Monthly Archives: September 2011

Handicrafts Galore at the Museum of Popular Art, and Good Shopping as Well!

A unique Tree of Life made with intricate ceramic detail

A magnificent collection of Mexican handicrafts can be enjoyed in the MAP or Museo de Arte Popular (Museum of Popular Art).  This fantastic museum, located half a block from the Alameda Park in downtown Mexico City, is a remarkable example of what can be achieved with a little commitment, elbow grease and collaboration (in this case between the Mexico City government, the Federal Government, CONACULTA or National Council for Art and Culture and a very active and highly visible group of volunteers).  The museum building is an outstanding art deco 1920s firehouse, which has been painstakingly re-purposed into a noteworthy showcase for a formidable array of arts and crafts and folk art hand-picked from artisans and private collections around the country.

A few handmade baskets on display

Teodoro Gonzalez de Leon (worthy of separate blog entry) masterminded the architectural make over, taking full advantage of the once open patio where firetrucks were once parked (and I may add, the backdrop to the hilarious 1952 Cantinflas movie El Bombero Atómico – the Atomic Fireman).  Have lived many distinct lives over the years (aside from a firehouse, it held Treasury Ministry offices, and Naval offices), it was given yet a another reincarnation after the devistating 1985 earthquake.

Piñatas hung in the central patio, part of an annual contest

The museum’s fare is is curiously grouped by themes (daily life, festivities, etc.) rather than by typical geographic or ethnic divisions, which allows for more interesting viewing, since sundry baskets from around the country are displayed side by side, showing the vast creativity and variety of workmanship.  Indigenous garments, many of which are still worn today in the nation’s remote countryside, line a wall in tribute to persistent creativity, as is the case with ceramics which contrast in technique, craftsmanship, glaze and purpose, sitting side by side, once again highlighting the impressive diversity of Mexican crafts.  Thus, the MAP’s three floors are chock-full of examples paying tribute to Mexican artists and their talent.

An alebrije or phantasmagoric figure, on Reforma Avenue

Unusual for a museum is the MAP’s outreach efforts.  Much more than a platform for displaying assorted handiwork, the museum actually promotes what was becoming a dying tradition, reinventing new trends in this field and injecting pride and attention among youth.  Aside from ongoing workshops for children, since its inauguration in 2006, it has underwritten annual piñata competitions, hosting Day of the Dead altar exhibits, and sponsors a highly-acclaimed and much-anticipated Alebrije parade with larger-than-life phatasmagoric paper mache animals and figures that are marched through the streets downtown and set up on Reforma Avenue for weeks, drawing heavy crowds.

A sampling of Indigenous garb still worn in small villages around Mexico

The MAP is also a superb spot for picking up a unique or unusual present.  Although a bit pricey, the museum gift shop offers carefully selected items of top-notch quality, as well as hard to find pieces, such as ex-votive painting, hand embroidered blouses, tinware, straw figures, marquetry, ceramics, jewelry, books and calendars.  Plus shoppers can rest assured that the artisans producing these wares were paid fairly for their painstaking labor.  So even if you think you have seen enough Mexican handicrafts to last a lifetime, the MAP collection is a treasure not worth missing.

A VW Beetle, covered by Huichol Indians in 2 million glass beads. After traveling to Paris and Berlin, the car will be auctioned off with funds going to the Huichol community


Posted by on September 28, 2011 in Contemporary Art, Museums


A New Meaning for MX – the Abbreviation for Museu de la Xocolata!

Museu de la Xocolata in Barcelona, Spain ... why not in Mexico City?

Although this blog is entitled “Mexican Museums and Mavens,” I have chosen to break out of my self-imposed restrictions in order to share with you my thoughts on a museum I recently visited, a museum which could be and should be a source of inspiration for Mexico. The Museu de la Xocolata, in the Catalan language, or The Chocolate Museum in English, located in the Spanish city of Barcelona, provides an interesting concept which is sorely absent from the broad repertoire of Mexican museums.  The museums abbreviation –  MX, taken from the first letters of the name of the museum is suspiciously similar to the standard abbreviation for Mexico.  Is the abbreviation MX just a simple a coincidence?  Maybe, but we certainly know the importance of Mexico’s role in the cultivation and production of chocolate!

