‘s litmus Mariana Magdaleno

Text by Mar Gámiz


Photographs by Toumani Camara

What do a coyote and a noctuid moth have in common? The answer is, without a doubt, difficult to come across unless one looks at the animal world with Mariana Magdaleno’s sensibility.

On one hand, in her drawings, she is faithful to the animal’s anatomy while emphasizing its human parts. Traced with a fountain pen and using watercolor, her animals are also people. Or vice versa. The hybrid they create constantly reminds the spectator of their animal nature, but it also speaks of the symbolic content that we have invested in animals.


The coyote, for example. In Mexico, it is found throughout the country, especially in valleys and semi-arid areas. Those that protect their sheep and hens from the claws of this nocturnal predator have recognized the coyote’s ability to hunt their prey and have created legends around it. Some say the coyote is magical because it holds a ritual around the tree where the hens sleep to incite them to come down, allowing it to hunt them. Others tell the tale that, many years ago, the devil challenged God, telling him that whoever reached a mountain first would keep the other’s herd. A dog herds God’s sheep while a coyote herds the devil’s goats. As was to be expected, God won, but as he collected his reward, he tells the devil that he will keep the entire herd except for the coyote; the devil is to send him to the desert.


The night, the desert, God’s rejection: they are all part of the coyote’s symbolization, to the point that its name was chosen to refer to the designated driver in charge of crossing illegal Mexicans across the border.

One of Mariana’s hobbies are good luck charms. One day, walking through a street market, she found one that came with the coyote’s prayer; it begins thus:

Beautiful little coyote: By the virtue God bestowed upon you with your Powerful Amulet, which you carry on your head, lend it to me so I can do with It what I please; get out of prison and allow me to win whatever game I play, always. Deliver me from any enemies I may have. And let any and all women fall in love with me, be they maiden, widow or married.


From then on, she began a series called “Beautiful little coyote”, where she made sure she used the symbolic power of the animal as well as its natural savagery.


Coyotito hermoso / Mariana Magdaleno from Moebius Tv on Vimeo.

While this load of meaning regarding the animals is important in Mariana’s artwork, the need to draw their shape with the precision of a scientific illustrator is none the less significant; thus when the opportunity came about to show her work in the Museo Universitario del Chopo, she decided that the exhibition would be set organically regarding her pieces, given that said location began as a museum of natural history and then turned into a museum of contemporary art.


That’s where Mariana discovered not only the pictorial qualities of the noctuid moth, but also its scientific name, ascalapha odorata. This nocturnal butterfly carries its penance in its name, since it remembers Ascalaphus, the proverbial blabbermouth that hindered Proserpina’s exit from the underworld. While it is true that Ascalaphus was turned into the ominous owl [1] by Ceres’ (Proserpina’s mother) rage, it is also true that another one of its characteristics was that it was a nocturnal bird, from which the moth’s name was taken.


The ascalapha odorata is known in Mexico as mictlanpapálotl (butterfly from the country of the dead) or miquipapálotl (butterfly of the dead), also related to the dark and negative. However, as was mentioned above, Mariana Magdaleno discovered that, if one is to look at it from up close and against a backlight, the wings of the noctuid moth reflect iridescent litmus colors.

So, what do a coyote and a noctuid moth have in common? That they are two animals that have different aspects depending on how you look at them, from a symbolic universe or from a scientific one, two perspectives that Mariana Magdaleno uses to turn them into art.


1. Ovid describes the transformation: [After denouncing that Proserpina has squeezed the juice of the seven grains of pomegranate, thus breaking the conditioned fast for his return] “But now a queen, she with resentment heard, and chang'd the vile informer to a bird. In Phlegeton's black stream her hand she dips, sprinkles his head, and wets his babling lips.  Soon on his face, bedropt with magic dew, a change appear'd, and gawdy feathers grew.  A crooked beak the place of nose supplies, rounder his head, and larger are his eyes.  His arms and body waste, but are supply'd with yellow pinions flagging on each side.  His nails grow crooked, and are turn'd to claws, and lazily along his heavy wings he draws. ll-omen'd in his form, the unlucky fowl, abhorr'd by men, and call'd a scrieching owl. ” Cf. Ovid, Metamorphoses, V, 540-550.


Mariana Magdaleno's tumblr:

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