Francis Alÿs: Fabiola

Leslie Moody Castro
October 23, 2012

Francis Alÿs’ Fabiola doesn’t require much time of its viewers. A large and ambitious show that has traveled widely, as displayed at the Museo Amparo its strength lies in the combination of the two collections it brings together. The first collection consists of the domestic objects in the Museo Amparo’s holdings, installed in a series of galleries meant to evoke the living conditions of colonial Mexico’s rich and famous. The second of the two collections is Francis Alÿs’ four hundred portraits, found over the course of twenty years in flea markets across the world. Hung salon-style throughout the galleries, every portrait in Alÿs’ collection depicts a Catholic saint named Fabiola. In most cases she is painted in the same pose: in profile and turned to the left, her head covered by a bright red hood that stands in stark contrast to the deep black background. However, the variety of dimensions and materials breaks the homogeneity of Fabiola’s repeated visage. The collection of portraits ranges in size—from miniature portraits to large-scale paintings—and includes prints, drawings, embroidery, mosaics, and even a rendering made from seeds. Her portraits fill the galleries, scale the walls, sit on detailed wooden tables, are found behind glass panels of centuries-old bookcases, and even occupy nooks and crannies of the recreated colonial kitchen.

Francis Alÿs, Fabiola installation at Museo Amparo, 2012; photo credit: Carlos Varillas / Museo Amparo.*

According to the story told in the press release, Alÿs decided to start his own art collection with limited funds. He first turned to the outdoor markets in Mexico and came to realize that Fabiola’s portrait was the most frequently found work of art. The works reproduce the last known portrait of the saint—a painting by Jean-Jacques Henner in 1885—and each replica is uncanny, precisely copied from the now-lost original with few identifying marks to distinguish its copier. Each painting is an imitation—an imitation made overwhelming as the hundreds of Fabiola portraits make the space feel incredibly claustrophobic. Fabiola is literally everywhere. 

The colonial setting of the Amparo’s collection only exacerbates the claustrophobia. It’s organized but there’s stuff everywhere, and among all of this stuff a portrait or two of Fabiola can always be found resting somewhere. Walking through the galleries becomes unnerving as the quantity of portraits overpowers the setting, making the constructed quality of the entire environment blatantly obvious.

Francis Alÿs, Fabiola installation at Museo Amparo, 2012; photo credit: Carlos Varillas / Museo Amparo.*

Alÿs has amassed an exhibition that quietly—very quietly—hits the viewer over the head with information. Or maybe it’s more like a soft poke. Either way, for a show that doesn’t require much time to grasp on the surface, it brings up several deeper points of reflection. The exhibition touches on issues of race and class in colonial Mexico because of its setting. It provides hints at the obsessive nature of art collecting and whether the collection itself is indeed one of fine art or simply of replicas. It’s subdued yet subversive in its layers, and powerful in the sheer number of portraits that comprise the exhibition. Fabiola’s ubiquitous presence forms a quiet statement on class, collecting, and replicating.

*Given the Museo Amparo's silence in responding to our image requests, we have used images from this article in the spirit of fair use. Please contact us should there arise any questions or concerns, and we will happily amend any issues.

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