Written by: Paola Córdova
It’s been a while since I visited an art museum. This is something I have very deeply missed for the past year in my life- even having had access to many programs and virtual tours these institutions have offered, the experience is not as complete or immersive as it would be in person. I miss the wide, light, airy spaces full of sculpture, painting, and conceptual art presentations. I miss sitting in front of a screen in front of a small dark room to watch a short film explaining the exhibition I am attending. I miss quietly observing the peace within the room allowing a palate cleanser from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, permitting my feelings towards the artwork to be purely and truly my own.
Worst of all is that while I have been missing museums so deeply, I have been in one of the world’s museum capitals, my home, Mexico City. I could go on about a lot of the things I adore about this vibrant metropolis filled to the brim with culture and experiences, but for the sake of concision I’ll keep it at what I’m here to talk about: museums.
Whil(t)e people can go off about London, New York, Paris, and Rome for ages, speaking about their claim to cultural supremacy above the others, I simply don’t hear enough about my home town. Fair enough, the aforementioned cities are wondrous hubs of culture and artistic development- but Latin America has, I feel, been snubbed from receiving any attention or credit for everything it has to offer. People think México, they think of the beaches, Acapulco, Cancún, which while stunning hardly make up half the story of a wildly diverse country near the size of Europe itself. The most obvious explanation for this evidently boils down to colonialism and its constant need to view the developing world as a place from which resources can be extracted, where twentysomethings from the US can come into contact with “exotic culture” and a “wild time” while blacking out on Four Lokos in the pool of their all-inclusive resort in Los Cabos. The idea that valid, honest to God cultural development could be stemmed other than in the developed (and by developed I mean colonizing) world is not front and center to people’s discussions about Latin America, let alone México, the country of El Chapo, narcos, Corona beer, and cheap thrills for the world’s irresponsible youth. A lot of people might just think our number one export to the world consists of immigrants and asylum seekers, and while these are indeed abundant, they hardly hold a candle to our massive repertoire of cultural and artistic contributions.
Mexico City is home to 150+ museums itself, densely packed with new things to find and learn about. Never mind all the art made outside of museum and gallery spaces sold in markets and on the streets. Most of these museums are in stunning locations with ever changing artists to exhibit and fantastic permanent collections. Beautiful to regard both inside and out, they showcase some of the most amazing work I have observed in my life. Let me tell you about a few of my favorites.
I’ll start with the one to which I take all my tourist friends in the City, one of the more popular ones. La Casa Azul was home to one of the most (if not simply the most) iconic artistic couples of 20th century México: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. While not necessarily a traditional gallery space, it is especially awe inducing to visit. As the name indicates, the walls are painted on the outside with a dazzling cobalt blue, a home designed in the traditional colonial style. Decidedly Bohemian in every sense of the word, the space is rather small and has limited availability, so it can feel a bit crowded from time to time- but it doesn’t make too much of a difference to the experience. Rooms line a central courtyard space strewn with vegetation and prehispanic artefacts, where stone walls contrast against the blue and the world appears to be serene. Paintings by Frida hang and decorate the inside walls, photography lines the living spaces, but what is perhaps my favorite space of the museum is their kitchen. Small stones create patterns upon the white walls, brightly colored yellow and blue tiles accentuating them. Ceramic pots and pans are everywhere, with small figurines hung up above them.
That kitchen was home to Frida’s obsession with Mexican cuisine, a profound adoration of the food created by the people for the people. Though evidently bourgeois, the two adhered to the revolutionary Marxism they believed was a necessary solution to a country of such staunch inequity- and that spirit undoubtedly continues to manifest itself in their absence. The walls echo the conversations held at dinner parties with their equally revolutionary friends, likewise acclaimed intellectuals (among them, Leon Trotsky). Walking around the interiors, one can almost hear the both of them gleefully announcing that at their wedding, food should be eaten with tortillas instead of utensils. Their home feels like a home to all who enter, simultaneously remaining a monument to the Mexican people- a tribute to a hope for democracy through artistic expression that Frida Kahlo’s surrealism exudes.
