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News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: art

Mexico's giant mustachioed statue spotted in unglamorous conditions

Coloso statue

In the afterglow of Mexico's lavish bicentennial celebrations in mid-September, The Times' Ken Ellingwood told us about the popular intrigue surrounding an enormous sculptural statue that was key to the official party on the night of Sept. 15. The "Paul Bunyanesque" Colossus statue, or El Coloso, was lifted in segments to its 60-feet height on the Zocalo square in Mexico City during the climactic "grito" for Mexico's Independence, a figure meant as an anonymous homage to Mexico's heroes.

Since then, conspiracy-minded Mexicans couldn't stop talking about the thing. From Ellingwood's story:

Was El Coloso modeled after (mustachioed) former President Vicente Fox? Ranchera crooner Vicente Fernandez? Slain presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio?

Maybe it's the effect of the country's drug war, but some people insist he resembles Jesus Malverde, patron saint of narco-trafficking. Someone suggested playfully via Twitter that the statue was really a Trojan horse — once inside the security perimeter of the plaza, or Zocalo, drug-gang hit men would come pouring out.

The questions remained, and also the criticisms. Mexico spent about $54 million on the bicentennial celebrations. And keep in mind, 2010 is also the centennial of the Mexican Revolution, so expect another big party when that date hits in November.

But what happened to El Coloso?

Last week the Mexico City daily El Universal went with an update on the status of the statue, publishing a photograph that showed El Coloso in less-than glorious circumstances: broken apart, draped over, and languishing like a castaway in a construction lot belonging to the federal education ministry, which organized the bicentennial events.

Education officials have said there are still plans to one day display El Coloso in a public place. But the mustachioed giant will apparently have live a bit unglamorously until that day comes.

(In case you missed the big party last month in Mexico, the Boston Globe has some fantastic images worth revisiting.)

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: El Coloso, rising over the Zocalo square in Mexico City on Sept. 15. Credit: Getty Images

'America Tropical': A forgotten Siqueiros mural resurfaces in Los Angeles [Updated]

America tropical mural los angeles culture monster

A significant artwork from the Mexican muralism movement has sat unseen for more than 70 years, whitewashed soon after it was completed to mask its political content, on a second-story exterior wall of a historic building in Los Angeles.

David Alfaro Siqueiros, like his Mexican contemporaries Jose Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, traveled and painted north of the border while Mexican modernism flourished and grew an international profile in the early- and mid-20th century. He lived in L.A. for about seven months in 1932 and was commissioned to paint a mural on the old Italian Hall in the Olvera Street district. Siqueiros was asked to paint something celebrating "tropical America," part of efforts by a booster named Christine Sterling to transform the Olvera Street area into something like a stereotypical Mexican village.

The resulting mural, "America Tropical," scandalized L.A. elites who were perhaps expecting lush foilage and colorful birds. The centerpiece of Siqueiros's mural depicted an Indian peasant with an eagle -- symbolizing American imperialism -- bearing down from above. The mural was whitewashed, and Siqueiros was later deported from the U.S. after his visa ran out.

Siqueiros traveled on, and the mural was largely forgotten for decades.

America tropical whitewashed

Earlier this month, ground finally broke on a project that will see conservation of the mural and construction of an adjoining visitor center. The project, conceived as far back as the 1960s and expected to be completed by 2012 or 2013, will help fill in a key chapter in the long history of cultural and political exchange between Mexico and the United States, particularly in Los Angeles, professor and muralist Judy Baca notes in an essay for PBS.

