric stretch between the tire and the background. The concepts of motion, of time, and of distance generate a memory. Car tires leave behind tracks on the street or in the dirt. Tires leave evidence of their presence and their passing, and of the human who drives the car. Cars are indigenous to all contemporary societies. Cars take us to a variety of locations for a variety of purposes and thus create memories.
In “Columpio” (Swing) (2006) (bus tire with chewing gum), Romero incorporates chewing gum, another familiar but generally not recognized medium for art. Chewing gum (chicle resin) comes from the Sapodilla tree of Mexico and Central America. The Aztec and Mayan people chewed it to alleviate thirst and hunger, to clean their teeth, and to freshen their breath. In the 21st Century, chewing gum has many flavors and colors, and Romero involves members of local communities to chew the gum that is pressed into the carved tire to create the design. As one review observed about the chewing gum works, the DNA of the gum chewers is a part of the work of art.
The design on “Columpio” is brightly colored and happy. The design supports the title “Swing.” It calls to mind the energy and emotion of the swing and sway of Latin dance rhythms. The flounced pattern recalls the wide colorful skirts worn by Latin dancers as they click their castanets, stamp their heels, and twirl. The shape also echoes the beautiful fans that women flutter and fold in a seductive manner. These joyful designs are repeated on the wall of the tire and are interspersed with blazing sun-like designs. In combination with the round and potentially rolling motion of the tire, Romero transforms a discarded utilitarian object into a delightful work of art to give cheer and pleasure.
“Black Tears” (Lagrimas Negras) (2011) is one piece from an on-going series of works about human migration and the dangers encountered as persons the world over make journeys in attempts to find places of safety and freedom. They hope their families can earn a living wage, be educated, and find peace at the end of the journey. A world traveler, Romero has witnessed the plight of international immigrants. Some other works addressing the issues are “A Stairway to the Other Side” ((2006), “Exodus” (2008), “Scars in a Mirror” (2011) (19 hemispherical security mirrors), and “Requiem for the Unknown Pedestrian” (2010).
Several pieces of Romero’s sculptures were displayed at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., as part of the outdoor New York Avenue Sculpture Project in 2018 and 2019. She created four new pieces for the exhibition Signals of a Long Road Together. In “Traces and Scars” (Huellas y Cicat) (2018), four tires are suspended one above the other and are engraved with images of mothers, fathers, and children who are running for their lives to escape the horrific conditions in which they live, and those who would prevent their passage. The figures are painted gold, presenting a possible contradiction. If they are gold, do they have gold, so why and from what are they fleeing? Or, is Romero stating that these people are golden and worthy, and deserve a chance for a good life?
At the far end of the photograph is the sculpture “Mobility and Tension” (2018). Eight half tires, decorated with a gold spiral pattern, are suspended in a way to create tension. Will they maintain their secure structure or collapse? The two other tires are decorated with gold and silver images. The tire in the middle-ground has a serpent design and the tire in the fore-ground has a spiraling pattern. Romero commented on the significance of her work: “The automobile is an object that has served as a form and cultural mechanism for me and it puts me in contact with a public that are normally foreign to contemporary art, seeing that we are citizens of the world, beings in transit and circulating within the codes of territorial relationships. The idea of drivers, passengers, and speed are historical and cultural concepts with which everyone has an intimate relationship on a daily basis.”
Romero’s sculptures using cars and car parts are among her best-known works. Her other work includes photographs of painted cars, sculptures of cars and car parts, and installations in memory of those who have died as a result of gun violence, and during migration journeys. These installations include elaborate altars to celebrate the lives of the deceased. Included in her works are cut-paper designs, feathers, and other traditional Mexican crafts. She also includes designs from other religions such as Hinduism and Islam. As often as she can, she invites local people to help with the work and to experience the creative process.
Among her numerous instillations are works for the Day of the Dead. Unlike the death rituals of many countries, where sorrow and mourning are the common theme, the Day of the Dead in Mexico is a celebration of life. It is an opportunity for the family to gather and to remember their relatives and friends. Sugar skulls, sweet churros pastries, and other favorite dishes are set on an altar to entice the dead to visit. Romero’s art encourages feelings of joy and happiness, but also of sadness. It functions to stimulate serious thought. She sums it up this way: “All of us are migrants between life and death. It is a migration that is inevitable and real.”
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.