Sunday, September 28, 2008

Meet the Locals - Professional Scribe

Meet Rommel Jaimes who works as a professional scribe (evangelista) beneath the portals of Plaza Santo Domingo (Portal de Evangelistas) in the Centro Historico district of Mexico City. He has been happy to sit at the same desk, underneath the same arch, for the past forty six years attending to requests of writing letters, preparing documents, typing up bills and all tramites relating to Mexican bureauocracy. Business he says is a tad slow these days, but he can still make a living.

He is part of a row of some two dozen professional scribes (or public writers ), some still using typewriters and antique printing machines, who sit beneath these portals everyday, alongside printing and papeleria businesses who take orders for the most exquisite of handmade invitations using traditional amate bark paper, as well as the usual trimmings of bows, ribbons, for every occasion imaginable; weddings, baptisms, birthdays etc. All have their wares on display, as well as thick catalogues to flick through.

It is a lively and atmospheric part of the city with vibrant street life, and other places of interest to visit in the vicinity include the baroque Santo Domingo church (1736), Secretaria de Educacion Publica with its displays of murals ( Mon- Fri only), and the Museo de Medicina Mexicana housed in the 18th Century Palace which was once the Holy Inquistion headquarters in Mexico.

Plaza Santo Domingo is located a short walk from the zocalo centred on Calle Republica de Brasil in the Centro Historico District of DF. This is also the place to obtain any forged document one may need - allegedly!

Local Artists in Mexico - Frida's Contemporaries

An interesting art exhibition is currently showing in DF at Museo Mural Diego Rivera in the Centro Historico. It features the work of native Mexican and ex-pat female artists who were all contemporaries of Frida Kahlo in the forties and fifties; many of whom, however, were subsequently forgotten or remain undocumented. The show exhibits a range of paintings, sculptures, silk tapestries, and woodcut engravings by 27 different artists, and many of these artists are still working today here in Mexico. Some of the artists featured include photographer Lola Bravo, painter Olga Costa, woodcut engraver Isabel Villasenor, sculptor Rosa Castillo and Lola Cueto who creates silk tapestries. The range of work is both diverse and beautifully displayed, but if you live in DF, you need to be quick as the exhibition closes on October 12th 2008.

Also at this museum you can view one of Rivera's most famous murals "Sueno de una tarde dominical en la Alameda" (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda) which is on permanent display, and if you still have more energy, round the corner at Laboratorio Arte Alameda there is currently an exhibition called "Synenergia". This is cutting edge contemporary art shown very atmospherically in a dark and gloomy, but beautiful former church. The most interesting exhibit in the show, is an installation piece called "Lider de Opinion" by Ivan Puig 2008, which features a variety of miniature dioramas which are filmed and then displayed as two different fake news broadcasts. One of the curators, who has to sit in the dark all day, is unsurprisingly very keen to chat to you and urge you to recommend this exhibition and get more people to attend.

Between the two galleries there is one of my favourite pitstops in the Alameda area, good for a really authentic Mexican breakfast of huevos rancheros, namely Cafe Trevi. A word of warning, however, as although I love spicy food, this place serves the Dirty Harry of salsas, which if you're not careful will indeed blow your head clean off!!

Museo Mural Diego Rivera is at the corner of Balderas and Colon, the entrance to Laboratorio is just round the corner on Dr Mora ( ), and between them Cafe Trevi is on the corner of Colon and Dr Mora.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The longest print in the world - Mexico DF

Today saw a unique art event happening on the streets of DF, as over 200 local artists collaborated to produce the longest print in the world, stretching from Bellas Artes all along Avenida Juarez as far as Reforma in the Centro Historico. Entitled "Grabado del Bicentenario en la Ciudad de Mexico", the artwork serves to acknowledge and celebrate Mexico's bicentenary upcoming in the year 2010, and will only be displayed for one day, namely Saturday September 27th 2008. A video shown on the pavement outside the Alameda shows the artists at work, plus the monumental staging of the event and setting up of the print earlier today.

Amongst the featured artists is world renowned Leonora Carrington, a long term resident of Colonia Roma in Mexico City. It is interesting to note, that as is so often the case in Mexican art that the skull and the skeleton are frequently featured along the print's length. I was unable to find out if it is intended that the print will now go on more permanent display in DF.

Local artists in Mexico - Margarita Fick

As the country starts to prepare for this year's Day of the Dead celebrations, one artist stands out as being directly inspired by this particular festival. Margarita Fick is a self-taught folk artist producing handcut unique papel picado (paper cut ) creations often featuring Catrina figures and calaveras ( skeletons ).

Born in Guadalajara, she started paper cutting at the age of four, helping her family make homemade paper cut decorations for family fiestas, but she did not seriously resume her art until in her early forties. She is the only female artist currently in Mexico still producing such work. The originals here that are in my collection, are only large postcard size, but she does also work on a much larger scale, and the delicacy of her images is quite exquisite. I hope to acquire more soon when I return to Patzcuaro.