Siqueiros experimented with a new technique while painting "America Tropical," reinterpreting the fresco approach on wet cement. He also seemed aware that the commission was an opportunity to "create a work of revolutionary character." Christopher Knight, art critic at The Times, elaborates at Culture Monster:

Siqueiros, of course, was profoundly influenced by Italian Renaissance frescoes -- he made studies of Masaccio's early 15th century Brancacci Chapel in Florence -- as well as by the fervent industrial motifs of early 20th century Italian Futurist painting. And he was partly inspired in this by the urging of Dr. Atl -- Gerardo Murillo -- the spiritual guide of Mexican Modernism, who had studied at the University of Rome. So a politically trenchant fresco of a crucified Indian peasant painted on an upstairs wall of El Pueblo's Italian Hall doesn't seem a stretch.

Author and professor Ruben Martinez, writing in our Opinion section, describes an intriguing family connection to Siqueiros' mural on Olvera Street, and argues:

During his stay in Los Angeles, Siqueiros, a lifelong revolutionary, absorbed the political moment. He painted on behalf of indigenous Mexicans, then as now among the most oppressed and rebellious of Latin America's peoples — and, by extension, Mexicans in America, then as now a disposable labor force that doubles as scapegoat in troubled economic times.

Interestingly, Martinez writes that during the era when his grandparents played music in a restaurant downstairs from where Siqueiros worked, some Olvera Street employees "were paid to assume 'sleepy Mexican' poses in shaded corners." (La Plaza believes it, but just can't imagine it.)

Getty america tropical conservation

There are a variety of upcoming events and exhibitions in L.A. related to Siqueiros's work in southern California, including the exhibit "Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied," at the Autry National Center museum. The Getty Conservation Institute is performing the painstaking conservation work on the mural, as seen above, and shouldering $3.95 million of the $9 million overall cost.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

[Updated at 12:06 p.m.: A previous version of this post used the term restoration instead of conservation regarding work on the mural, and did not specify that the Getty Conservation Institute is contributing only $3.95 million of the overall project costs.]

Photos, from top: A man identified as Robert Bredecio, an assistant to muralist David Alfaro Siquieros, stands before the completed "America Tropical" mural. (Credit: Getty Conservation Institute); a view of "America Tropical," partly whitewashed. (Credit: PBS); Leslie Rainer, a Getty project specialist, working on "America Tropical." (Credit: Getty Conservation Institute)

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera to be reunited on Mexican bill

The Bank of Mexico said Monday it would place in circulation a new 500-peso bill featuring the well-known faces of two of the country's best-known artists, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. In the bank's official video to promote the bill's anti-counterfeiting features (embedded above in Spanish), two figures resembling the celebrity couple stroll in costume around traditional and modern sites in Mexico.

The previous face on the 500-peso bill was Ignacio Zaragoza, hero of the Battle of Puebla. Milenio reports that in 2006, efforts to replace his face on the note were resisted in Congress. This time, the Bank of Mexico said it had the autonomy to change the look of Mexico's currency as it bolsters efforts to combat money laundering and counterfeiting.

Critics interviewed by Milenio disagreed with the use of the artists' images for differing reasons. Historian Alejandro Rosas Robles said the Nobel Prize-winning writer Octavio Paz is more worthy of appearing on the note because his work speaks more generally to Mexico, while the noted art critic Raquel Tibol argued that the use of the couple's image was an "error" because the artists were not directly involved in Mexico's revolution of 1910.

The faces of Rivera and Kahlo appear on opposite sides of the new bill, along with reproductions of works by them. The note has six anti-fraud features, including a watermark and relief text. In September, Mexico begins celebrating 100 years since the start of the revolution and 200 years since declaring independence from Spain.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Video: Banco de Mexico

Bicentennial should have come 'from below,' Mexican painter says

Daniel lezama studio

Daniel Lezama is a Mexican artist with an unwavering commitment to two things that are not always in style in contemporary art circles here: representational painting, and the infinitely fruitful questions of Mexican identity.

Lately, Lezama's outsider status is working its way inward. More museums and galleries have become comfortable showcasing his work. As Mexico builds awkwardly toward its official bicentennial celebrations -- a major monument is behind schedule and protests have been raised about the millions of pesos so far spent -- his large pictorial paintings exploring what he calls the grotesque yet beautiful "subconscious" of Mexico feel relevant to the moment.

