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La Virgencita or Virgin Mary’s First Feast Day in 2012

Our Lady of Guadalupe in the Basilica of La Villa

Happy New Year! Although faith seems intangible, it can actually be felt at the Basilica of Guadalupe as thousands of people visit the grounds today (and everyday for that matter). January 1st marks the first major liturgical celebration of the Virgin Mary on the Roman Catholic calendar. The Church celebrates the 8th day of Christmas by commemorating Mary’s motherhood of Jesus. And since the Basilica of Guadalupe is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, special Masses are being held there as well as at other Catholic churches today.

Candles are only permitted outside the Basilica for safety reasons

Watching people crawling on their knees, bearing armloads full of flowers, carrying heavy religious statues, lighting row after row of candles, walking kilometers in the name of the Virgin is an impressive site for believers and non-believers alike. Whether the Virgin truly appeared to mazehual Indian Saint Juan Diego 481 years ago or not is irrelevant.

The new Basilica reminiscent of a tent in the desert

Her daily miracle is that of keeping generations of Mexicans going, and weaving a sense of unity in a country splintered by marked socio-economic and cultural differences. Mexico is home to the wealthiest man in the world (Carlos Slim), yet children still die in the countryside from diarrhea; the far-right and the far-left clash verbally, and often physically, on a daily basis; 22 million people vie for space and time in the chaotic capital city. Dozens of indigenous and European languages mix in this urban sphere. Without a doubt, the Virgin is the sole force that unites the Mexican people, rural or urban, rich or poor, liberal or conservative, autoctonous or European. Her existence goes unchallenged even in 2012.

The faithful come from near and far, frequently filling the 10 thousand seat capacity

The grounds of La Villa of Maria de Guadalupe are complex, dotted with buildings of varying ages, some dating back to the 16th century, others unfinished. It is an ongoing project.  There are excellent examples of baroque architecture and paintings as well as modern-day solutions to bear the burden of overwhelming crowds. 

The original Basilica which is slowly, and unevenly, sinking into the swamp land it was built on

Stay tuned … tomorrow we will visit the most important buildings at the shrine.

 

Tequila, Mescal and Mariachis – How Mexican Can You Get?

Tequila, Mescal and Mariachis – How Mexican Can You Get?

MUTEM pays tribute to tequila, mescal and mariachis

Three of the most emblematic symbols associated with Mexico – for better or worse – are tequila, mariachis and charros (Mexican cowboys). The Museum of Tequila, Mescal and Mariachis (the MUTEM, as it is known colloquially) showcases all three!

A typical gala charro (Mexican cowboy) outfit used by Mariachi musicians

This month, the UNESCO recognized Mariachis as Intangible Cultural Heritage (meeting the committee’s stringent criteria, since it is “transmitted generation to generation and continuously recreated during festive, religious and social events; it strengthens the sense of identity and continuity of its communities, within Mexico and abroad”). With this honor comes a commitment from Mexico to promoting this genre of music and foster related research. More than anything, I applaud this declaration because it raises what is seen as a folkloric expression to a more serious level, assuring that Mariachi music remains vital and will, hopefully, be taken more seriously.

Mariachis playing on a chalupa or flat bottom boat in the Xochimilco channels in southern Mexico City

Mariachi music, for those unfamiliar with this traditional Mexican music, is played by a group that varies in size and style. It takes songs from different regions of Mexico – including jarabes, polkas, waltzes, the traditional serenata and corridos, many of which were not written for the express purpose of being played in a “mariachi” format – and turns them into a sound that is unmistakably Mariachi!  The vast majority of lyrics are associated with romantic courtships or rural life, and became recognizable worldwide during Mexico’s Golden Age of Motion Pictures, with actors such as Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete and Luis Aguilar to name a few, who often broke into song intermittently in their films.

