Mexican’s mural atop Hong Kong Island’s highest mountain draws attention to ‘cocaine of the sea’
Artist depicts two critically endangered species that have been fished to the point of extinction due to demand from southern China
Recently unveiled next to the Peak Tram station near the summit of Hong Kong Island’s highest mountain, a large mural piques the curiosity of the city’s professionals, bystanders and tourists who walk by.
The striking six-metre-high work shows two fish swimming beside each other against a vibrant orange background. They represent two critically endangered species native to Mexico that have been fished to the point of extinction due to demand from southern China.
Jaime Ruíz, the artist responsible for the mural at Victoria Peak, was invited by leading Mexican art museum Museo Tamayo as well as his country’s consulate in Hong Kong. The aim was to help raise awareness of the wildlife’s plight during the city’s Art Week last month.
Ruíz, 32, was born and raised in Oaxaca state, on Mexico’s southern coast. The area is famous for its rich indigenous cultures that suffered heavily under 16th century Spanish colonisation.
“Oaxaca has been an important place even after the Spanish conquest,” he says. “We are lucky because many artists from there have created art institutions like libraries, museums and educational programmes, so I grew up surrounded by art.”
Ruíz studied graphic design at university in Oaxaca and later enrolled in the country’s first contemporary art programme.
As a result, his works connect deeply to his sense of home. They also explore the question of post-colonial identity.
“Identity in Mexico is so important, and in Oaxaca maybe too much,” he says. “My parents are from a village where they don’t have particularly strong roots, so in the beginning art was for me a way to find my identity.”
But now the artist has branched out from his native country to Hong Kong and Asia, and his recent works displayed in the city reflect the many surprising links between the two places.
The bladder of the giant totoaba, one of the two endangered species of fish in the mural, is considered an “elixir of life” in traditional Chinese medicine that can treat a number of illnesses. However, scientists have not yet found any genuine health benefits from consuming the bladder.
“The totoaba is called the ‘cocaine of the sea’ because its liver can cost up to US$60,000 in the black market,” he adds. Ruíz notes the quest for it stretches back to the era of Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor.
Wealthy Chinese also use the fish bladder as a gift or collector’s item. Adult totoaba specimens can weigh over 90kg and are only found in the Gulf of California, off the coast of Mexico.
The sale of totoaba is illegal, but dried fish maws and bladders can easily be found in shops in China.
Fishermen use a special type of net to catch the totoaba. The net also entraps the vaquita, the world’s smallest porpoise, of which there are fewer than 100 remaining in the world.
In 2015, Mexico imposed a two-year ban on gill-net fishing in the creature’s habitat, a long-awaited measure that many conservationists fear is too little, too late
“In the mural I referenced many natural resources in a fragile situation like the totoaba, the vaquita, the gold coin turtle [a critically endangered species native to Hong Kong], and the agave, a plant from Oaxaca,” Ruíz says.
The painting also depicts a Manila galleon, one of the Spanish trading ships that sailed between Spain, the Philippines, China and Mexico between the 15th and 17th centuries.
One precious commodity carried by the ships was the cochineal insect native to Mexico and South America. Its scales are still used to make a brilliant red pigment – one that Ruíz used in the mural as another reminder of the colonial links between Spain, Mexico and Asia.
Of course, the Spanish colonial project to wipe out indigenous cultures in the Americas bears many similarities to the extinction of the native Mexican fish species.
“The ambition of power has led us to seek our extinction,” Ruíz says. “I believe that power can be different, and in the mural I have tried to pose the idea of rebuilding power from our relationship with nature.”
Another of Ruíz’ works, a multimedia installation titled Jonah, was displayed at Kong Art Space during Art Week. Drawing upon the biblical story of a man who is swallowed by a whale and miraculously survives, Ruíz seeks to show the connections between the waters of Oaxaca and the rest of the world.
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“Jonah had an opportunity to be reborn from the darkness, he passed time in the whale,” he explains. “So for me, the question is: if we are on the border of [wildlife] extinction, how can we create moments of rebirth?”
Finally, Ruíz is especially interested in Hong Kong as a post-colonial city, which he claims makes it the perfect backdrop for his art.
“Hong Kong is a strong multicultural place and this particular history between the UK and China is in constant transition,” he says. “Now I have a strong desire to know more about Asia and create real and symbolic bridges with the Americas.”