The Times' Reed Johnson wrote in 2008: "Like fever dreams, Lezama's neo-baroque paintings rope together seemingly unrelated elements. Chiaroscuro lighting and other Old Master influences dignify tragi-comic tableaux of inebriated peasants and Indian prostitutes. [...] Majestic landscapes are made unsettlingly humorous by the unexpected presence of a cheesy corporate logo, a band of strolling mariachis."

Reed describes Lezama's work as being rooted in Mexico's "brutal aspects," and brutality is certainly an element of life in today's Mexico, with drug-related violence filling the news pages unabatedly. Between Mexico's failing drug war, the stubborn lack of economic equality, and the exodus of so many citizens risking their lives to seek economic opportunities in the United States, there's not a lot to cheer about as the country nears its 200th birthday.

The government nonetheless is organizing a massive parade with stages and huge screens connecting the Paseo de la Reforma to the Zocalo main square, where the president traditionally rings the independence bell on the balcony of the National Palace. In May, officials said they would not be releasing information on the total cost of the events to the Mexican Senate for 12 years, citing "national security" (link in Spanish).

La Plaza posed the question to Lezama this week: In such a climate, how would you have organized Mexico's bicentennial? The artist did not hesitate to offer his view.

"It should have been much better prepared," Lezama said. "Not as a song or a light show, but in some way from below. Look for ideas from people from the communities, the barrios, similar to how community leaders get together and decide how something is organized. Each state, and then each state organizing the municipalities, then the barrios."

But, he added, "The country was caught off guard and then it's running late. It's like the señora who has to buy tamales for her son's birthday party but the guests are already arriving. That's exactly it!"

Lezama said in a recent interview with the daily Milenio that most Mexicans appear to have little expectation for the bicentennial, starting Sept. 16 (link in Spanish). It's a shame, he argued, because he sees Mexico as being more "OK" with inhabiting its cultural "Mexicanness" than ever before. His elaboration is intriguing.

"Take the arrival of McDonald's in Mexico. They said, 'In 10, 15 years you won't see a taqueria anywhere. McDonald's is coming.' And on top of that the subtext was, 'That's a good thing.' But look, we have more taquerias and better taquerias than ever. You know, people even say there's better street food in Mexico than ever before," Lezama said. "Mexico decided to coexist."

The cultural shifts that brought globalization and growing transnational ties to the U.S. don't diminish Mexico's traditional cultures, they just bring more possibilities -- in shopping as well as in art, you might say.

"You go to a market on a Sunday, and it is beyond packed," the painter added. "And so is the Wal-Mart."

But would it ever be possible to make even a satirical reference to Wal-Mart or McDonald's in an official state celebration in Mexico? What do you think? How could Mexico have prepared differently to celebrate 200 years of independence?

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Artist Daniel Lezama in his studio in downtown Mexico City, Aug. 24, 2010. Credit: Daniel Hernandez



Bicentennial tower monument delayed in Mexico

Estela de luz mexico 2 A monument planned to tower over Mexico City's marquee avenue in celebration of the country's 200 years of independence from Spain will not be completed in time for lavish celebrations next month, the federal government said.

The Public Education Ministry, which is  organizing Mexico's bicentennial events, announced last week that the 341-foot-tall "Estela de Luz" (or "Trail of Light") tower has faced setbacks and will not be inaugurated until late 2011.

In February, President Felipe Calderon presided over groundbreaking at the monument's planned site near the main entrance to Chapultepec Park, right along elegant Paseo de la Reforma (links in Spanish). "It should be ready for September 2010," Calderon said during his remarks at the ceremony.

But now, Education Secretary Alonso Lujambio says the "Estela de Luz" won't be ready by Sept. 16, Independence Day, when this year Paseo de la Reforma will be transformed into a parade route with stages and massive screens that are to extend all the way to the central Zocalo square. Costs for the construction have also swelled from an original estimate of 393 million pesos to 690 million pesos, or about $50 million.

