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Monthly Archives: November 2011

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

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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