A sampling of instruments which give Mariachi music its unique sound

Mariachi bands are made up of guitar, violin, trumpet, vihuela (an acoustic guitar with a rounded back) and guitarron (an acoustic bass guitar on steriods) players. The groups usually range between 6 and12 members, decked out in gala charro outfits with tight-fitting pants (or skirts, in the case of women Mariachis) studded with silver-plated buttons commonly linked with chains running along the side seams, a short jacket, long bow tie and the typical broad-brimmed Mexican sombrero, embellished with portmanteau embroidery and optional sequence.

A collection of hundreds of artisanal tequila and mescal bottles in the MUTEM

Mariachi bands can be heard and hired in Garibaldi Square. Yes, believe it or not serenades are still popular in Mexico, particularly for quinceaños’ festivities, to charm disgruntled novias, at weddings and for birthdays and saint’s days, though given the current economic climate, they are not as ubiquitous as year’s begone since they have become less and less affordable. The musical groups congregate in Garibaldi, which is lined with numerous bars, situated just off the city’s central artery (Eje Central) downtown. That is, appropriately, where the Museum of Tequila, Mescal and Mariachis is located.

A spruced up and renovated Garibaldi Plaza downtown

In the city’s attempt to clean up the “Plaza de Garibaldi,” the zone has been given a recent face lift, including the creation of the MUTEM (last year). Mariachi music has morphed over the years, but it’s roots can be traced back to the state of Jalisco in the 18th century.  The MUTEM is the only place in Mexico City to learn about the history of this music, or about tequila or mescal, which are all intertwined. (There are other tequila museums in Mexico (country) – one in the heartland of Jalisco – in Tequila (city) and another in Guadalajara (also in the state of Jalisco.)

The MUTEM has several displays illustrating how tequila and mescal are made

In order to retain the international honor that the UNESCO has bestowed it this month, Mexico is required to “protect” this living manifestation of its cultural tradition, so hopefully this small, yet comprehensive, museum will take on greater importance, and continue to expand its displays, which showcase the production of tequila, mescal and mariachis!

The open-air roof bar provides a great place to sample hard-to-find labels of tequila and mescal from around Mexico

By the way, the MUTEM offers one of the safest watering holes on the Plaza, since the third floor is the museum’s roof-top bar. The entrance ticket to the museum includes one shot of tequila or mescal of your choice from a broad collection which lines the walls! (Mexican antojitos or snacks are also available at a reasonable price.)  As an added bonus, you can listen to mariachi music to your heart’s content – for free! The best groups on the plaza alternate sets in this open-air space. If you chose to continue your spree, you can sample the agave-based liquors, selecting from a long list of top-notch tequilas or mescals carefully selected from around the country. And, given that the museum and the restaurant-bar is run by the city government, there is no fear of being overcharged or taken advantage of (as is often the case at the surrounding local bars) as your mind gets fuzzy from the libations!

There are hundreds of agave plant species in Mexico, but tequila is made ONLY from the "Agave Tequila Azul" or Blue Anaweber variety of plant, giving it its D.O. distinction

Thus, not only can you learn about the Mexican D.O. liquors – both tequila and mescal have been granted the seal of Denominación de Origen (D.O.) under the international appellation system, assuring that these beverages have been produced in a specific region and comply with stringent quality criteria – and Mexican music, but also sample the music and drink to your heart’s content in a safe environment, at a reasonable price.

The boutique handicraft and spirit store at MUTEM sells unique items you may want to stock up on, either for yourself or for gift-giving!

Be sure to check out the ground-floor museum store, which is brimming with a hand-picked selection of handicrafts unavailable elsewhere. The MUTEM staff travels around Mexico, combing the countryside for unique keepsakes, which it offers at affordable prices at its gift shop.  Plus, the spruced up Plaza now has underground parking, where you can park your vehicle yourself, rather than leaving it with often unreliable valet parking services or having to walk several blocks late at night (very convenient, particularly when your steps are wobbly!).

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Happy New Year from me and a 20 member mega-Mariachi group!

Happy New Year with a Mexican touch! Be sure to check out the MUTEM in 2012!

