Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Mexican art and customs in Manhattan

I began last week's column with a whimsical line about Frida returning to Cuernavaca's Brady Museum from Beijing.  I emailed it to The News while seated in a pew in Trinity Church located in the heart of New York's Financial District.  I knew I was pushing my welcome by plugging my computer into a church electric socket and using a portable wi-fi to connect to the Internet.  Still, it was the quietest and most comfortable place I'd found in which to work, while camped at Liberty Park, a block away.  As I clicked 'send' I smiled to myself at the thought of referring to Kahlo's self-portrait as Frida.  I would top that minutes later.

As I stepped out of Trinity Church onto Broadway at Wall Street I suddenly realized I was stepping out into a scene in Diego Rivera's mural in Mexico City's Palace of Fine Arts -- the one in which Rivera gives us a view of Wall Street with Trinity Church at the end of a chasm of buildings.  The street sign in Rivera's mural indicates the corner of Wall Street and 2nd Avenue.  Second Avenue has been renamed, but the scene is very much the same today as when Rivera painted it in the 1930's; even to the point of having police presence.

No longer on horseback, blue uniformed NYPD officers are now mounted on motor scooters.  By riding them single-file, bumper-to-bumper, they confine the Occupy Wall Street marchers to the sidewalk.  Nonetheless the demonstrators carry signs much like those portrayed by Rivera in the mural intended for, ultimately rejected by, Rockefeller Center.  

Rivera wisely added a clause in the contract he signed with the Rockefellers.  If, for any reason, he were not allowed to finish the mural he would still be paid in full.  Nelson Rockefeller adhered to the contract and, with the received payment Rivera re-painted it for free in Mexico City.  I suspect it's the only mural in public space in Mexico in which all the text is in English; no Spanish is used.  

It was a fascinating week I spent at Liberty Plaza.  On Saint Michael Day's eve I delivered four pericón crosses sent by Cuernavaca's Sergio Mendez Arceo Foundation to be tied to trees at the four corners of Liberty Park.  They were to protect the park, which has become the epicenter of one of our biggest ongoing, and growing, news stories.  Even though the custom of posting pericón crosses predates Christianity in what is now Mexico, I had feared they would not be well received because of the religious connection, in people's minds, between crosses and religion.  

I was surprised and gratified with the welcoming cheer from the occupiers.  Reverence is a hallmark of the Wall Street occupier.  Before each march a moment of silence is observed; frequently there is a respected prayer.  Indeed, last Friday Kol Nidre, the opening of Judaism's holiest observance, Yom Kippur, was held in an esplanade across the street from Liberty Park as police looked on. 

Respecting the NYPD's prohibition of using microphones the readings and songs were relayed though the crowd by what has become known as the “people’s mike.”   Speaker’s words are repeated, relayed, until the whole crowd hears.  It is a reverent process.  Even if one disagrees with the words spoken, they are repeated faithfully.  Observant Jews do not use vehicles or the subway on Yom Kippur so, after the service, many of them crossed the street and camped in Liberty Park.  There they slept side-by-side with Moslems, Christians, Buddhists, and atheists.  I had goose bumps thinking about what it would mean for the world if this could be a new model of reconciliation.

I remembered another connection with Mexican art and New York City upon taking a short walk from Wall Street to Battery Park.  From that southernmost tip of Manhattan I could see the Statue of Liberty.  Mind and memory took me back in time to the day I visited Ana Pellicer in her home in Santa Clara del Cobre, Michoacan -- the Mexican village world-famous for its production of hand-hammered copper.  

It is France, not Santa Clara, that produced the largest piece of hand-hammered copper, the Statue of Liberty, gifted to the United States in 1886.  Perhaps as an attempt to salvage some of Mexico's prestige in the field of hand-hammered copper, Mexican sculptress Pellicer produced, in Mexican style hand-hammered copper, a necklace and earrings in proportion to Liberty herself.  She requested permission of the National Park Service to hang them on Lady Liberty for one day during the Statue's hundredth anniversary celebrations.  Permission was denied.  Not accepting defeat, Pellicer displayed them in a Manhattan art gallery.  I had felt privileged to see them in her living room with the necklace hanging from the ceiling, going down to the floor, back up to the ceiling, over and over again.   

It was delightful to think of these three Mexican contributions to New York City.  Even though Rivera's and Pellicer's were rejected, they stand nevertheless -- perhaps more prominently for having been rejected.  And the pericón crosses?  Last I checked (which was last Tuesday) two were still there.  The police only seemed to have spotted -- and removed -- the two on the Broadway side of Liberty Park. 

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