The next museum I’d like to introduce is by the city’s historic center, located next to an unassuming church, in a former hospital. The novohispanic stone baroque façade of the church stands beside the bright red exterior of the Museo Franz Mayer, which to the foreign eye might appear a stark juxtaposition of sorts. To most Latin Americans, however, this mimics the vast majority of the traditional architecture (particularly the religious type) with which we have come into contact in one way or another.
Built in the 16th century, the space itself has gone through the hands of several religious Catholic orders, and continues to house a quiet sense of monastic spirituality that I consider ideal when it comes to interacting with art. The collection of decorative arts within the museum is currently the largest in Latin America, primarily art from Mexico that spans millennia, ranging from ceramics to textiles to furniture to silverwork. A magnificent cedar wood library located in the former cloister looks like something out of a dream, with a wondrous collection holding over tens of thousands of volumes- among them nearly 800 editions of Don Quijote de la Mancha written in 19 different languages.
The interior spaces of the museum are filled with Mexican artistic diversity- the blue and white talavera pottery standing visibly as a representation of the region of Puebla and the textile collection showing off the wealth of artistic tradition in the northern state of Coahuila. These fine handcrafts, usually created and used for utilitarian rather than decorative purposes formulate a reminder that artistic beauty and innovation form a basic part of the lifeblood of my country. Seeing them on display is different to say the least, perhaps it could even be called a fetishization of the lifestyle of many, but also perhaps a celebration of the unsung beauty of Mexican culture coming to the surface in a different space.
So as to not bore you, dear reader, I take you to the last destination of this museum tour, all the way from the center of México D.F. to Chapultepec Park, a green space larger than Central Park, but so heavily underrated by the rest of the world. Within and around it you can find a lovely assortment of museums, the Museo Tamayo and the breathtaking Museo de Antropología being among my definitive favorites. If you keep going through it, however, you’ll find the Monumento a los Niños Héroes, and by it a hill you have to climb (or take the train-like vehicle on the way up if you’re lazy like me) to see the show stopping Castillo de Chapultepec.
This castle was initially constructed as a stately home for a viceroy of New Spain (the name granted to the colony that is today known as México lindo), turned into a military academy in the post independence period as well as a symbol of anti imperialist (more so anti American) resistance and patriotism. Ironically, in 1864 it became home to the Second Mexican Empire (I know, it’s crazy that we had two of those) led by the foreign Maximilian of Habsburg, brought in by the conservative elite class following political and military clashes between themselves and the liberal elites. Renovated in the Neoclassical style, it was converted into a space made fit for royalty, as well as for the tyrannical Porfirio Díaz and the first few (perhaps equally tyrannical) presidents of the post Revolution era. A grand staircase welcomes you into the castle, with murals depicting the Mexican revolutionary spirit which bizarrely contrasts with the opulence and elitism the castle once represented before president Lázaro Cárdenas declared it a museum. The former residential area is abundant in objets d’art and beautiful decorations, a roof garden is located centrally, and the rooms in the upper floors continue to be decorated the way they would be if the castle was still a home.
The pièce de resistance, however, can be found by the former rooms of the ousted emperor and empress, where there is a spectacular outdoor space with a black and white checkered floor that is oh-so-chic for Instagram photo shoots. Even more beautiful, however, is the view you get of the park and the city from the terrace area, towering above the green trees and urban life, with the modern glass buildings of the district of Polanco in the distance. There are benches that allow you to contemplate and absorb the grandeur of the city, the history it speaks and the rapidly spreading urbanization that comes with a population of over 20 million. The best you can do is to go in the spring, where the purple jacaranda flowers cover everything you can see, with the unique warmth and sunshine of Mexico City in March/April/May adding an inexplicable layer of beauty.
This little love letter to the artwork that I call home is most easily subsumed in a discussion about museums and architecture, about the art that is officially recognized as such- and maybe I was lazy in discussing only those (and very little of it at that). Mexico City is a world of its own, a massive metropolis that has something for everyone, and (I am aware how much it sounds like the Mexican bureau of tourism has paid me to write this) so much more than the post apocalyptic narco infested wasteland you might have been led to believe. It’s about time the general public gave credit where it is due.