Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Days of the Dead

Tomorrow is Halloween, what I consider an imposition from the north pushed by chain stores here eager to sell costumes to children. Shortened from Hallowed Evening, Halloween is just the build up to the days traditionally celebrated in Mexico--All Saints Day on November 1st and and All Souls Day on November 2nd. Here both days are called the Days of the Dead--Dias de los Muertos. You know they are approaching by the mounds of marigolds, special breads, and sugar skulls abundant in markets.

In Christian tradition All Saints Day honors all saints, known and unknown.  All Souls Day is one on which to assist through prayer the souls of the deceased who have not yet achieved purification and are still in purgatory. 

While that's what the Church says, Mesoamerican tradition is quite different. Death is not the end of life, it is merely a transition.  Dias de los Muertos are days when the souls of the deceased return to visit with their families. Family members who have migrated away from their traditional home make their way back, just as the souls of the deceased return to where they were buried.  That’s why these are the busiest travel days in Mexico.

According to Johanna Broda, who has written extensively on the overlapping of Mesoamerican and Spanish rituals, "the dead make their appearance during St. Michael's fiesta on September 29, and share with their family members their happiness over the first corn cobs.  In this way the dead show their intimate link with the agricultural cycle and the welfare of the living." 

Early Spanish friars were successful in extending Mesoamerica's harvest celebration for another month to blend with the Christian All Souls and All Saints Holy Days.  You can't but give credibility to the idea that Days of the Dead are linked with a harvest celebration when you see an altar to the dead, be it an authentic family home altar or a tourism department sponsored extravaganza in which groups are competing for prizes awarded to the "best" altar.  Loaded with the foods that the deceased enjoyed in life, Mesoamerican crops are well represented.  You’ll find candied squash, tamales made from corn, turkey in "móle" sauce.  Rice and sugar cane arrived hand-in-hand from Spain, but strangely rice is not a common dish on the altars while four- or five-inch-long pieces of sugar cane are. European wheat is well represented in the fancy Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead).  In fact, bakeries usually do the best job of decorating their store windows with allusion to Days of the Dead. 

Though the underlying meaning is the same throughout Mesoamerica, the way the Days of the Dead are observed changes from one village to the next.  Don't be surprised if your Mexican friends each describe different ways of celebrating these days.  They are all correct.  Just listen and take it in with fascination.  The one constant throughout Mesomaerican is the use of the bright yellow cempasuchitl (marigold) to decorate tombs altars and walkways.  Yellow is definitely the color of days of the dead.

If invited to visit a home altar jump at the opportunity because it is very much a family observance and celebration.  As outsiders we don't really play a role in it unless we have deceased family members who are buried here. 

With that in mind, I invite you to accompany me to decorate the tomb of a dear friend of mine, John Spencer.  John has no family members in Mexico, yet his tomb has never been bereft of flowers on Days of the Dead.  His tomb will be decorated by friends of his in life as well as others who have come to be his friends through his lasting legacy to art and design in Cuernavaca. We will meet and decorate his tomb on Thursday with a design copied from a painting by Vincent Van Gogh, an artist he particularly admired.  We'll recreate it with marigold petals. 

If you would like to join us at The Church of the Three Kings in Cuernavaca, send me an email.  The more participants we have the grander the "painting" will be.  While we work, we'll be surrounded by the magnificent walls he designed. John Spencer was one of us -- a foreigner enticed by Mexico's charm who settled here.

For more about these holidays refer back to the very first Charlie's Digs in October 2010,  three in October 2011, and one in November 2011.  They’re all posted at <charliesdigs.blogspot.com>.

Last month in a column about Ivan Illich, another foreigner who has left his mark on Mexico, I told you I'd let you know the dates of the forum commemorating the tenth anniversary of his death.  It will be December 13-15 in Cuernavaca with a series of talks by an impressive list of speakers about Illich's thought and writing.  If you’d like to attend send me an email and I'll forward the registration form to you.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

All that Glitters is Wonderful

The exhibit "Gold, Prehispanic Art of Colombia" is hands down the best of its kind.  The exhibit opened last week in Mexico City's National Museum of Cultures, adjacent to the National Palace, and will run through January. What makes the exhibit so good is that all the pieces are on loan from the Gold Museum in Bogotá Colombia.     

