What Can We Learn From the History of Guatemala's Grills?
National identity is fluid, it evolves over time as power structures shift, influences change, and the world becomes increasingly interconnected in the wake of globalisation.
As national identities ebb and flow, so do cultures of adornment; delving into the history of adornment offers a unique insight into the similarities and differences that tie the modern world to ancient civilisations. Whilst practises of adornment connect us to tradition, they also highlight an inherent human trait that cuts across cultures, generations and even civilisations: vanity. Tooth embellishments are one of the oldest forms of adornment, for centuries communities have used their mouths to express status, strength, claim spiritual connection, mark wealth, and conform to trends. In contemporary society, adornment tiptoes the fault line between cultural appropriation and appreciation; but the cyclical history of tooth embellishments serves to show that the borrowing and exchanging of cultural elements is inherent to the modern world, and is something to be celebrated.
Archeologists once thought that grills originated in ancient Egypt, having found teeth woven together using a gold wire dating back to 2500 DC, before dispelling this as a misunderstanding and concluding it was actually an Etruscan phenomenon, worn by the upper echelon of women in society, solely for aesthetic purposes. Across the globe, in Central America and Mexico, the Maya civilisation developed their own iteration of tooth embellishments using their most precious stone, jade. Centuries later, in the late 70s grills started re-appearing in predominantly black, urban neighbourhoods of New York City, gaining momentum as a styling accessory before being adopted by the likes of Slick Rick and Big Daddy Kane in the 80s. Today, grills are the hallmark of hip hop; a cultural community that reaches across the globe to the farthest enclaves of the Guatemalan highlands.
Stretching across undulating terrain of all varieties; valleys, mountains, lakes and volcanoes, Guatemala has around 360 microclimates, owing to their wealth in natural resources. Endowed with gushing rivers, expansive lakes, and fertile land; flora and fauna are their currency, something that was overlooked when the Spanish pushed forward with their bloody conquest, searching for gold that wasn’t there. Guatemala’s national identity has been likened to a cultural mosaic, cultivated by a complex history of conflict, exploitation, and natural disasters; from the tumultuous Spanish conquest to the thirty-six-year civil war. Photographer Juan Brenner originally returned to his native Guatemala to document the long term repercussions of conquest; using his camera to prompt uncomfortable questions and offer answers on how the country’s ruinous history of conflict, conquest and colonisation has changed the social, economic, and environmental landscape of Guatemala today.
Brenner’s first photo book captured the heaviness of the culture, but he continued shooting to highlight the lightness found through the country’s participation in a globalised world, his new photo-book Genesis looks at the new Guatemala emerging in the highlands, which is all grills, tik tok, and hip hop culture. Globalisation plays a part in the liberation of Guatemalans from their dark history; offering freedom and autonomy, he remarks, ‘I don’t care about the history anymore; it’s about what is happening now’. Brenner’s body of work shows the evolution of national culture in the rural highlands that was once an epicentre of trauma, he photographs heavily adorned mouths with gold grills and tooth embellishments, hands clad with flashy rings clasping iphones. Brenner is fascinated by the circular narrative of gold in Guatemalan society: the Mayan royalty once adorned their mouths with precious stones, and the Spanish originally conquered the country in pursuit of rumoured gold reserves; fast forward 2,000 years after the Maya civilisation, and 500 years after the conquest, Guatemalans are once again adorning their mouths with gold, but not to honour their ancestors, “they’re doing it to show they have power, and to look cool”. Brenner notes, “Most of the stuff they put in their mouth is cheap shit from China. Mouth, oesophageal and intestinal cancer have tripled in the region, the dental technicians even have to sign wavers, but they don’t care, they want to look cool, and nobody should stop them. None of this is sad, it’s globalisation”. To illustrate the fluidity of culture with the passing of time, he points to an image of a young family having a picnic on a Tuesday lunchtime on what was once the main site of ruin during the Spanish conquest, the mother is pictured wearing traditional attire, but the rest of the family are not, he says ‘this scene is so important in capturing what is happening right now, people were starving here fifty years ago’. He points out that the colourful costumes adorned by Guatemalans in the highlands deemed to be traditional were originally created by slave owners out of the need to provide uniforms for the enslaved; Brenner’s body of work is important in detangling our concept of national identity whilst honouring the past, he asks why we hold onto damaging practises reminiscent of a painful past for the sake of preserving ‘culture’; culture should be allowed to evolve to serve those who are directly affected by it.
The circular history of grills and mouth embellishments is not just about the evolution of a trend, it teaches us something much bigger about the interconnectedness of culture. Firstly, by highlighting the mutual indulgence in vanity across ancient and modern civilisations, and secondly, this narrative shows the fluidity of culture and national identity, teaching us how the borrowing and sharing of cultural practises is productive, important, and impossible to avoid in a globalised world.