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Mayas protest monument to Spanish conquistadors

Montejo monument wiki The city of Merida on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula is reviewing a petition to remove a recently built public monument to the city's colonial founder, a figure whom some indigenous Mayas regard as a violent conquistador. The municipal government accepted the petition from a coalition of Mayan organizations to reconsider the monument and statues depicting Francisco de Montejo, known as "El Adelantado," and his son, also named Francisco and known as "El Mozo." The younger Montejo established Merida in 1542, on the site of the former Maya city of T'ho.

The statues, showing the two Montejo men in classic conquistador armor, were erected in June on a roundabout on an emblematic boulevard also named after Francisco de Montejo. Outgoing Mayor Cesar Bojorquez Zapata inaugurated the monument on the last day of his term (link in Spanish), at the request of local historians and businessmen who argued that the founder of modern Merida should be memorialized in some way on the city's major streets.

The push was headed by historian Juan Peon Ancona, who said at the inauguration, according to a newspaper's video of the event, that the erection of a monument to the Montejos is an example of "historical justice and maturity."

"Welcome Montejo," Peon said. "Why have you taken so long to get here?"

Bojorquez, the former Merida mayor, is a member of the conservative National Action Party. The party lost its hold on Merida in elections in May after two decades of continuous terms in city hall. The new mayor, Angelica Araujo, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, could potentially be more sympathetic to the indigenous groups' concerns, said a report at the website Yucatan Living. A new city council is expected to take up the issue.

Here is the text of the Maya groups' letter to Araujo's government, in Spanish.

The overall conquest of the Yucatan and the Maya civilization is one of the bloodiest and longest in the history of the Western Hemisphere, facts which other historians and yucatecos say is offensively disregarded in a monument to "El Adelantado" and "El Mozo."

As emissaries of the Spanish crown, the Montejo men led bands of conquistadors into numerous bloody battles against indigenous resisters between 1528 and 1546, killing thousands of Maya. The indigenous population of the Yucatan Peninsula then succumbed to widespread slavery on hacienda plantations and the general suppression of their culture.

"This represents an insult for the Maya nation," Maya activist Artemio Kaamal, told the Associated Press. "This injures the identity and roots of the Mayan people."

Another local historian, Genner de Jesus Llanes Ortiz, points out on his blog that Merida is a "multicultural city," with 42% of its population described as culturally and linguistically Maya, according to government figures (link in Spanish).

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: The monument in Merida to the Montejo conquistadors. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Fashion, make-up lines inspired by Ciudad Juarez spark apology

Rodarte tomo modo

The U.S. cosmetics company MAC, owned by Estee Lauder, and fashion house Rodarte have apologized for a controversial make-up line with product names such as "Quinceanera," "Ghost Town," "Factory," and "Juarez," making reference to the border city wracked by ongoing drug-related violence and a wave of killings of women.

The MAC make-up line of lipsticks and nail polishes was set for launch this fall. It was created in collaboration with Rodarte, founded by sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy, who are part Mexican and have said their recent clothing collection was inspired by Ciudad Juarez. MAC Cosmetics and Rodarte came under criticism in recent weeks for names in their collaborative make-up line. One lifestyle blog called it "horribly wrong" and "tasteless," noting that the product line refers to the Juarez maquiladora factories where women work for meager pay.

"Juarez is an impoverished Mexican factory town notorious for the number of women between the ages of 12 and 22 who have been raped and murdered with little or no response from police," said The Frisky.

Writer Sarah Menkedick, who lives in Mexico, made this critique: "In a sweep of total insouciance, for chic U.S. women, 'Factory' is an abstract consumable concept, a shade of mint frost, whereas for Mexican women in maquiladoras, it's a sweaty, oppressive place where they're frequently harassed, threatened, raped, and killed."

