Getting to know the true spirit of Mexico through its art
There’s a lot of art to appreciate in Mexico and a big part of what makes it so special is the earnestness of it. It has strong origins that go way back, for instance the Aztec´s three city-states, Tenochtitlan (present day Mexico City), Texcoco and Tlacopan, were established in 1427 and Mayan culture dates back at least 4,000 years with new archaeological discoveries being made all the time. An overabundance of pieces of carved stone and even some colorful and elaborate literature (codices) remain as impressive reminders of how people have expressed themselves and their communities within the continent. Even when it is at its most abstract, there’s a certain familiarity that emerges in Mexico both old and new. It wouldn't be far-fetched to attribute this to the nature of artists in this part of the world that have continually been producing art as part of a lengthy experiential process wherein they absorb their surroundings.
There’s no doubt about it, art is life and this is greatly promoted by the endless dialogue that ensues in a place like Mexico where different forms freely blend into one another like a beautiful dance that never yields and never seems to end.
With many roots come many arts
Mexican folk art is so evocative precisely because it draws from a wealth of traditions and resplendent natural beauty, ranging from lush jungle to serene deserts, that are as diverse as anywhere else on the planet. This nature and traditions inform whole communities in Chiapas, Oaxaca, Michoacan, Guerrero, that have developed unique and meaningful ties to the world that surrounds them. You can get to know them by paying a visit to museums like the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City where you can also read about most of the artifacts being exhibited. At the same time, each state also has a plethora of art museums that showcase folk art from throughout history. Once you start to get to interact with the people, you start to understand the meaning of the art; that for us as humans, everything is connected, as it should be, the language, the food, the atmosphere and the cosmos. The bottom line is that like most everything in life, it’s all part of a complete journey and this idea is really taken to heart in the Mexican day-to-day. When you can capture this pre-ponderousness in a Talavera bowl, an alebrije or a rebozo, it’s a profound thing to behold and take home with you on your own journey.
Folk art, in general, serves as a continuous source of inspiration, especially in places like Latin-America, as it has completely come into its own away from the influence of major artistic movements like the European Renaissance. In this sense, it is much more limitless as it is free from the scrutiny that has abounded what we consider classical art, and to this end, it can be described as a pretty fearless form of self-expression.
Artistic manifestations of people through nature
In much of the Latin world, animals represent wisdom, which of course is important if the way you perceive and evaluate life is largely related to the way you’re interacting with the natural world. This explains why there is a ceaseless obsession with incorporating animalistic likeness in Mexican folk art. They represent the human spirit. A very common example is the rooster, whose image is particularly popular in the northern states where it is hot and dry. Its rambunctiousness is viewed as an expression of the sun in so much that it represents strength and imposition that is required by ranching life. The natural world possesses endless additional attributes that are associated with many other species that co-habit the land and this becomes apparent as you make your way from a place with one, or various cultures, to the next. World-renown artists such as Francisco Toledo, Rufino Tamayo, Juan Soriana, and many others, also include real and fantastic animals in their work. All in all, absorbing and noting the subtle changes in locals' attitudes through the art that they make is crucial if you would like to gain a significant understanding about the meaning of Mexican folk art.
This last bit is important to keep in as arts and crafts are thought to have their own essence and as a consequence often carry with them a demeanor that’s very much like that of an actual person. One can appreciate this notion as they may be associated with someone who has passed on and is worthy of being honored and remembered. In this way, traditions of story telling play a big role in a lot of folk art.
Different parts of Mexico express themselves uniquely
One should understand that many places have specialities and it is quite common for travelers to head to a region that has gained considerable fame in making certain art works. In Puebla, there is a strong tradition of vase and container making that’s absolutely beautiful. Talavera clay pieces are made following sophisticated mechanisms of production, unparalleled in other parts of the world. Guanajuato is well known for the incorporation of plant life, most famously sunflowers, into its ceramics. If you visit Oaxaca, you’ll find that the people there have so many rich and delicious influences that of course it would stimulate their crafts. This is a big reason why they are known as some of the most elaborate in the country. Huipiles, rebozos, green clay pottery, alebrijes, huaraches, ritual masks, silver and gold jewelry elaboration speaks to a way of life that goes beyond crafts. It’s a compliment to a rich way of life, complete wide array of divine dishes and an endless variety of artisanal candy that reflect this drive to always try for something new and extraordinary.
Murals that tell profound stories
Mexicans are extremely proud of their history through art, and with this in mind, a very sound place to start is by admiring the works of the country’s top muralists. One of the best places to behold these huge works is in the most renown art museum in Mexico, the Museum of Bellas Artes, or Fine Arts Museum, where whole murals by the most iconic painters are exhibited year-round. What makes these truly special, especially for those who are interested in figuring out Mexican identity, is that they say quite a lot about the point in time in which they were produced. Themes of war, class, beliefs, and pride are all on display and open to interpretation.
What characterizes the biggest names in Mexican mural art is criticism, an uncanny ability to look at society and the present as what it truly is. An artist that personifies this style is David Alfaro Siqueiros whose work can be described as a straight up rejection of society as we know it. Through the fascinating use of abstraction he creates an unmistakable disdain for the politics of his day. Visit the National University or the National History Museum at Chapultepec Castle that also call home Mexico City and see how his mural art intersected a pivotal moment in history, namely the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the Mexican Revolution. Social themes play a big part as well and include themes about the provision of social services like health and education to all segments of the population. The steadfast character of the muralist shines through the complexities of various elements in the murals. This, in turn, provokes all kinds of interesting questions about the decisions that this artist made when working through the different aspects of his artistic expression.
Another unmissable muralist whose work you can also find at Bellas Artes is Jose Clemente Orozco who may be described as articulating Mexican morality through the creation of big scenes. What informs so much of his painting style is his early work as an illustrator where he created caricature-like art that resembles the types of political cartoons that many would find in the newspaper. He carried this style into his mural work and as such speaks to the state of man, particularly within the context of a segmented and repressive society. He pokes fun at the higher classes through silly depictions of their lives that dabble in the absurd. One of his most famous murals located at Cabañas Cultural Institute in Guadalajara you may think invokes a circus aesthetic where the line between the real and the surreal is wonderfully blurred. His murals, for example The Trench located in San Idelfonso Old College in Mexico City, can also be quite dramatic and in them, he may be described as making a complete spectacle of the human condition.
As far as painting technique, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera whose work is easily the most influential has produced more clean-cut works that are more true to daily life as we see it. It’s almost like a surrealist art that maintains a sort of photographic disposition. In person, he was known to have a great sense of humor and to be quite charismatic. This really comes across in his works such as Dream of a Sunday Afternoon at the Central Alameda or in more dark themed mural such as The History of Mexico or use of political topics such as Glorious Victory depicting the American inference in Latin American matters. When you admire them, it really does feel a though you are entering a world that in Mexico still feels so familiar.
A land of untamed art
Mexican art is special, vibrant, colorful and often just plain mesmerizing because it is derived from long-standing traditions that the native populations have kept alive within their communities. The vast diversity within Mexico has allowed artistic expression to go down in wonderfully evocative directions and in this manner, there have been a plethora of directions both in terms of inspiration and practice. It may be said that this art speaks to the human experience and is universal. As such, it has received a lot of respect and appreciation in recent memory, particularly in parts of the world that don’t have the wealth of indigenous communities.
Art as a way of life is the exception and not the rule for most people. However, in Mexico, most see it the other way around. It’s this intimacy and unabashed attitude towards art that prevails and makes Mexican Art so powerful and worth seeing in person.