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Monthly Archives: August 2011

So That’s What Half the Population Gets?

The facade of the recently inaugurated Women's Museum

According to the INEGI, Mexico’s National Statistics and Geography Institute, more than 51% of this country’s total population (of 112.3 million) is female.  So how can a space as tiny as that of the Museo de la Mujer – The Women’s Museum – be expected to reflect the history, achievements and role of women in society, while doubling as a cultural center for programs related to women’s studies? It’s a tall order to begin with, and the UNAM (Mexico’s National Autonomous University) funded site, inaugurated earlier this year falls far from its goal.  It is inexplicable how a 15 year project could end with such meager results.

A view of the Bolivia Street, where the museum is located, somewhat off the beaten track in downtown Mexico City

It is bad enough that women are not taken seriously in this society, that equality remains a myth,  that all but a handful of women hold top level positions in both public and private spheres and that women are systematically discriminated against,  but a first attempt to honor this gender and trace its importance historically fails miserably.  Housed in the long forgotten and abandoned Publishing House of the University, the small colonial structure (located on Bolivia 17) has been painstakingly renovated.  Although the admirable architectural outcome does not offset the fact that it is in a remote, inaccessible, low traffic zone on the periphery of the Centro Historico, the architectural makeover itself is the sole redeeming aspect of the museum.

The ambitious list of themes, divided into 8 rooms, are lofty and unattainable:  (1) Equality, Universal Principals of Harmony; (2) a Dual Cosmovision of Ancient Mexico; (3) the Virgin Mary in Viceregal Mexico; (4) Women at Home and Insurgent Women; (5) Freedom and Education; (6) From Teachers to Revolutionaries (7) Women Citizens; and (8) From the Women’s Revolution to Modern Times.  The flow is poor, the signs are spotty, the guards are unprepared.

Given that Mexico is recognized for its outstanding museography and innovative solutions related to cultural displays, this long awaited site is nothing short of a let down.   Not even the valuable art works of renown Mexican painters such as José Luis Cuevas, Francisco Toledo, Guillermo Ceniceros and Esther González, as well as sculptures by Federico Silva, Sebastián y Glenda Hecher which dot the exhibit can atone for the lack of cohesion and research.

If this museum aims to show how women have changed the world, or at least Mexican society, it does not come close to meeting its objective.  In fact, the long awaited  Women’s Museum, if nothing else, makes evident the secondary role that women continue to play not only in this misogynist society but in the heart and budget of a heavy-weight university.  My question to the UNAM is why did it even bother?  It seems that Mexican women’s fame is destined to remain relegated to domestic violence, and the outrageous head count of femicides in Ciudad Juarez.  A possible solution to this embarrassment could be to shift the focus of the museum to its second objective, converting it into a Women’s Study Center, and taking away the word “Museum” from its name.

    

 

Manuel Who?

Manuel Rodriguez Lozano (1896-1971) is finally getting his 15-minutes of fame!  The MUNAL (Mexico’s National Museum of Art) has put together a 125-piece exhibit entitled “Manuel Rodriguez Lozano: Thought and Painting 1922-1958,” marking the 40th anniversary of the death of this lesser known Mexican painter. 

In my humble opinion, a show dedicated to Rodriguez Lozano is long overdue.  Best known for his eerie, elongated, asexual figures, frequently painted in shades of blue or white (depending on the period), Rodriguez Lozano’s work is somewhat reminiscent of Pablo Picasso’s earlier style.  The predominant aura of his paintings is often melancholic and desolate, with scenes of abandoned women and stark, ominous settings, in striking contrast to his earlier works emphasizing intense colors.  Having shunned the muralist movement in Mexico at its height, this artist became an outcast, although he eventually did paint a few long forgotten murals, including “The Holocaust”  in the home of the Count of Miravalle, currently inaccessible.  See my photo below taken before it became off limits due to a major remodeling (rumor has it that this viceregal building is being converted into a small boutique hotel!) .

Rodriguez Lozano had a complicated, sordid life as did many artists of his time.  He was, surprisingly, a military man by early training.  He met Carmen Mondragon, a.k.a. “Nahui Ollin” (as she is better known today) when she was living in Europe with her family.  Carmen Mondragon’s father was a Mexican military officer, active in the Mexican Revolution, who was forced into exile (taking refuge in Belgium) following President Madero’s assassination.  He became famous for inventing and patenting a semi-automatic and automatic rifle which bears his name.  So, it was in Europe that Manuel was introduced to Carmen, as well as  to the avant-garde art movement which was at its pinnacle.  The two self-taught painter eventually returned to Mexico, where they became famous, or better put – infamous, due to their exuberant personalities, lifestyles, and certainly their art work.