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'Footprints of the Bauhaus' in Mexico: Exploring the legacy of Michael Van Beuren

Tomo van beuren chaise lounge alacran chair

In 1941, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City organized "Organic Design for Home Furnishings," a  competition opened to design teams from Latin America. The winning submissions earned the prize of having their designs industrialized and sold by the Bloomingdale's department store. As detailed by the auction house Christie's, one of the winning entries in the competition was a chaise longue designed by a team from Mexico made up of Klaus Grabe, Morely Webb, and Michael Van Beuren.

The team, led by Van Beuren, made a splash in the U.S. with its stylish lounge chair, Christie's notes on a page for an original Van Beuren chaise that sold for more than $18,000 in 2009: "During the first half of 1941, the Mexican team's chaise was seen in ads or articles in, among many other publications, Retailing, Newark News, New York Herald Tribune, New York Times, Women's Wear Daily, Pencil Points and Decorative Furniture."

The chair even showed up in photos by Julius Shulman of homes in Southern California.

By then,  Van Beuren, born in the U.S. in 1911 and trained at the influential Bauhaus school in Germany, was already making its mark on home furnishing design on a broad scale in his adopted country, Mexico. That history, little-known outside design circles, is the subject of a new exhibit at the Franz Mayer applied-arts museum in Mexico City, "Footprints of the Bauhaus."

Van Beuren design home 1

The show brings together more than 100 pieces, including letters, sketches and photographs, that demonstrate how Van Beuren altered the course of interior design in Mexico in the post-Revolutionary period. Ana Elena Mallet, the exhibition's curator, said that "Footprints of the Bauhaus" speaks to a historical moment in which an emerging middle-class in Mexico sought to express stability and modernity after the long upheaval of the revolution, which ended roughly by the start of the 1920s.

"[Van Beuren] realized that he could build a furnishing industry here, that there was a new middle-class seeking to separate itself from European-style furnishings that were popular in late 19th Century and Mexican rustic-style furnishings that accompanied the nationalistic discourse in the 1920s," Mallet said in an interview in the exhibit hall this week.

"This new middle class wanted to break away from these ideologies, and he is the one who generated an entire furnishing line directly tied to modernist movements that were then sweeping the world," she added.

Van beuren industrial table 1

Van Beuren, trained as an architect, moved to Mexico in 1937 and was commissioned early on to design the interiors of the bungalows at the famous Flamingo Hotel in the resort city of Acapulco. Like other former members of the Bauhaus school, he found in Mexico a "fertile territory" to pursue new experiments in art and design, Mallet said.

Many, such as Anni and Josef Albers, sought to incorporate pre-Hispanic influences into their work. Van Beuren did as well, although in a more subtle manner than the Albers. One example is his version of the butaque chair, a scooped design set low to the ground that was present in Mexico before the arrival of the Spanish. In other furnishings, Van Beuren applied the foundational Bauhaus concept of merging "form with function," such as in tables with adjustable heights and tops.

Van beuren butaque chair 1 tomo

For decades after he opened a showroom in Mexico City's Juarez neighborhood and a factory in the suburb of Naucalpan,  Van Beuren helped reshape interior design across Mexico with industrial and affordable furnishings that found their way into countless homes and offices. The designer sold his factory and brand in 1973, and passed away in 2004 in Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City.

"In the end," Mallet said, "Van Beuren in Mexico was the first brand that was recognized by the public, that produced quality design in series, at reasonable prices."

