The Necro-Jewelry of Teresa Margolles


Ever since she was a member of the group SEMEFO[1], Mexican artist Teresa Margolles chose the morgue and the violence-ridden streets of northern border town Ciudad Juarez, Mexico as her atelier. Against popular misconceptions, Margolles mostly works with non-organic materials containing traces of life, rather than practicing directly with corpses and human detritus (mopping with blood in a Venetian palace being one of the exceptions).

The pungent media  (including blood-stained sheets from corpses, body fat, bullet-pierced walls, and even water used to wash dead corpses in forensic studies) that sustain Margolles’ equally aggressive discourse against violence take on conceptual compositions but involve an emotional realism. Her artworks touch deeply on humanity’s fears and taboos.

The artist confronts visitors directly with subjects like violence, death, and remembrance, which are frequent themes in her artistic production. “The nameless and anonymous victims draw attention to inhuman relationships in modern overcrowded societies.”[2] While exploring the link between general social malaise and individual death, the artist focuses particularly on the massacres and executions associated with political crisis, organized crime, drug-trafficking and police brutality.

Originally from the City of Culiacan in the State of Sinaloa, arguably the “capital” of the Mexican drug trade and much of the death that comes therewith, Margolles is “up to date” on the looks, fads and fashion trends of drug-traffickers.  In El Enjoyado, the artist has created a similis to a Catholic rosary. While the profound -albeit ironic- devotion of most drug dealers is implicit therein, the piece mostly serves as testimony to the brutality of the acts behind the materials used in its forging. The vestiges of many aggressions are transformed by the artist into “gemstones” which, instead of being precious stones, are pieces of glass that come from the shards of crashed car windscreens, broken homes’ windows and, in some cases, the bodies of the victims themselves. Addressing her choice of inlay, Margolles says, “I wanted to take the value away from these jewels and replace it with their score-settling incidents, so that they can see their deaths.”[3]

The ornament is overwhelming gaudy and intentionally designed to look like the stereotypically flashy jewelry worn by drug dealers, particularly murderers.  Upon closer inspection, El Enjoyado is a loaded socio-political statement that demands the viewers’ full attention. “While the golden watches, earrings, chains and bracelets are draped as though on display in a jewelry store as vanitas symbols, the valuables directly refer to the sudden, unexpected deaths of these people.”[4]

Margolles, however, does not stop there. She created and then videotaped a daily performance where a survivor of one of these violent encounters was asked to wear the necklace while floating through the canals of Venice. Every day, the performer opened a safe, took the art piece and wore it as though in religious penitence. Such repeated procession is documented in a video that forms part of El Enjoyado, together with the above-described piece of jewelry. It is important to note that the performance was made during Margolles’ presentation entitled What Else Could We Talk About?, that was curated by Cuauhtémoc Medina and central to the Mexican Pavilion during the Venice Biennale in 2009 ( 53rd International Art Exhibition).[5]

Teresa Margolles has developed a unique, sharp but undisclosed, visual language that speaks loudly for the silenced subjects, the victims discounted as “collateral damage”, and the nameless numbers behind the statistics.[6] Through compositions like El Enjoyado, which forms part of the Adrastus Collection, the artist strongly raises her voice to join the campaign against violence.

[1] “SEMEFO” was a short-lived artist collective that emerged from UNAM in Mexico City during the 1990s (1990-1999)  which name stands for “Servicio Médico Forense” , the latter being the forensic medical service, an office of the federal government of Mexico. The artist collective was formed by Teresa Margolles, Arturo Angulo Gallardo, Juan Luis Garcia Zavaleta & Carlos Lopez Orosco.

[2] “Teresa Margolles.” LABOR. Web. 4 Dec. 2015. <>.

[3] Moitra, Tehezeeb. “ArtworldNow : Teresa Margolles: Ajuste De Cuentas (Score Settling).” ArtworldNow 4 Mar. 2013. Web. 4 Dec. 2015. <>.

[4] “Exhibitions: Teresa Margolles Frontera.” Art Exhibitions in Kassel. 14 Apr. 2010. Web. 4 Dec. 2015. <>.

[5] In this exhibition, held in the interior of the Rota Ivancich Palace, Teresa Margolles installed a group of cleaners to once a day mop the floors of the building with a mixture of water and blood of murdered people from Mexico. “Teresa Margolles.” Mor Charpentier. Web. 4 Dec. 2015. <>.

[6]“Teresa Margolles.” Mor Charpentier. Web. 4 Dec. 2015. <>.