Cocoa beans, removed from the pod and spread to dry

The first question which came to mind when I stumbled upon this gem of a museum was, “What’s a chocolate museum doing in Spain, and more specifically in Barcelona?”  My next question was, wait a minute, “”Why doesn’t Mexico have a real chocolate museum?”  I say real, because there are a few meager attempts at chocolate museums around the country, specifically in the areas where this crop is cultivated, but certainly nothing conventional or serious, and definitely nothing on a national scale – nothing that truly pays homage to this gift from the Gods, and, with much chagrin, none as spectacular as Barcelona’s Chocolate Museum.

An example of the typical chocolate sculptures on display in the museum, this one is a scene from the famous classic Don Quixote!

Addressing the first question, “Why does Barcelona have a chocolate museum?” I must admit that I considered it odd, particularly since, from a historical perspective, the Royal Spanish Crown was careful to control its trade routes through the Casa de Contratación with an iron clad fist for close to 300 years (thereby assuring the Spanish monarchs their royal fifth – or the 20 percent obligatory tax on private merchandise). The offices of this institution were located in Seville, not in Barcelona.  As a matter of fact, many historians have attributed Spain’s demise directly to its monopolistic trade policies, which lead to its economic, financial and political demise, converting it from one of the wealthiest empires in the world into a faltering has-been.  So with most merchandise from the New World filtering through the seaports of Seville, Barcelona’s role was minimal in terms of imports and more specifically in terms of chocolate.  So what was Barcelona’s role in chocolate making?

Reproduction of an emblematic Teotihuacan vessel. Note bottom edge decoration of cocoa beans. The original piece is in the on-site museum in the archaeological zone of Teotihuacan. Notice the chiles, vanilla beans and spices to the right of the vessel, which were added to the hot chocolate in pre-hispanic times.

Once inside the museum, that lurking doubt was cleared up quickly.  Barcelona did not boast an early relationship with this once exotic foodstuff.  It become a major player in chocolate-making in the 19th century (after New Spain’s independence) with the establishment of The Industrial Confection Center.  Later, in the early 20th century, The Artistic and Industrial Candy Guild was established.  The history of that trade group was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War, to emerge in modern times as an umbrella organization under the guise of the Barcelona Confectionery Guild.  And that is how the Museu de la Xocolata emerged – as a showcase for the guild and its promotion of internationally acclaimed skills in chocolate making, chocolate art (sculpting) and baking.  And here I was trying to figure out the historical angle linking Barcelona to Mexico’s chocolate crops!  Sometimes I am just too intellectual for my own good!

Another sculpture made entirely of chocolate - this time tinted white chocolate.

That cleared up, I could better understand and enjoy the simple explanations of the displays covering the history of chocolate, its origins,  its processing, and the art of chocolate making, with visual masterpieces – chocolate sculptures – dotting the museum, displaying a clear mastery of what was an unfamiliar art form for me.

A glimpse of the equipment showcased in the museum which explains the industrial process of making chocolate

After a walk through the exhibit, an obligatory stop at the candy shop for a tasting of chocolate in its many manifestations could not be avoided. Without a doubt, Barcelona chefs have moved this culinary niche to greater heights, dominating to perfection this culinary specialty both artistically and taste-wise.   Clearly, the Museu de la Xocolata  is a front window for the guild’s culinary school housed behind the museum, as well as a platform for its tasting sessions. (Unfortunately my trip did not last long enough to coincide with their tasting schedule. Maybe next time!)

The chocolate school behind the museum

Going back to my second question – it is my strong belief that Mexico should build a Chocolate Museum, to trace the history of cacao in Mexico, its importance in pre-hispanic life, the highly prized use of chocolate in the pan-Maya traditions as a foodstuff, medicine as well as a form of currency, and link the gastronomic globalization between Mexican chocolate production and how it was adopted and adapted in Europe.  Any museum policymakers out there listening?

A sampling of items for sale in the museum shop

By the way, I forgot to mention that the entrance ticket to the Museu de la Xocolata was a superb quality chocolate bar, so how can you go wrong?  If you don’t like the museum, you can still eat the ticket!

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Posted by on September 23, 2011 in Food, Museums


Ready to Go and Nowhere to Go?