 

VIDA: The Textured Work of Juanita Pérez

Colombian-Mexican artist, Juanita Pérez in front of two of her works that are part of VIDA, an exhibit at Casa Lamm

Juanita Pérez is an extremely talented, unique artist. Her work is unlike that of any other artist I have seen. It projects her life – layers upon layer of elements built up to produce the final oeuvre, which emits a strong, sensual, energetic message. Her art is hard to describe in words. It is complicated, yet at the same time simple.

Three pieces that are part of her current exhibit

It is a collage of sorts, but not in the traditional sense of cut-out figures, pasted on a stark background. Juanita combines textures, patterns and diverse materials, telling her story in canvases covered with paper, textiles, oil colors and much more. Colombian-born, she formally studied art in the United States before making Mexico her permanent home. Her life narrative is reflected in the dynamics of her work – vivid, colorful, active, complex, rich, profound, coherent and vibrant.

An rich combination of colors, textures and materials makes Juanita's work unique

Many people shy away from abstract art since, unlike figurative art where forms and figures are clearly identifiable, abstract art leaves the viewer much leeway to interact and interpret the pieces – which is often uncomfortable for the neophyte. Juanita reassured me that this is exactly the point of this genre. The viewers “in abstract art have more opportunities of interpretation and freedom to invent their own stores.”  She hopes that her art is a trigger for the viewers to immerse themselves in their own dreams and adapt her images to their own emotional imprints.”  Thus, there is no correct or incorrect way of interpreting art.  According to the visual artist, art is free and open.

Luna y Viento (The Moon and the Wind), a mixed technique (144cm x 168 cm)

Her current exhibit, entitled “VIDA” or “LIFE” is on display at Casa Lamm, a unique Cultural Center which combines classes, workshops, exhibits and a variety of cultural activities. I have a soft spot in my heart for Casa Lamm, since that is where I began my current career as historian-guide-teacher over a decade ago!

Cosas y pensamientos nocturnos (Things and Nocturnal Thoughts), a six piece collection (each 43 cm x 43 cm)

VIDA contemplates and reflects on certain aspects of Pérez’s life and memories. To project these, the catalogue of this show explains that “she has chosen to use (papel picado) to symbolize festivals, remembrances, sacred rituals and childhood. The telling of stories, elaborate games, remembrances of things past, are concealed in the intricate patterns and colors of this integral and powerful manifestation of Mexican life.”

Juanita and I at her exhibit entitled VIDA (or LIFE)

A personal concern of mine is how attached the artist becomes to her pieces. In fact, in previous work, Juanita has included elements as intimate as passports, photos and maps, which are an extension of her very personal life, yet she insists that she is only attached to her work during the process of painting. After she has finished a piece, she lets it go.

Pedacitos de cielo y agua (Pieces of the Sky and Water) showcased on the catalogue cover of VIDA (145 cm x 105 cm)

Be sure to check out Juanita’s latest work at Casa Lamm, which is divided on two floors of the gallery.  And good news – the show (originally scheduled to close January 4th) will be extended until January 20th, 2012!  Her pieces will be available for private viewing after that date, so be sure to drop by Casa Lamm for an uplifting visual treat!

 

Mexico’s New Constitution Museum: Trying to Make Sense of a Complex Legislative Trail

The recently inaugurated Constitution Museum

Mexico’s new Constitution Museum has yet, once again, given a new purpose to what was originally a Jesuit School and Temple dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Abandoned when the Jesuits were banned from all Spanish territory in 1767, the building fell into disrepair, until salvaged almost half a century later by Mexico’s first emperor, Agustin Iturbide, who hosted several Constitutional Congress meetings here in 1823 and 1824. This is where Mexico’s first (or second – depending on how you count – more on that in a minute) constitution was signed by such historical heavyweights as Fray Servando Teresa de Mier and Miguel Ramos Arizpe. Mexico’s first president – Guadalupe Victoria – was sworn into office here as well.

