Monsters live among us. They’re a crucial archetype of the human imagination. “Cristóbal Cea: No Monsters, No Paradise,” a cunning yet surprisingly adorable exhibition of paintings, 3-D animations, and more at the Boston Center for the Arts’s Mills Gallery, uses monsters to link colonization of the Americas and its attendant horrors with today’s ravages of misinformation.
It’s perfect timing. It opened shortly before Indigenous Peoples’ Day, still haunted by Christopher Columbus, and Halloween is just around the corner. The show is organized by the curatorial duo Julieta Gómez Blumen and Julia Szejnblum, who call themselves Byte Footage.
Cea, a Boston-based Chilean artist, uses monsters, such as giants, that European explorers wrote about as they “discovered” new worlds as inspiration for his 3-D-animated characters.
In 1595, Walter Raleigh reported in his book “The Discovery of Guiana,” that he’d heard rumors of headless men called the Ewaipanoma living along what is now Venezuela’s Caura River. It was a common trope: According to a gallery handout, tales of headless men date back to Ancient Greece and Egypt.
We humans tend to project our worst fears and dearest fantasies onto the unknown. Raleigh also searched for El Dorado, a mythical city of gold. Cea’s landscape paintings, such as the verdant “Holiday in Chaco,” capture the pure bounty of nature, but not gold. Other paintings depict ghostly figures, and 3-D-printed worms sprout from some canvases like fungi. It’s no Eden. Sound artist Constanza Alarcón Tennen adds to the atmosphere with audio of trees rustling and bird calls.
What undiscovered species lurk beyond those trees? What kind of people? What danger? Columbus reported news of cannibals in the Bahamas — a debunked story that continues to fuel debate. Such tales thrilled and terrified God-fearing Europeans. We know what happened as more Europeans arrived; they sought to conquer, convert, and enslave Indigenous people.
But Cea’s animated monsters in several videos are endearingly familiar. Yes, some of them are headless, with faces on their chests. Still, they couldn’t be more emotionally human. They bumble among the familiar architecture of the Mills Gallery. “Ewaipanoma Timido” steps out from behind a pillar, naked except for a cloth around his upper legs; he has no genitals to cover. His giant baby face is pudgy-cheeked. He ruefully speaks about from where he came. “Walter made me up in the Guyana,” he says at one point.
“So I am basically gossip,” he says. “Embodied gossip.”
Gossip often starts small: a whisper, a conversation with a neighbor. Harmless, right? But rumors spread, and the subjects of them can become objects of derision. Those people may become othered. When objectification grows monstrous, othering has historically led to colonization, slavery, and genocide.
Why does Cea present gossip, seemingly benign but the starting point of hatred, in the form of an awkward monster-like character? That character evokes pity and compassion for his plight — and for ours as a human race.
And suddenly, “No Monsters, No Paradise” is more than a history lesson. Cea gently gives form and humanity to the damage a fast-traveling, emotionally supercharged meme — or a conspiracy theory — can do. Indeed, we’re still making up monsters, only in more recent years, they’ve been lizard people who control the world.
His video installation “Forever Waiting” features another Ewaipanoma, this time in a T-shirt and shorts. “I don’t mean to be scary,” he mutters. There’s also a young, bespectacled boy of 3 or 4 in a cap with antlers, wearing a basket on his back with a human foot sticking out — just your random cute cannibal kid.
Albert Eckhout, a 17th-century Dutch painter, traveled to Brazil in 1637. Upon his return, he painted a native Tapuya woman with just such a basket and just such a foot. Eckhout’s painting likely fueled a meme about Tapuya cannibalism that spread around the world.
Cea based this animated child on himself as a boy during a trip his family took to Disney World — a Chilean in an American theme park. Stranger in a strange land.
These animated characters are solid, if lost and alone. Quick line drawings tangle and vanish around them, some that appear to connect to the video monitors’ cables — what’s real, and what’s made up? Cea also introduces characters based on Robert Rauschenberg’s “Monogram,” a taxidermy goat the artist experimented on for years as a work in progress.
In Cea’s show, let’s call it a scapegoat. Using AI, the animator lets the creature transform — goat, dog, cat, two-headed beast — echoing the way misinformation morphs and sometimes turns monstrous over social media.
The only paradise, the only monsters, are in our dreams. Artists are, in a way, like explorers, bushwhacking into unknown territories and recording what they find there. Cea’s references to Eckhout and Rauschenberg don’t judge. I don’t think he judges Walter Raleigh. There’s no good or evil in this show. Just fear, driven by human imagination. And its antidote — compassion.
CRISTÓBAL CEA: NO MONSTERS, NO PARADISE
At Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts, 551 Tremont St., through Dec. 9. www.bostonarts.org/experiences/exhibitions/cristobal-cea-no-monsters-no-paradise/