The very modern Terminal 2 counter area at the Mexico City Benito Juarez International Airport

So there you are, stuck at the Mexico City “Benito Juarez” Airport Terminal 2, killing time. With the new regulations requiring international travelers to arrive at the airport two hours ahead of time, you’ve got a long wait until you catch your flight. You’re already checked in and have wandered around, window shopping at the gift shops lining the passageways, leafing through the books and magazines at the newsstands (who really cares about Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart, anyway?), have already grabbed a double espresso while perusing the fast food shops, which by the way, provide an astonishing array of appetizing options at a decent price – I am referring to the the food court outside the security gate with its vast assortment of fresh fruit platters, Mexican antojitos, the requisite Starbucks, delicious pastry shops, as well as Chinese, Japanese and American fare, to name just a few options, and I am NOT being facetious. What the food court lacks in decor, it makes up for in quality, variety, freshness and value.

Entrance to the INAH Museum across from security gate entrance

You are just about ready to go through the security check point, when, wait a minute … what is that that you see out of the corner of you eye? A museum?  A museum in the middle of the airport?  Yes, a museum!  As of 2008, briefly after Terminal 2 was inaugurated, the National Institute of Anthropology and History (better known as the “INAH,” an abbreviation of el Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia in Spanish), in collaboration with airport authorities, has etched out an oasis, offering temporary exhibits on Mexico’s pre-hispanic cultures, thus, providing weary local and international travelers, as well as those waiting to pick up passengers, a refreshing cultural option.

Reproductions of Paquime ceramics from Chihuahua, Mexico

The 650 square meter exposition center is open 24-7, 365 days a year, displaying mainly, though not exclusively, high quality reproductions of early cultural artifacts, a few original pieces, and a series of excellent photographs. If not told, the average viewer could probably not distinguish between an original pre-hispanic piece and a well-made copy.  As a matter of fact, there are plenty of reproductions filling the halls of the National Museum of Anthropology, all clearly marked, yet often undetected by the untrained eye!  The displays in Terminal 2 change regularly, approximately every 6 months, an antidote for the doldrums of the well-seasoned traveler, and a refreshing alternative for the typical non-museum goer or tourist who is visiting Mexico to learn more about its early history.

Travelers enjoying the temporary photo display detailing pre-hispanic ceremonial centers around Mexico

The INAH’s efforts are to be lauded.  All the exhibits I have seen, and there have been many, are well organized and informative, plus easy to understand even for those unfamiliar with pre-hispanic cultures. The current exhibit, entitled “Mexico, Territorio Arqueológico,” is particularly well structured, and for travelers who have lots of time on their hands, it provides a good alternative to balancing a computer or book on their laps after checking in their luggage.

Pieces typical of Teotihuacan pottery (Pre-classical, Central Mexico)

As a matter of fact, you might consider arriving to the airport 15 minutes early to be sure to have time to check out the exhibit!  The INAH Museum is easily accessible, opposite the security check point entry at Terminal 2, with an EDUCAL Book Store within view for those whose interests are whetted, with an unusually well-stocked collection of books on Mesoamerican culture and Mexican history, making the arduous wait for your flight somewhat more bearable.

Newly assigned divisions of Mesoamerica color-coded onto a modern-day map of Mexico


Martie Zelt, An Artistic Inspiration

Martie and I during her last visit to Mexico City earlier this year

I met Martie Zelt a few years ago while I was giving a tour to a group of Fulbright Scholarship holders being prepped for their stay in Mexico.  She was on her way to Xalapa, Veracruz to specialize in papermaking, her passion since 1976.  I did not know at the time that Martie was an accomplished artist, but her charisma and intense curiosity about Mexico set her apart from the herd.  Only later did I come to find out that she was 80,  ex-wife of late Spanish poet Rafael Millán Pinillos, in Mexico as a Fulbright-Garcia Robles Scholar.  That was 2008-2009.