As evidence of that historical reach and a new contemporary interest in Van Beuren's legacy, an estimated 1,300 people attended the opening of the "Footprints of the Bauhaus" exhibit last week, when only about 300 were expected. "They were mostly young people, people who said, 'I grew up with this furniture,' " Mallet said.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

First photo: A lounge chair by Michael Van Beuren's design team. Credit: / Second photo: Interior showroom display with Van Beuren furnishings, circa 1941. Credit: Franz Meyer Museum / Third photo: An adjustable Van Beuren table in the "Footprints of the Bauhaus" exhibit. Credit: Daniel Hernandez / Fourth photo: A Van Beuren butaque-style chair. Credit:

Mexican opera tackles the myth of 'Camelia la Tejana,' icon of narcocorridos

Camelia la tejana1

In the world of narcocorridos -- Mexican folk songs that recount the exploits of drug traffickers and criminals -- few are better known that "Contrabando y traicion," one of the earliest such tunes that was popularized by the trailblazing Los Tigres del Norte in the early 1970s.

"Contraband and Betrayal" tells the story of Camelia la Tejana, a woman who smuggles drugs into the United States then shoots and kills her lover in a jealous rage. (Here's an early video of the song on YouTube.)

The original author of "Contrabando y traicion" has long insisted the story is made up. Yet in 1986, in an issue of Mexico’s blood-and-gore tabloid Alarma!, a woman identified as "Camelia la Tejana" appeared in a news photograph weeping over the body of a lover who was decapitated by a train in Ciudad Juarez. Curiously, two different women subsequently appeared in the Mexican press claiming to be Camelia la Tejana -- and telling wildly divergent stories about their lives.

The myth of this narcocorrido figure is the subject of "Unicamente la verdad," or "Only the Truth," an experimental new opera that debuted this week at the Festival de Mexico in Mexico City. The opera, written and conceived by a pair of prominent artist siblings, tackles the border between fiction and reality, and the often taboo topic of Mexico's long and bloody history with drug smuggling along its border with the United States.

Composer Gabriela Ortiz and Los Angeles-based visual artist Ruben Ortiz Torres said they had been searching for a topic for a collaborative project when they came upon the old Alarma! clip. In their view, the story had all the elements of high drama necessary for opera, almost like a modern-day Mexican "Salome," the siblings said. But the presence of a contradictory myth and the context of a volatile drug conflict in Ciudad Juarez added challenging twists to the project.

"It was difficult to set Alarma!  to music," said Gabriela Ortiz, who incorporated into her score the accordion and tuba, instruments traditionally used in Mexican norteno music. "The music does have that flavor of the north, but more like a hybrid, and always through my lens."

With the help of grants, the Ortiz siblings put together an initial production of "Unicamente la verdad" at the University of Indiana in 2008. Ruben Ortiz, known for his often hybrid-themed video, photography and installation work, wrote the opera's libretto and produced videos that are projected onstage. Much of the footage was shot in Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana, he said.

"I conceived this as more than an opera, but as a contemporary art piece," Ruben Ortiz said.

The revised production of "Unicamente la verdad" premiered March 11 to a warm audience reception at the Teatro Julio Castillo in Mexico City's Chapultepec Park. Nieves Navarro, an emerging Mexican soprano, anchors the opera, playing the three different "personalities" of Camelia la Tejana.

It hasn't been lost on the authors that these days in Mexico, some political forces are attempting to ban narcocorridos from the airwaves. It recently happened to Los Tigres del Norte over a song that criticized the government's campaign against the cartels.

"It's absurd," Gabriela Ortiz said. "I think what they should do is attack the reality. Narcocorridos exist because a problem exists."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Gerardo Reynoso and Nieves Navarro in "Unicamente la verdad." Credit: Festival de Mexico

United Nations' culture and education agency raises concerns for Haiti's cultural treasures

Church The United Nations' culture and education agency called Friday for a ban on trading in artifacts from Haiti to prevent the pillaging of cultural treasures in the aftermath of the island nation's devastating earthquake.

The director-general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, said in an interview with the Associated Press that the agency is launching a campaign to protect art collections in the Caribbean country's damaged museums as well as its historical sites "so that we don't find these objects in Christie's tomorrow."

The U.N. Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization launched the appeal after learning "a lesson from Iraq and Afghanistan," where cultural objects were looted after the U.S.-led invasions.

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