I’ve been fascinated with goldwork since I was a teenager living in Colombia. I visited the Gold Museum in the Bank of the Republic building in downtown Bogotá many times. My favorite room was the last, a round, darkened room on the top floor.  Once inside the lights gradually brightened until 6,000 pieces of gold crammed into the circular display case glittered intensely. Gold has a power to it that holds people in its grasp.

Legend has it that in prehispanic Colombia a new indigenous ruler (cacique) was rowed out on a crater lake standing on a raft, clothed only in gold dust.  At his feet were piles of gold ornaments and emeralds. His subjects stood along the rim of the lake, watching in respectful and absolute silence. Once in the center of the lake the cacique pushed the offering into the water.  His subjects erupted in cheers -- they had a new ruler.

There is no limit to the variations on this legend. Did this ritual happen only when the cacique took office, or was it once a year?  Did he jump into the frigid water and wash off the gold dust?  Was gold also thrown into the lake by the spectators? 

Spanish conquerors believed the legend. They searched for the land of El Dorado (the guilded one) in Nueva Granada, what is now present day Colombia. Most eyes have focused on Lake Guatavita, 75 kilometers north of Bogotá, as the legend's El Dorado Lake.  I remember Lake Guatavita fondly.  You could say it was there that I started my career leading trips. I’d organize high school friends to go with me in a long taxi ride followed by a two-hour horseback ride to the edge of the crater lake with a huge gash in one side. In colonial times entrepreneurs had tried to drain the lake by cutting a giant "V" into the crater.  Miscalculating the depth of the lake, the sides of the "V" converged before getting to the bottom. Nevertheless, gold ornaments were found in the drained portion of the crater, giving early credibility to the legend.  

The legend gained more credibility with the discovery of the Muisca Raft in 1968. This 20 centimeter-long work in gold portrayed a cacique and nine other people on a raft. It’s made of a single piece of gold using the lost wax process.

Many pieces in the exhibit in Mexico City are made the same way. In the lost wax process the goldsmith shaped the piece using beeswax. He squeezed clay tightly around the beeswax, then fired it to become a mold.  In the firing, the wax melted and flowed out a drain. Through that same drain the goldsmith poured in molten gold or an alloy called tumbaga -- a mixture of gold and copper or gold and silver--to take the place of the wax.  Once the metal cooled the mold was shattered, revealing the artwork. 

Other pieces in the exhibit are hammered. Hammering isn't as simple as it might seem. Gold becomes brittle and cracks when hammered. It has to be repeatedly heated and quickly cooled to maintain its resiliency.  Skilled goldsmiths knew its limits. 

The pieces on display in the Mexico City exhibit are grouped by design and function.  Most were to be worn.  In fact the first display is a gold outfit -- headband, earrings, necklace, chest plate, and loin cloth.  You’ll also see containers and long knitting-needle-length "palillos" used in coca rituals.  Ornaments in the shape of animals, some easily identifiable and others stylized, would be just as comfortable in a museum of modern art as in this exhibit. 

This is not the first time there has been gold exhibited at Calle de la Moneda 13.  When it was Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, the Emporer Moctezuma showed off gold in a temple there where he would go to dialog with the gods on that same piece of real estate. The Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortes must have been overjoyed when he saw the amount of gold in the Aztec palaces. Cortez is quoted as having told Emperor Moctezuma's messenger that he suffered "a disease of the heart which only gold can cure."

I encourage you to go see what glitters in "Gold, Prehispanic Art of Colombia". It runs through January, 10am-5pm, free admission, closed on Mondays.  Informative panels are in Spanish and English, as are three excellent videos.  Captions describing the displays are in Spanish only.  The exhibit's website is <mnculturas.worpress.com>.   

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Honoring Siqueiros

Highly controversial artist David Alfaro Siquieros (1896-1974) has been honored with two major re-inaugurations within the last month.  The City of Los Angeles and the Getty Institute unveiled restored "América Tropical" on Olvera Street, eighty years to the day after Siqueiros himself unveiled the outdoor mural for the first time.  The 9.95 million dollar project includes a viewing platform and interpretive center about the artist and the mural.  

