Imagined Mexico

A personal guide to three exhibits on Mexico through one bifurcated perspective

<i>Señor de Papantla (Man From Papantla)</i>
Señor de Papantla (Man From Papantla)

My father is Mexican. He was born in Xilitla, a speck tucked away in San Luis Potosí. According to him, everything in Xilitla – the air, the earth, the taste of rain, the smell of the sun, the shape of fruit – is sublime. Body odor doesn't exist there. The women are lovely, the men are strong, and the children well-fed. Livestock never tire and always aim to please. The monkeys that gathered above the terraces where my grandfather once dried coffee beans always had good stories to tell. When someone dies, they do so peacefully, cleanly, with no pain. Angels herald the dawn and at dusk lull babies to sleep with the gentle pulse of their undulating wings. God may art in heaven, but according to my father, Xilitla was God's home.

Thanks to my father's gossamer nostalgia, I learned at an early age that nothing about Mexico is ordinary. That idea continues to the present, except today, the image of Mexico is decidedly less magical. The Mexico discussed in the public sphere is not my father's Mexico but a place that is extraordinarily violent, poor, unsafe, and always, it seems, on the verge of collapse.

It's unfashionable to be Mexican these days. Downright dangerous if you are among the undocumented working poor, scorned by far-right extremists for "stealing" jobs from U.S. citizens. So, it was a pleasant surprise to me to learn that several Austin art institutions were devoting part of their spaces this year to some aspect of Mexican art, culture, or history in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Mexico's independence from Spain and the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution. What could be shared and learned in these exhibits about this complicated nation, a neighbor so close yet so misunderstood? What parallels could be shown between the turbulence of Mexico at the high points of its social, cultural, and political upheaval and the present moment in the United States, where (as Charles M. Blow succinctly pointed out in his op-ed piece in the March 27 New York Times) a woman helped push health care reform through the House of Representatives, a gay man and a Jewish man tag-teamed to spearhead the cause, and a black president signed it into law, infuriating far-right extremists who have mounted a chest-banging, take-back-our-country movement?

So, if the U.S. is changing as dramatically as we all know it is, what is there to learn from and about Mexico that we don't think we already know from those colorful calendars from our favorite taco joint, extreme nostalgia, or extremist fear?

The three institutions – the Ransom Center, the Blanton Museum of Art, and Mexic-Arte Museum – take different facets of the prism and present, to the best of their abilities, three distinct views of Mexico. While each exhibit operates independently of the other, collectively they offer insight not just into Mexico but into what this side of the border must come to terms with in order to accept the reality of the future.

'¡Viva! Mexico's Independence'

Harry Ransom Center, through Aug. 1

Created in collaboration with the University of Texas' Graduate School and the Consulado General de México en Austin, the footprint for this exhibit is rather modest, and the sense of scale isn't helped by the fact that "¡Viva!" is surrounded by the larger and very popular "Making Movies" exhibit, which features all manner of ephemera from the center's extensive film collections.

Press materials for "¡Viva!" state that it "isn't a comprehensive historical overview, but instead highlights items from the Ransom Center's collections." Among the 50 items on view are letters and official documents, such as one appointing Hernán Cortés captain general of New Spain, and several books and documents offering commentary on representations of Mexico in film. As Cathy Henderson, exhibition curator and associate director of the Ransom Center, rightly points out in press materials, "Of greater interest to visitors, perhaps, will be various artistic responses to these historical events ranging from Miguel Covarrubias's illustrations for an edition of Bernal Díaz Del Castillo's 'The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, 1517-1521,'" in addition to a couple of (always arresting) José Guadalupe Posada broadsides. Unfortunately, these more visual aspects of the exhibit are not only in the minority but also wildly diverse. The Covarrubias illustration (showing a human sacrifice), shown with no context, doesn't illuminate as much as it disturbs.

While only the most dedicated students of Mexican history will make connections from the print materials, the value of "¡Viva! Mexico's Independence" is beyond the scope of the materials on hand. Individually, most of these "found objects" might have been overlooked. Collectively and in a museum setting under glass, these items are brought into sharp focus and suggest that there is something more to be learned and understood. The materials presented are only a few scattered pieces of a mosaic representing the mammoth event known as the Mexican Revolution, yet, like found objects in a family attic, "¡Viva! Mexico's Independence" piques curiosity, driving viewers toward if not their own research, then at least the other Mexico-themed exhibits in the Austin area.

'Manuel Álvarez Bravo and His Contemporaries'

Blanton Museum of Art, through Aug. 1

Often called the "father of Mexican photography," Manuel Álvarez Bravo (1902-2002) documented what is now called the modernist period in Mexican history, the time following Mexico's transition from its revolutionary past.

Forty-five black-and-white images are on view, pulled from the collections held by the Ransom Center and the Blanton. Most of the images are no larger than 8 inches by 10 inches, but all of them offer a heightened, sometimes ethereal commentary on a Mexico in transition while also providing hints of the ongoing, cross-cultural dialogue that was occurring between Bravo and his Mexican artist contemporaries (José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, to name two), as well as with other photographers from around the world (Henri Cartier-Bresson and Dorothea Lange, among others).

The landscape and architectural images are stunning, capturing, as one friend who accompanied me to the exhibit and who is also Mexican-American remarked, "the dark light ... sort of that noonday dark of an eclipse. Foregrounded against that light, the pointed nopales and artfully composed adobe seemed very aestheticized, the visual vocabulary for what you now see in many Condé Nast travel pieces to Mexico."