Sparse explanations dot the ex-Jesuit school

Having previously served as a library, a military barrack, a military hospital, a customs warehouse, a home for the mentally ill and an animal stable, it was Public Education Minister José Vasconcelos who commissioned the very first mural here after the Revolution, launching what would become, unbeknownst to him, Mexico’s world-famous Muralist Movement. From then on, the building was assigned to education-related functions, housing the Hemeroteca collection (periodical library) and more recently, the National University’s Museum of Light, an interactive children’s museum.  In August of this year, it was re-purposed with its latest mission, narrating this nation’s constitution history.

Architectural detail from by-gone days add character to an otherwise bland exhibit

Mexico’s history is complex, and its constitutional history is even more complicated, justifiably meriting a museum all to itself.  Its first Constitution, by all counts, is the Constitution of Cadiz – promulgated in 1812 – however, the museum ignores this fact, perhaps because this legislation was handed down by Spain rather than issued in Mexico (however, duly note that the main square in downtown Mexico City, informally referred to as the “Zocalo,”  is formally named  “Plaza of the Constitution,” precisely after the liberal Constitution coming from the Courts of Cadiz – the first Constitution for Spain as well as Mexico, even though Mexico was still known as New Spain at that time.)

Roberto Montenegro's historic mural entitled "Tree of Life," fully restored

The Museum begins its count with the Constitution of 1814, and continues with the Constitution of 1824, the Constitution of 1836, the Constitution of 1843, the Constitution of 1857 and the Constitution of 1917, as well as the Plan of Ayutla, the Act of Reform and the Laws of Reform. It is hard to keep up with all that legislation, which is why this country needs a museum dedicated to all of its Constitutions!  In fact, the name of the museum in Spanish is Museum of Constitutions – in plural!

Details of Montenegro's mural

The exhibit is quite sparse and simple, made up of written texts except for two small, circular showcases. The building, seeped in over 400 years of history, is more impressive than the museum itself. Hopefully, with time, memorabilia and new material will be added to make the museum, and the topic it covers, richer and more interesting.  In fact, the saving grace of this museum (located on Carmen Street #36, on the corner of San Ildefonso downtown) is its backdrop – Roberto Montenegro’s recently restored, seminal work entitled “The Tree of Life” (often referred to as the Tree of Science) – the first mural painted in modern Mexico – and three of his stained glass window designs.

One of the three magnificent stained glass windows designed by Montenegro and Xavier Guerrero in the early 20s

 

Edmundo Aquino, XXI Century Renaissance Man

An oil painting reflecting Edmundo Aquino's abstract leaning

If ever there were a renaissance artist in the XXI century, Edmundo Aquino is one.  His talent spans virtually every genre – from traditional academic drawings, to abstract oil painting, to woven tapestries, to lithographies, prints and engravings, to bronze sculpture to glass art.  You name the art form and Edmundo has mastered it.  Not allowing his creative expression to be hampered by a single artistic form, he continues to experiment with content and form.

The Oaxacan artist in his Coyoacan studio-home

When asked how he categorizes himself, he very politely claims he is a “visual artist” refusing to pigeon-hole himself with a specific adjective, or favorite style.  The eternal iconoclast, he has opted to spurn many well known galleries in Mexico City to afford himself the freedom of expression to promote his works personally, which is why he is perhaps better known in European circles and in the United States than in Mexico, where his pieces are showed with frequency.  To be fair, he does have pieces in the permanent collection of the National Institute of Fine Arts in Mexico, it just seems that he has not been given his due recognition here in Mexico!

Aquino's realistic-academic drawing style, very uncharacteristic of his more favored abstract, contemporary tendencies

Of Zapotec descent, born in the small Indian village of Zimatlan in the Valley of Oaxaca, Edmundo’s creative drive brought him to Mexico City in 1949, at the tender age of 9.  Not only a graduate of the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts, but also a former teacher there (as well as at the Fine Arts School in Oaxaca), his career came at the heels of the Greats who passed through those halls – Rivera, Siqueiros, Tamayo, Orozco, Dr. Atl, some of whom he had the pleasure of meeting personally.