Timothy Whalen, director of the Getty Conservation Institute explained "Part of the significance of this mural is not just the importance of Siqueiros, a major 20th century figure, but the fact that it was censored. . .  That contributes to our understanding of it as much as what he originally painted."  

Almost concurrently, Siqueiros' Cuernavaca workshop known as La Tallera was re-inaugurated by the federal government as a museum.  I visited La Tallera last weekend and was welcomed to the newly refurbished museum by Public Relations Chief, Yolanda Rodriguez.  I asked her that question I've often wanted to ask but didn't so as to not let on that I didn't know -- "why did he refer to his workshop as feminine?"

"Siqueiros gave it that name because it is a place of gestation, fecundity, creation, hence its femininity.  He designed it as an industrial-sized workshop to give birth to mural art projects."

My first visit to La Tallera was shortly after Siqueiros' death, in the company of Roberto Berdecio, a Bolivian artist and muralist in his own right, who had worked closely with Siqueiros on América Tropical in 1932 as well as other projects in New York and Mexico.

From Berdecio I learned Siqueiros knew La Tallera was where he would produce his last big project -- the Siqueiros Polyforum.   He had worn out his welcome with the Mexican government -- to the point of being incarcerated.  Marcos Manuel Suarez became his backer and financier.  It was Suarez's architects who built Siqueiros' Tallera just a couple of kilometers from Suarez's Casino de la Selva Hotel, which was to host the Polyforum.

Suarez, had been one of those many teenagers who sailed from Sevilla to Veracruz, sent, by their Spanish mothers, to America "to become a man".  It was sink or swim for the boys armed with more names of family members who had preceded them than cash.  Suarez did very well, but adhered to his mantra of having nothing to do with bandits -- his name for bankers.  He worked with his own money.  When Mexico City was awarded the 1968 Olympic Games, Suarez said "there's not enough hotel space for such an event," and he undertook the project of building Mexico City's largest hotel -- Hotel de Mexico (now World Trade Center Mexico).  The Olympics came and went and the Hotel de Mexico wasn't finished until after Suarez's death when his sons enlisted the aid of bandits.

To make his new hotel more attractive, Suarez, over Siqueiros' objections, changed the location of the Polyforum from Cuernavaca to Mexico City.  Indeed, long before the Hotel de Mexico was functioning, the rooftop revolving restaurant and the ground level Polyforum, with the world's largest mural, were open and generating income.  

The financial demands of the construction of the Hotel de Mexico sucked resources from the Polyforum.  After her husband's death, Angelica Arenal viuda de Siqueiros took out a full-page ad in Excelsior complaining to Suarez that what her husband had foreseen was indeed happening -- forcing him to scrimp and save meant the Polyforum was deteriorating quickly and hence affecting her husband's artistic reputation.

Despite the change in venue of the Polyforum it was at La Tallera that Siqeiros' turned out murals that are inside, outside, even on top of, his artistic extravaganza close to the intersection of Mexico City's Insurgentes Avenue and Viaducto Miguel Aleman. 

As an artist, Siqueiros took us, as viewers, into account.  Back in 1932 he painted América Tropical with the pedestrian in mind.  "A mural visible from the street on the second floor of a building should not just be a large-scale painting hanging on the wall.  It needs to be painted with the viewer-in-motion, in mind."  

Though La Tallera's main exhibit revolves around the design and content of the murals that make up the Polyforum, another deals with Siqueiros' concept of polyangularity -- taking into account where the viewer will be standing, sitting, or walking.  At his Palace of Fine Arts murals he imagines us leaning against a cool marble column while our arm rests on a brass railing.  On Olvera Street we're viewing América Tropical day after day as we walk to work.  Some viewers of the Polyforum are airline passengers on approach to MEX looking down on the roof of the building.

Siqueiros' last words, inscribed on a plaque that used to lie on his bed in his Cuernavaca home, were "I fear I don't have much time, and I have so much yet to do."  One year earlier he had intended to restore América Tropical, but was denied a U.S. visa.  I wonder which illuminated consul was responsible for that.  That censored mural was still on his mind.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Nobel Peace Prize

This week and next the Swedish and Norwegian Nobel Prize Committees will be announcing this year's award winners. I'm especially looking forward to the announcement of the Peace Prize Friday at 11:00 am (Oslo time). I remember a similar week twenty years ago. It was the 500th anniversary of what the Mexican government called the “Encounter of Two Cultures”. It seemed logical that the Peace Prize would be awarded that year to an indigenous person from the western hemisphere.