The famous Hollander paper beater Martie helped assemble at the Instituto de Artes Plásticas in Xalapa

I have maintained contact with Martie – she is someone you don’t want to lose track of!   Based in New Mexico, she dedicates most of her time to paper and printmaking in her studio located in the Southwest of the United States. She visits Mexico sporadically, where I get the chance to catch up with her –  trying to follow and understand her creative production and development.  Martie has held numerous solo and group exhibitions, not only in US museums and galleries, but also in Brazil, Spain and Mexico.  She has pieces in permanent collections in Princeton and Yale Universities, the Brooklyn Museum, Carnegie Institute Museum of Art, the Penna Academy of Fine Arts Museum of American Art in Philadelphia and the Roswell Museum and Art Center in New Mexico.

Martie overseeing papermaking, a process more complex than you'd expect!

She recently participated in the VI International Biennial of Contemporary Textile Art with an sample of her latest endeavors.  If you are not familiar with World Textile Art (WTA), it is a recently founded organization, aimed at bridging the gap between the Americas (North and South, that is) by promoting art through on-going workshops and cultural exchange.  This year’s WTA gathering was held  simultaneously in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico City and in Oaxaca City, Oaxaca.

"Peach Walking," handmade paper and collagraph (about 17" x 16," 2009)

Martie became involved with well known artists in Veracruz developing sustainable, fine paper made from local plant materials, while helping design and build a “Hollander beater,” a paper-making machine (dating back to the 1600s) at the Instituto de Artes Plásticas within the Universidad Veracruzana (see photo above) .  With her unending creative spirit and energy, she also initiated a recycling program and an ambitious quilt-size paperwork celebrating about 25 taxi drivers.

"Aire y Sombras" - the piece selected for display during the recent biennial in the Anahuacalli Museum in Mexico City (handmade paper, relief print with additions, about 29" x 29," 2011)

She is the author of a 32 foot mural in the Roswell Civic Center, which is a mixed media work using tiles, shards, mirrors an other materials.  Her degree  in mural painting and graphics from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts prepared her early in life for a rich, productive 60 year career.  You are an inspiration  to all of us, Martie.  Can’t wait to see your latest projects!

Martie resting in downtown Mexico City on a Leonora Carrington sculpture - May 2011

NOTE:  All of the photographs in this particular entry were provided by Martie and José Valles Rivera. Thanks for sharing the wealth!


Posted by on September 7, 2011 in Contemporary Art, Mavens


Bringing Coals to Newcastle (or Chocolate to Mexico)

Louis and I at the chocolate tasting sponsored by Charity Coalition

I met Louis Barnett at a Charity Coalition event last May. This British teen (hard to believe he is only 19) has already put his name on the map as an internationally acclaimed chocolatier by producing a wide array of top notch chocolate bars which blend ingredients as improbable as black pepper, ginger, sea salt and chile.  With these and other unlikely combinations, Louis has improved what was already a sublime treat, in my book at least, into an exquisite culinary experience.

A sampling of Chokolit products on sale in Mexico

Chocolate, unlike money, does grown on trees. Actually, I stand to be corrected, since chocolate – or rather cacao beans – were used as a rudimentary currency during pre-Columbian times, and they do, indeed, grow on trees!  Cocoa beans were so highly valued prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, that the crop doubled as a kind of long distance trading currency (the only perishable ingredient which I know of that was used as money) as well as for tribute – a tax payment to the dominant Mexicas.  Its importance was such that there was a measurement system devised just to count cacao beans (400 beans made up 1 zontle; 20 zontles were 1 xiquipil; and 3 xiquipiles or 24,000 beans was one load –  the weight that an individual man could carry), thus, money did grow on trees!

Cocoa pods jutting out from the tree branches, a rather peculiar site to see!

Theobroma cacao (its scientific name) grows on small trees native to Mexico and Central America (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador), with its pods oddly jutting directly from its trunk (check out my photo below). The Maya people used the beans to make a chocolate beverage used for rituals, which also doubled as a status symbol among the pre-Hispanic elite.   Anthropologists are now adjusting their calculations and proposing that chocolate did not make its first appearance in the Maya diet some 2,500 years ago as originally believed, since there is evidence that its consumption can be traced as far back as 1200 B.C. with the Olmec culture on the Gulf Coast of Mexico.

Who would have known that raw cocoa beans resemble nuts!