A sampling of the artist's small-format Mexican marble sculptures

Edmundo believes that his greatest achievement has been to live as an artist for over 50 years dedicated to his profession and creative production.  His art is, indeed, a reflection of the many cultures and artists that have touched his life from around the world, which is why he considers himself an heir to the whole tradition of art, and is very motivated by Mexican culture, as well as by all contemporary manifestations of art.   Another rewarding facet of his creativity is the promotion of social and cultural activities in his hometown and other nearby towns and villages in his native Oaxaca.

Glass work - Edmundo's latest passion!

Edmundo has written part of his memoirs, some poetry and many short texts about artistic creation.  His latest challenge is blending his narrative production with a visual accent.  Without a doubt Edmundo Aquino is one of the most versatile and creative Mexico artists around today.  Although the artist is not showing his works publicly at this time, he often participates in collective exhibits.  His next show is scheduled for 2012 at the Casa Limantour in Mexico City.

A new collage-like technique combining his written words with watercolor paintings

 
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Posted by on November 6, 2011 in Contemporary Art, Mavens

 

Day of the Dead is for the Living!

Day of the Dead festivities are so unique in Mexico that UNESCO has deemed them Intangible Cultural Heritage!

Day of the Dead festivities are so unique in Mexico that UNESCO declared this holiday “Intangible Cultural Heritage” in 2003 (and inscribed it in 2008).  A glimpse into this colorful blending of pre-Hispanic ritual with European religion provides an insight as to how Mexican’s view not only death but also life!

This year's altar at the Dolores Olmedo Museum, dedicated to Olmedo and her mother Maria Patiño Suarez

Día de los Muertos is a special period where families are unite with their deceased loved ones.  It is an annual window of opportunity, lasting 24 hours for deceased children on November 1st (actually beginning at midnight on October 31st and referred to as All Saint’s Day by the Catholic Church) and 24 hours for deceased adults on November 2nd (All Soul’s Day), when it is believed that all the spirits of departed return to Earth for a visit home.

Festive paper mache skeletons playing marimba music!

Personalized altars or ofrendas are prepared with much care and thought to welcome them back.  The most common elements include the fragrant cempasuchtil -orange marigold flowers-  and vibrant red cockscomb, as well as copal incense to purify the altar and attract the returning souls.  Candles light the path for the animas to these offerings; religious images (pictures of saints, Virgins, etc.) and crosses incorporate Christian elements; tequila, cigarettes and the favorite foods (such as mole, a typical dish often served at parties) of the succumbed are set out for the more sophisticated adult tastes, whereas toys and candies are placed on the altars to lure children home.

Candies and toys are set out to allure young children back home

Water and salt are musts for the traditional ofrenda (but often forgotten in more modern settings).  Photos or drawings of the deceased and whimsical sugar skulls complete with humorous poems are combined with seasonal orange-blossom-infused Day of the Dead bread topped with crossbones, making the decoration, and personality, of each altar unique – whether it be humble and makeshift or profuse and elaborate – but always a tribute to those no longer inhabiting our realm.

Festivities at Frida Kahlo's Blue House Museum. This Ofrenda is dedicates to Frida (whose image is to the left in the first arch) and Diego (to the far right in the last arch)

Ancient pre-Hispanic tradition blends well with popular culture.  Death was an integral part of life in Mesoamerican cultures.  Miccailhutontli (Celebration of the Dead) and Huey Miccaihuilt were two of but many festivities reported by Spanish chroniclers on their arrival to the New World.  According to XVI century Spanish Monk Diego de Duran, the actual dates dedicated to the dead were moved by the evangelists to coincide with the Christian calendar, thus launching what continues today to be a unique, syncretic holiday.

This offering, housed in the Anahuacalli Museum, honors deceased Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata!

