Tuesday, August 26, 2014

August is watermelon season

The large, juicy fruit is celebrated all over Mexico and the United States. Zacatecas and Coahuila in northern Mexico have watermelon festivals that attract thousands of people. Russellville in northwestern Alabama recently hosted 30,000 people at its watermelon festival. I wonder what’s happened to seed spitting contests now that seedless watermelon are all the rage?

Watermelons make me think of two Mexican artists – Rufino Tamayo and Wilberth Azcorra. Many Mexican artists have an affinity for painting watermelon because the slices contain the color of the Mexican flag. Arranging watermelon slices into a red star is a subtle way to give their art a social message. Many 20th Century artists joined the Union of Artists and Engravers, an association formed during the Mexican Revolution of 1910, which held that to be truly revolutionary, art should contain a social message in addition to being something of beauty.

Although he was a member of the Union of Artists and Engravers, Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991) didn’t go for that. When he painted watermelon slices they were usually portrayed standing vertically on a tabletop. Tamayo maintained that art only needs to be something of beauty. And, boy, did he have fun with watermelon.

I found this out through Yucatecan artist Wilberth Azcorra. Azcorra has made watermelons his leitmotif. In whatever medium he works in, Wilberth’s topic is watermelons.

It turns out that Azcorra and Tamayo had a friend in common: Lauro López (1930-1996). Lauro was also an artist – known for his still-life set in viceroyalty-period kitchens. He really liked painting two shelves in a cupboard.

In the early 1970s, Wilberth frequently stayed at Lauro’s home in Temixco, just south of Cuernavaca, while teaching a high school literature class in rural Morelos. The class was on Friday nights. He would stay over and drive back to Mexico City in daylight on Saturday.

Every other Saturday Rufino Tamayo and his wife Olga would go to Lauro’s house for lunch and then stay to play canasta. Lauro put Wilberth in charge of setting the stage for those events.

On a long table set in the garden, covered with a white tablecloth, Wilberth would make an artistic arrangement of four, five or six watermelons. He had previously rubbed them with olive oil to make them shiny. Lauro himself would decorate a 40-centimeter-long knife (16 inches) with a red ribbon and place it on the table.

Wilberth told me, “When the Tamayos arrived, Rufino knew that the knife was for him to use and with it carve, cut, and arrange the watermelons however he pleased. It was wonderful. He would go crazy. It was like a children’s game but he was the only one who played.

“To me it was an ephemeral work of art because after sketches had been made the watermelons became juice served at lunch.”

I asked, “Would Tamayo do this on a plate or on a tray?” “No. Right on the tablecloth. Everything got stained with watermelon juice. It was marvelous. He knew that it was all set up for him to transform into an homage to watermelon. It was beautiful. And very magical. “No two cuts were ever the same. Once the initial cut was made he would cut it into other shapes. Pyramids, cubes, cones, squares, slices, triangles.”

In our conversation Wilbert referred to the pieces as fractals – a way to cut a solid object in to many shapes. Be they straight or curved, each one represents the original object but seen in a different way. No two pieces of Tamayo’s watermelons were the same. Some pieces were red, others green, yet it was obvious that they were all watermelon.

I like the image of fractals to describe Wilberth too. He is an artist to some, a poet to others, a teacher to many and a philosopher to boot. He is also a wonderful host. In August of each year he sponsors a festival to Saint Augustine, in his hometown of Valladolid, Yucatan, as his family has done uninterruptedly for 99 years. I encourage readers in the Yucatan peninsula to attend one or both of the remaining evening rosaries leading up to the feast day of St. Augustine.

On Thursday morning Wilberth will lead the procession with the 16th century wooden image of St. Augustine of Hippo that has been passed through generations of his family. A 7 a.m. Mass in a nearby church will be followed by breakfast, and a Balche (fermented drink of prehispanic origin) ceremony in the Maya style, then dinner for over a hundred guests.

“The menu is the same as the one my parents prepared.  We can’t change it.  It’s the dinner for the Saint – relleno negro (a Yucatecan specialty). Everyone that arrives is welcome.”

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