Connoisseurs often complain about the quality of Mexican chocolate candy, particularly when comparing it to Belgian, Swiss or (yes) Russian fare.  At first blush, this seems inexplicable given that cacao originated in southern Mexico. Yet, a quick look at the history of cacao itself explains this phenomenon. The word “chocolate” is derived from the Nahuatl word chocolatl. “Xococ” means bitter or sour (think the xoconostle fruit, which is bitter, for example) and the prefix “a” or “atl” means water, referring to the liquid it was prepared with – as a savory beverage.

A cocoa pod split in half revealing the delicious white fruit pulp (encasing the cocoa beans)

“Cocoa” is derived from Classical Maya, ka-ka-wa – with the last vowel is dropped, the word is pronounced “kakaw.”  The tree was referred to as “cacahoacentli” in Nahutl and the seeds “cacahoatl,” most likely borrowed by the Mexicas (a.k.a. Aztecs) from the Maya.  Since, there was no milk (no cows or other beasts of burden in Pre-Colombian America) nor sugar (cane sugar was introduced to the Americas by Hernán Cortes via the Canary Islands, originating in India), Mexican hot chocolate or hot cocoa was prepared with a variety of recipes calling for water, vanilla (also native to Mexico), annato seeds (giving it a distinct red ting), chiles, ground pepper, dried and ground flowers, and at times honey.  Even today, in states such as Oaxaca, diners have the choice of requesting their hot chocolate be prepared with water or milk, ground almonds or cinnamon (not native to Mexico but favored by many today).   So, although cacao drinks were widely consumed among the native elite, chocolate candy production was virtually unknown.

A table lined with all the standard tools for preparing chocolate: a comal or griddle for roasting the beans, a metate or volcanic grinding table, a molcajete or mortar for mixing the cocoa with other ingredients and a molinillo used to produce the delicious foam that tops Mexican hot chocolate

This much coveted delicacy is facing a revival in Mexico with local chefs (Jose Ramon Castillo of Que Bo! is one popular chef who comes to mind) and signature chocolate shops cropping up all over the city (L’Atelier among others) often creating innovative combinations with commonplace ingredients such as mole or tamarind.  Meanwhile, Luis has taken on the challenge and risk of importing his products to Mexico, much like bringing coals to Newcastle!  His success lies in inventing a unique product, unlike anything else available in this country today – in terms of quality and combination of flavors. His brand, launched this Spring under the label “Chokolit,” is available in a local department store chain around Mexico. My first encounter with Louis and Chokolit was at an event where 4 of his chocolates were paired with 4 wines – two French and two Italian.  I admit that I had never tasted chocolate with wine before – what I thought as unlikely duo turned out to be a match made in heaven. All that lovely theobromine (by the way, the scientific name of the tree as well as the active ingredient in chocolate was taken from the Greek word for “food of the Gods” – rightly so!), coupled with PEA (phenethylamine, another mood enhancing alkaloid present in chocolate) and alcohol was not only chemically right for my brain (a serotonin enhancer) but perfect for my taste buds as well!  The quality of Louis’s chocolates is unbeatable in flavor and texture – smooth, subtle, melt in your mouth … in combination with the hand picked selection of wines provided by Alessandro Picone Morelli of Vininter and Sophie Avernin of Grandes Viñedos de Francia (see their photo below) didn’t hurt!

Sophie, Louis and Alessandro tasting the fare!

Louis, home schooled at the age of 11 due to learning disabilities, found his calling by age 14. This dynamic, charismatic young man, brimming with energy and a promising future, has already won several awards including Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2011 and Lord Carter Award for excellence in the food industry in 2009.  On top of that, Louis has a social conscience, earmarking a portion of his earnings to selected charities. If you ever come by any Chokolit products – don’t pass up the opportunity to try them.   Good luck to Louis and kudos to Francesca D’Agata, founder of  Charity Coalition, an umbrella not-for-profit agency, who organized the tasting, which gave me the opportunity to meet Louis and learn more about what I love – chocolate and wine. Francesca untiringly works to raise funds for 11 charities while proving fun events ranging from wine tastings to teas to art fairs.  If you are ever in Mexico, try to coincide with a Charity Coalition sponsored event – they are always memorable – lots of fun with the proceeds going to a good cause.

Additional premium Chokolite products, mixed with fruits, herbs and spices


Posted by on September 1, 2011 in Food, Mavens