It is no coincidence that Day of the Dead falls at the end of the agricultural cycle.  Halloween, celebrated the day before, rooted in the ancient traditions of the Celtic Druids (Samhain) also holds that spirits return in this season, marking the start of a fallow period of the Earth, when the land is put to rest.  The main difference between these two holidays, both stemming from ancient native agricultural societies, is that Halloween is laced with fear and concern over the returning malevolent spirits (hence the costumes to confuse and trick the spirits), whereas Día de los Muertos is a joyful celebration, viewed more as a time for family reunion.

Mexican comedian and movie star Cantinflas (Mario Moreno) is honored in this altar in the building which housed the first printing press in all of the Americas

Rather than solemn or gloomy, the bright colors and fragrant aromas set the scene,helping guide the deceased spirits home or back to the cemeteries where they were laid to rest, which is why the graveyards are common partying sites.  Thus the living reminisce to the tune of local music, alcoholic beverages, abundant repast, making the annual gathering one of joy and happiness rather than sadness and sorrow.

Catrina skeletons immortalized in a Diego Rivera Mural, alluding to Jose Guadalupe Posada's controvertial political cartoons which mocked the upper class Porifirian crust

Every year the spaces dedicated to public alters change, but the colorful festivities, general tone of joy, and deeply rooted elements remain constant.  Happy Day of the Dead!

A simple, yet elegant, ofrenda in a colonial building in downtown Mexico City

 

Museo de la Estampa – NOT a Stamp Museum but a Showcase for Graphic Art

A sampling of graphic work currently on display at the Graphic Art Museum

The Museo de la Estampa (MUNAE) is NOT a museum dedicated to stamps as this false cognate might insinuate, but rather a museum devoted to graphic art, prints and engravings, inaugurated in 1986 to fill the gap in public space earmarked for graphic work.  Do not be put off by the building’s semi-abandoned, somewhat dilapidated façade, particularly in contrast to the oft visited and highly lauded neighboring Franz Mayer Museum to its left.  Both museums are located on the Plaza de la Santa Veracruz (on Hidalgo Avenue), flanked by two churches (San Juan de Dios and The Santa Veracruz Parish Church built in 1586, one of the oldest in Mexico City, from which the plaza gets its name), behind the Alameda Park, yet the Museo de la Estampa rarely gets its due of publicity, and is seldom visited.

The somewhat abandoned aspect of the building housing the Museum


Don’t miss the MUNAE’s currently show entitled “The Double Fold Dream of Art; 2RC – Between the Artist and the Artifact.”    “2RC,” for those unfamiliar with the art world, is one of the most important and well-known contemporary graphic art printing houses, founded in Italy by Valter and Eleonora Rossi. This itinerant exhibit has already toured the United States (in Chicago, Indianapolis and San Francisco) as well as Russia and Saint Petersburg, Indonesia and Japan, and includes the collective work of 40 conceptual European artists, representative of the contemporary graphic arts movement of the 60s, including Francis Bacon, Lucio Fontana, Eduardo Chillida, Henry Moore (studies for his later sculptures), Man Ray, Julian Schnabel and many, many more.

A colonial structure refurbished to house exceptional graphic work

The 160 pieces on display aim to illustrate the idea behind the title of this show.  Although many art forms are achieved solely by the artist (oil painting, sculpting, water color, etc.), graphic arts, by nature, demand a collaborative effort of many players.  This genre of art is produced through teamwork, as required by the process itself.

Another sample of the work coming from the Roman Worshop 2RC

Even if you are not a fan of contemporary art, be sure to check the MUNAE’s calendar of ongoing exhibits which rotate regularly, since the realm of graphic art is amazingly broad – encompassing pre-Hispanic art (made from clay seals which, by definition, fall under the category of print work) to pieces by Dali or Picasso, part of the museum’s permanent collection, and everything in between, including notable Mexican artists who worked in this medium such as Jose Guadalupe  Posada (known for his Catrina skeletons), and Siqueiros and Tamayo, whose works are shown sporadically.  Definitely worth a visit to the grimier northern edge of the city’s first urban park!

An upclose view of a 1980 work of Victor Pasmore

 
 
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