While Bravo is credited with "capturing the geometry of everyday life," according to descriptive text in the exhibit, the images of everyday people gazing directly into the camera also arrest viewers' attentions. The most powerful are images of Indios – significant given the time period when Bravo worked, the stark class differences in Mexico, and the bloody treatment of Mexican natives during the conquest. The Indios that Bravo captures are breathtakingly dignified, elegant, strong, and, as with many of his images, slightly otherworldly.

"I felt very aware of being the source of those clichés – and I mean that word in a good way," my companion said in retrospect when considering how Bravo's work may have inspired the travelogue images of Mexico. Staring into the photos, revisiting many for a second and a third time, the sense of seeing our reflections while gazing into the past was a most powerful experience. While somewhat romantic, Bravo's images are still starkly realistic and perhaps the most loving images of a Mexico known for its beauty as well as its painful past.

'Imagining Mexico: Expressions in Popular Culture: Selections From Austin Collections'

Mexic-Arte Museum, through June 27
<i>The Eclipse</i> by Manuel Álvarez Bravo
The Eclipse by Manuel Álvarez Bravo

Drawing from the private holdings of local folk art collectors as well as Mexic-Arte's collection, this merry exhibit is perhaps so because, as one of the collectors said during a gallery talk, the work was made "con cariño," with affection. The exhibit is divided into five thematic areas: geometric designs, typical and popular scenes, regional clothing, historical icons, and flora and fauna. The exhibit features work made by artisans throughout Mexico, making tangible the beauty of everyday life and spiritual beliefs, as well as the icons and symbols that are deeply Mexican. Cloth, cup, clothing, dolls, papier mâché, as well as plainly spoken scenes of daily existence, created with whatever materials are at hand, come closer to revealing a Mexico not trumpeted in the news.

Bypassing the argument over whether folk art is art, "Imagining Mexico" instead focuses on how self is shaped in the hands of artisans who do not recognize themselves as artists and do not have a place in the halls of power. It's a different kind of romanticism of Mexican art and culture, perhaps, but one grounded in the necessity of day-to-day living. What does it say about a person and a people, needing to fashion a vessel for carrying water that is also something lovely to look at when not in use? What is there to learn about this way of life that sees the practical use for art and the art of the practical? The answers to those questions are highly subjective, of course, but can't help but whirl in the back of your mind as you take in this highly engaging exhibit.

After viewing all three exhibits over a span of a month, what becomes clear is that understanding the history of Mexico is not only as important as understanding how more direct contact will influence and change the other – in good ways and bad, in the inevitable and unavoidable – but in realizing that those influences have already occurred. One collector lamented that many of the artisans he'd met have succumbed to the "McDonaldization" of their work, something one could argue is an intrinsically U.S. phenomenon. So how can we let what is good about Mexico influence us? It's difficult for many in the so-called First World to imagine that there is anything to learn from the Second or Third Worlds, and yet, as ensconced as my father was in his new life in the States, it was his Mexico of his past that kept him alive, kept him sane, kept him hopeful in the face of catastrophic illness.

The U.S. of the past is changing, and the influences of Mexico can no longer be held back at the border – if they ever could be to begin with.

"You may want 'your country back,'" Blow writes in his op-ed piece, "but you can't have it. That sound you hear is the relentless, irrepressible march of change. Welcome to America: The Remix."

'¡Viva! Mexico's Independence'

Harry Ransom Center, 21st & Guadalupe

Through Aug. 1


Fifty items related to Spain's conquest of Mexico, Mexico's independence from Spain, and revolutionary activities within Mexico.

'Manuel Álvarez Bravo and His Contemporaries'

Blanton Museum of Art, MLK & Congress

Through Aug. 1


Forty-five images by "the father of Mexican photography," along with work by Dorothea Lange, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Albert Renger-Patzsch, Paul Strand, and Edward Weston. Related events include screenings of rare films for which Bravo served as cameraman, including Que Viva Mexico! (1931) and Los Olvidados (1950). La Diosa Arrodillada (1947) will be shown Sunday, April 25, 3pm. Ursula Davila-Villa, associate curator of Latin American art, will give a perspectives talk on the exhibition Thursday, April 22, 12:30pm. Cookbook author and food historian Diana Kennedy will give a talk on the unknown gastronomy of Mexico, Thursday, April 29, 6pm.

'Imagining Mexico: Expressions in Popular Culture: Selections From Austin Collections'

Mexic-Arte Museum, 419 Congress

Print on broadside of Emiliano Zapata, by José Guadalupe Posada
Print on broadside of Emiliano Zapata, by José Guadalupe Posada

Through June 27


Art incorporating national Mexican symbols from popular art collections in Central Texas.


'Photographs of the Revolution by Agustín Víctor Casasola'

Mexic-Arte Museum, 419 Congress

Through April 18


Images of Mexico from 1900 to 1930 reprinted from the Casasola Collection.

'American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music'

Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, 1800 N. Congress

Through May 9


For a review, see "American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music," March 19.

'¡Viva! México!'

The Wittliff Collections at the Alkek Library, Texas State University, San Marcos

Through July 31


More than 100 historical and contemporary images by 40 renowned photographers.

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Mexican history, Mexican art, Harry Ransom Center, Mexic-Arte Museum, Blanton Museum of Art, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Cathy Henderson

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