In 1992 most eyes were focused on Guatemalan Rigoberta Menchu, who by that time had no living parents, siblings, or aunts and uncles. They had all been killed in the Guatemalan civil war. Yet she continued working for the peaceful resolution of the conflict while heading a human rights commission named in honor of her father.  Her story had been told in the bestselling biography "I, Rigoberta".

Facing embarrassment if Rigoberta received the prize, the Guatemalan government presented the names of other equally deserving Guatemalan indigenous women and lobbied on their behalf.

At the time the peace prize was to be announced, I had as houseguests two distinguished Guatemalans who were living in exile in Mexico--Guillermo Toriello and his wife Esperanza Salguero. During the time period of 1944 --1954, Toriello had served as ambassador to the US, UN, OAS and foreign minister of Guatemala.  As such he signed the United Nations Charter for Guatemala in San Francisco in 1945.  Toriello spoke out repeatedly at the UN warning of the dangers facing the Guatemalan people if a rightwing coup were to occur.  In fact the coup did occur, and what followed was a terrible, 36-year-long chapter in Guatemala’s history. In exile Toriello actively worked on behalf of Guatemala's people in international settings, leading to the UN distancing itself from him. As the youngest signer of the UN Charter, he outlived all the rest yet, understandably, he was not invited to the 50th anniversary celebrations of the UN.

The morning the chairman of the Nobel Committee announced that Rigoberta Menchu had been chosen to receive the award I was preparing breakfast and looking forward to being the one to tell Guillermo that we needed to celebrate, but he had already heard the news on shortwave radio.  With a beaming smile, Guillermo said, "I need to talk with Rigoberta and congratulate her.  Please put me in touch with her." 

I motioned towards the telephone and told him he was welcome to use it, but his response was "I don't know were to find her."  We knew she was in Guatemala, but that was all. I told Guillermo, "Neither do I." Playing on my pride he said "I wouldn't have asked you to make the call if I wasn't sure you could find her."

Those of you who lived here back then certainly remember how we would reach the international operator-- by dialing 09, the two longest turns around the rotary dial, over and over again until our finger was sore. Finally, one answered.  I explained the need to reach Rigoberta Menchu and that I had no phone number for her, nor did I even know what city she was in.  All I knew was that she was in Guatemala -- somewhere.  The operator rose to the challenge.  On an open line I heard her call Guatemala's international switchboard and give the same explanation to the Guatemalan operator who I heard shout out, "¿Donde está Rigoberta?" ("Where is Rigoberta?").  Just like that; no last name.  Within a minute I was saying "Doña Rigoberta, Guillermo Toriello is going to speak with you," and she proceeded to receive his congratulations. 

That morning the press swarmed the presidential palace in Guatemala City.  The Guatemalan president was asked if he was going to receive and congratulate Rigoberta, now an instantly and internationally famous Guatemalan woman.  The president told the press that he certainly would like to meet with her but unfortunately there was no time available on his calendar between then and when the awards ceremony would be held in December.

Mexico's president, on the other hand, sent his Presidential Boeing 757 to Guatemala City to pick her up. This Mayan indigenous woman, wearing her traditional clothing, arrived in Mexico City for a heroine's reception in the Zocalo.  The streets from the airport to the National Palace were lined with school children waving Mexican and Guatemalan flags.  President Carlos Salinas de Gortari accompanied Rigoberta out onto the main balcony of the Palace and introduced her to the cheering crowd in the Zocalo saying "I feel like Mexico has received the Peace Prize."  Indeed, like Guillermo Toriello, Rigoberta Menchu had lived most of her time in exile in Mexico.  

In her acceptance speech in Oslo, Rigoberta said that display space had been made available for the parchment certificate and the medal representing her Nobel Prize in Mexico City's Templo Mayor museum.  If you've never seen a Nobel Peace Prize, I suggest you stop by that museum a block north of the National Palace.  Both items are on display in a glass case at the base of the stairway leading up to the permanent exhibit area.

