Margaret Hooks obituary: Irish chronicler of Mexican life and art

Belfast-born journalist and author wrote the definitive biography of activist Tina Modotti

Margaret Hooks

Margaret Hooks


Born: June 7th, 1945
Died: July 19th, 2021

Irish author and arts journalist Margaret Hooks, formerly a correspondent for The Irish Times covering Mexico and Central America in 1985-1991 and perhaps best known as the author of a definitive biography on the Italian-born photographer and left-wing activist Tina Modotti, died peacefully on Monday, July 19th, at her home in Jávea, Spain, from cancer.

Hooks was born in Belfast in 1945, the eldest of six children born to Edward Carson Hooks, a shopkeeper and elder in the local Plymouth Brethren congregation, and Adeline May Hooks (nee Colgan), a homemaker. Growing up in a strict Plymouth Brethren household, she was a voracious reader and a free spirit in her teenage years, and chose not to attend university but left Belfast with her parents’ permission in 1964 for what was to be a tame civil service job in London. She was drawn almost immediately to the bohemian milieu of the youth counter-culture and hippie movement of 1960s London, travelled overland to India twice in the 1970s, and settled in Sydney for several years, before travelling to Mexico City for the first International Women’s Year conference in 1975, as part of a radical feminist delegation from Australia. In the people, culture and art of Mexico, she found a profound source of inspiration and a deep connection, living there nearly continually for the next two decades. It was Mexico that inspired her initially as a writer and ultimately influenced much of the direction of her career as both journalist and author.

Hooks was a frequent contributor to the Sunday Tribune newspaper of news stories from Mexico and Guatemala, when in September 1985 Mexico City was struck by a devastating earthquake. She started writing for The Irish Times in the quake’s aftermath, reporting on rescue efforts and the flow of international aid, along with the ensuing economic and political turmoil for Mexico spawned by the disaster.

Brutality in Guatemala

Over the next six years, Hooks covered events in Mexico and neighbouring Central America for this newspaper. She reported on Guatemala’s tentative attempt at return to civilian rule in the midst of an ongoing brutal counterinsurgency war being waged against left-wing guerrilla groups and the civilian indigenous communities supporting them.

She covered diplomatic attempts by the Contadora group of countries to find a peaceful solution to Central America’s armed conflicts, the controversial role of Israel in arming the military in Guatemala and El Salvador, along with “contra” rebels fighting from Honduras against Nicaragua’s Sandiness government.

She wrote extensively on Mexico’s 1988 presidential elections, by all accounts fraudulent and resulting in victory being denied to popular left-wing candidate Cuauhtémoc Cardenas. She also reported on the controversy over the sale of allegedly nuclear-contaminated Irish milk to Mexico in 1987, following the 1986 Chernobyl disaster that spread radioactive fallout across much of northern Europe.

Hooks’ first book, Guatemalan Women Speak, based on a series of interviews with women affected by the armed conflict in that country, was co-funded with a grant from the Irish Catholic aid agency Trócaire and published in 1991 in London by the Catholic Institute for International Relations.

Hooks’s next book, Tina Modotti: Photographer and Revolutionary, was published by HarperCollins in 1993 to critical acclaim. Deemed “a definitive biography” of the Italian-born photographer and left-wing activist by the New York Times, the book was a Kraszna-Krausz Book Award Finalist and was shortlisted for the prestigious Infinity Award on excellence in writing about photography. Tina Modotti: Photographer and Revolutionary has been published in eight languages, including French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Polish, Turkish and Korean and was recently reprinted in new Spanish and English editions by the publishing house La Fabrica, in Madrid.

Arts writing

In 1996, Hooks became the Mexico correspondent for ARTnews magazine in New York, and after moving to Miami a year later as contributing editor for the magazine, continued to pursue her passion for writing about art and artists. In addition to numerous articles, essays and reviews appearing in ARTnews, the Daily Beast, Grand Street, AfterImage, Vogue, Aperture, Elle, the Observer Magazine and other publications, her subsequent books include: a monograph on Tina Modotti for Aperture’s Masters of Photography series (1999); Frida Kahlo: Portraits of an Icon (2002); Tina Modotti: Photographs (2005); a monograph on the work of Catalan photographer Manel Armengol (2007); Surreal Eden, on the creation of a surrealist sculpture garden in the Mexican jungle by the English surrealist, poet and arts patron Edward James (2007); and her last book, Surreal Lovers: Eight Women Integral to the Life of Max Ernst (2017). She was also the translator of the autobiography of the late-Austrian psychoanalyst and feminist Marie Langer, From Vienna to Managua (1989).

Preceded in death by her parents, she is survived by her husband of 36 years, Michael Tangeman; by her three brothers, George, David and John Hooks; sisters Ruth Lee and Pauline Keir; sons Jonathan Gibb and Iain Edgley; three nieces, Adele Lee, Emily Hooks and Rebecca Hooks; two nephews, Danny Hooks and David Hooks; and four grandchildren, Freddie Gibb, and Kim, Reece and Lauren Edgley.