Nahui Ollin, a painter, poetess and artist of exceptional beauty, had the misfortune of being too liberal  for her times (more on her in another blog).  That, coupled with Rodriguez Lozano’s bi-sexual preferences leaning more in the direction of homosexuality as time progressed, destined their marriage for failure.  Despite overt preludes from Antonieta Rivas Mercado, a well known contemporary patroness of the arts, he chose a long term relationship with painter-teacher Abraham Angel, which ended with the latter’s tragic death (suicide?) from a drug overdose.

Rodriguez Lozano also held the position as Director of the Art School of the National University, and was eventually imprisoned for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He was set up by opponents when several Albert Durer prints were stolen from the college.  Held responsible as Director, he ended up in Lecumberri Penitentiary, nicknamed  “the Black Palace,” where he painted a mural entitled “Piety in the Desert,”  currently on permanent display at the Palace of Fine Arts.   The Durer prints, by the way, eventually surfaced in the mid 1960s.

    

Rodriguez Lozano’s peculiar, non-academic style, is labeled as as “primitivism”  or “fauvism” in this exhibit.  His favorite themes – his colleagues better known as  “Los Contemporáneos” and Mexican related scenes – are showcased in this collection, many of which are on display to the general public for the first time, on loan from private collections.  That alone makes this exhibit worth a visit, since there probably won’t be another opportunity to see them all together again, or even view them once they go back to their owners.

It is about time that Rodriguez Lozano is the subject of an individual show.  He deserves credit for his works, the majority of which remain fresh and relevant for modern tastes – which ironically, is more than can be said for the works of many of his contemporary muralists!

 

What do Birds, Olmec Heads and 6 Ancient Cities Have in Common?

So what do birds, colossal Olmec heads and 6 ancient cities have in common?  Well … these three topics are themes for separate temporary exhibits currently on display at the National Museum of Anthropology.

   

The first is on feather art … that’s right – feather art, a native handicraft traditional dating back to pre-Hispanic times. The exhibit “Alas: El vuelo de las imágenes del mundo indigena,” part of a two-museum display (the other exhibit, hosted in the MUNAL, Mexico’s National Museum of Art downtown on Tacuba Street,  has unfortunately closed) showcasing how this highly valued, yet today forgotten, natural material was incorporated into textiles, paintings and decorative arts in popular cultures, as well as the importance of birds (in music, mythology, religion, dance, costumes and in oral tradition) in Mexican indigenous cultures.

 

The significance of birds is reflected in pieces made by close to forty different indigenous groups.  The extensive display illustrates how “amanteca” or feather art has yet to lose its relevance despite effort of the Spanish viceroyalty, remaining, in fact alive and pertinent, as evidenced by this sampling of crafts.

     

A second temporary exhibit, the longest running of the three at the National Museum of Anthropology, is entitled “Six Ancient Cities of Mesoamerica,” which projects the relationship between the peoples of different corners of Mesoamerica and their environments. Over 400 pieces are being shown – some for the first time ever and others borrowed from 17 distinct public and private museum collections. The goal of this exhibit is to trace the similarities and differences of six urban nuclei, using the writing systems, economic development, religious and ideological beliefs, and monumental architecture and art (ceramics, stone carvings, jewelry, masks, etc.) as a point of departure.  The similarities and differences are striking!

The third, most recently opened exhibit, is a fabulous collection of Olmec objects found along the Gulf Coast of Mexico.  Indeed, the museum itself houses an impressive selection of artifacts from the oldest civilization in Mexico (frequently referred to as the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica, however, more recent anthropological theories are reconsidering it as the “sister culture,” supporting the idea that several groups emerged simultaneously yet independently, seeing as how NOT all cultures of Mesoamerica can trace their origins back to this specific ancient civilization) in its permanent collection, yet this grouping is coming from an exhibit which was hosted at the de Young Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco under the heading: Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico.

 

The 106 pieces on display have been culled from collections belonging to the Anthropology Museums of          Xalapa and Merida among others, and include two colossal heads (which are referred to as Head Number 5 and  Head Number 9 from San Lorenzo).  The sheer fact that these artifacts date back to the second millennium BC, yes – the second millennium before Christ! – weighing in at a hefty 4 and 6 tons respectively, make them obligatory viewing. (By the way, over 600 thousand people visited the exhibit in California, at $25 US dollars a pop, so how can a local visitor bypass the opportunity to see this exhibit  in Mexico City for roughly  $4.00 US (depending on the fluctuating peso-dollar parity rate) – that’s $51 Mexican pesos, with no waiting lines either!!)

I personally cannot remember a time when the museum had so much going on simultaneously. Obviously, each of these exhibits requires the collaboration and coordination of too many experts to list here, but in reference to my previous post – the fact that Director Diana Magaloni has been spearheading the initiative to bring quality exhibits back to the Anthropology Museum, and is sponsoring all sorts of educational forums on topics related to these shows, you can expect to see even more great exhibits and talks at this emblematic museum.  Her efforts are not going unnoticed.  Kudos to Magaloni!