Rigoberta's award was predictable.  Not so easy to predict this years awardee.  Stand by to be surprised Friday morning.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Watermelon House

Some years ago my Digs collaborator Carol Hopkins invited me to "The Watermelon House" in Xochitepec, Morelos. She promised me a magical afternoon reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' "One Hundred Year's of Solitude." I was not disappointed. Entering the world of "The Watermelon House" is a combination of Macondo, Wonderland, and Oz.  

A marvelous meal was served.  Each dish had watermelon as an ingredient, was served in a watermelon dish, or both. Everywhere I looked I saw a kaleidoscope of red, white, and green with watermelon art literally exploding from the walls and furniture.   

Now you too can experience this watermelon world created by artist Wilberth Azcorra. An exhibit of his art, "Fractales de Sandias" (Watermelon Fractals), is on view at Cuernavaca's Borda Gardens until October 21.  I attended the opening of the exhibit and arranged to have lunch with Wilberth a few days later.

Wilberth's current exhibit makes use of textiles, wood, tin, canvas, oils, and acrylics; all of it is watermelons, in every form.  Applying the literary and musical term for a recurrent theme to art, Wilberth refers to watermelons as his leitmotif. Having chosen only one topic for his art "has meant that I've found many ways to portray it, and I'm always finding more."

"I'm always challenged and find something new in my leitmotif.  If I said I'm satisfied with what I have created and I have found what I was searching for it would be as if I were no longer living."

Wilberth remembers watermelon farms near Valladolid, Yucatan, the city where he was raised.  "As children we were given the heart of the watermelon, its sweetest part.  A great treat, even though adults said 'it's just water.'" 

Not wanting to study to be a primary school teacher, which was Valladolid's only educational option, Wilberth applied, and was admitted, to the Escuela Nacional de Agricultura (ENA) at Chapingo.  At 16 he set off alone to Mexico City. 

A characteristic of the ENA, even under its new name of Chapingo Autonomous University, is that all students are on full scholarship and most live in student housing on campus -- a boon to a teenager needing to cover all of his own expenses.  Wilberth studied there two years before deciding that as much as he loved watermelons, growing them was not in his future.

He left to study philosophy and letters at the National Autonomous University. Wilberth entered artist Angela Gurria's weekly printmaking workshop where he worked to cover his tuition. Most of us have seen one of Gurria's grandest sculptures, the black and white 18-meter high "Señales" at the intersection of Mexico City's Periférico expressway and Avenida San Jeronimo. 

Gurria's assigned homework was to bring a print to the next session.  After a few sessions the other students teased Wilberth with "you're not going to bring another watermelon next time; are you?"  But, sure enough, his art was watermelon after watermelon. 

Gurria then said "If you want to continue in this workshop you must have an exhibit." 

"But where will I exhibit, Maestra?" asked the student.

"Find somewhere," was the teacher's reply.

Down the street from where Wilberth lived there was a restaurant called "La Sandia".  It gladly made wall space available.   

Maestra Gurria then told him, "That's not enough.  You need to exhibit frequently.  At least once every two years."  And with ever more varied exhibits, Wilberth has exhibited, in big cities and small towns.  His current exhibit is in the State of Morelos' most prestigious location for an art show. His next exhibit will be in Chiconcuac Morelos during the Days of the Dead.

By interesting coincidence, Gurria's exhibit "Tiempo de Trabajo" (Work Time) is overlapping that of her former student and continuing admirer at the Borda Gardens.  In fact the introductory text posted on the wall at the entrance to Gurria's exhibit is signed Wilberth Azcorra.

After last week's lunch at the cecina restaurant on the autopista to Acapulco, I drove Wilberth back to the Watermelon House.  The Watermelon House not only features Wilberth's work but hundreds if not thousands of watermelon gifts received by this avid collector. He asked what I'd like to drink.  Spotting a watermelon on the kitchen counter I knew there was only one appropriate answer:  "agua de sandía".

Wilberth's home in Xochitepec, with it's Yucatecan ambience, is open on request to groups of 10 or more for an exceptional Yucatecan meal with a watermelon flair accompanied by marvelous, thought-provoking conversation.  Keep it in mind when traveling to Xochicalco, Taxco, Acapulco, or as an excursion from nearby Cuernavaca.