She currently resides in Queretaro, and you can read an interesting account of meeting her on Billieblog, plus there is more information available at, and work for sale via contacting in Houston. Her work is also sometimes for sale in the shop Zocalo in San Miguel de Allende. Her images are now displayed in galleries in USA and private collections.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Festivals in Mexico - Day of the Dead

The next most important festival in Mexico will be the Day of the Dead celebrations held on November 1st and 2nd throughout the country. So far, I have witnessed the rituals and traditions in Oaxaca, Guanajuato, Patzcuaro, and Real de Catorce, but this year will be returning to Patzcuaro and the surrounding villages where the festival is particularly special. The island of Janitzio and the lakeside village of Tzintzuntzan (my favourite place name in the whole of Mexico derived from Purepecha for hummingbird and obviously onomatopoeic ) will both be on the itinerary.
Pictured above are sugar skulls on a market stall in Guanajuato which are typical of the banquet of skeletal candy that appears at this time of year often accompanied by the special Pan de Muertos ( bread of the dead). Ofrendes (altars honouring the dead) also appear everywhere at this time of year - in the local bank, in every shop window, in hotel lobbies, in restaurants, and the one pictured is part of a giant ofrende which totally took over the basketball courts at the school where I teach.
Look for more upcoming photos and posts about the Day of the Dead, a festival which is absolutely unique to Mexico, and explains the prevalence of skull and skeleton iconography in Mexican folk art and other works of art.

Artisans in Mexico - Rugs from Oaxaca

Mexico continues to retain a flourishing tradition of artisans working in a range of arts and crafts to produce an infinitely rich variety of folk art, rugs, basketry, woodwork, ceramics, textiles, toys, tinwork, lacquerware, masks and so much more. The woollen woven rugs from Oaxaca are distinctive in their quality, craftsmanship and design. Surrounding the city of Oaxaca in the Valles Centrales are a host of artisan villages each specialising in a different craft. The village specialising in weaving is called Teotitlan del Valle, and the tradition of making rugs, sarapes and blankets here, harks back to pre-Hispanic times when Teotitlan had to pay tributes of cloth to the Aztecs. Rugmaking is a cottage industry with the whole of an extended family working at the looms using traditional dyes made from indigo and cochineal. Weavers at the workshops are very happy to demonstrate their techniques from spinning the raw wool to showing how complex designs and images are created.
The rug pictured in the centre above takes its inspiration for the design from the stonework of a nearby archaeological site called Mitla. Not nearly as well known as the site of Monte Alban in the region, Mitla is distinguished by beautiful stonework mosaics in strong geometric patterns. Mitla was at one time the most important of Zapotec religious centres, and dates from 300 years prior to the Spanish conquest. The Patios de Mosaicos feature fourteen different geometric designs symbolising the feathered serpent Quetzlcoatl, the sky and earth, and other beings from the realm of Nature. It is a small and quiet site with a very tranquil atmosphere making it well worth a visit.
Oaxaca is east of Mexico City and takes 6 hours to reach by road. First class buses frequently leave Mexico City's TAPO bus station, and the journey costs 750 pesos return ( $75 ). Mitla is 75 minutes and Teotitlan is 45 minutes east of the city of Oaxaca, and both can be easily reached by a local bus from the second class bus station. Alternatively, it is possible to take a half day tour (186 pesos/$20 ) from one of the city travel agencies (eg Marfil near Plaza Santo Domingo ) which includes a visit to a weaving workshop at Teotitlan, a guided tour of Mitla, plus a quick stop at El Tule to see the tree which is reputedly " el mas gordito en el mundo " ( the fattest tree in the world ). This ahuehuete ( type of cypress ) indeed sports an impressive girth of 58 metres. One of the most reasonable places to buy Oaxacan rugs in the city, is a cooperative store called "Casa de las Artesanias" which stocks pieces from family workshops and craft organisations, and is conveniently located right in the centre at Matamoros 105 ( Mon-Sat 9am - 9pm, Sun 10am - 8pm).

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Local artists in Mexico - Street Art in Oaxaca

With Banksy working in London, and Street Art beginning to command high prices at auctions, as well as a great deal of attention in the galleries, it was interesting to see that the work of a young group of artists has replaced the traditional history of protest graffiti in Oaxaca. ArtejaguaR was founded in the graphic design workshops of the Fine Arts School ( UABJO) in 2004. Their aesthethics experiment with traditional graphic design techniques to produce a form of street art which has links to graffiti, popular culture and graphic design. The first picture is a traditional shop sign using stencilling and signpainting by hand so common throughout the whole of Mexico, whereas the second is the work of the Arte Jaguar Crew. Check out more of their work and philosophy on their self-proclaimed website - Artejaguar.
You can find this work in situ (about seven pieces of street art) on Calle Allende in the city of Oaxaca, just round the corner from a charming Posada called Hotel Las Golondrinas ( 411 Calle Tinoco y Palacios ) which is a steal at 520 pesos ( $52 ) for a double room amidst blooming patios and a chilled out cafe.
Are they simply following in the Mexican tradition of commercial graphic design or are they breaking new ground and forging a new aesthetic in line with the burgeoning interest in Street Art worldwide? For more current information on London street artists check out the article in about D*Face, Eine, ID, Caliper Boy, Cut Up, and Adam Neate.

The Vanishing VW - Nuisance or Icon?

The Mexican Government has recently announced plans to rid DF streets of cars more than 10 years old by the year 2012 for environment and safety reasons - including "el vocho" more commonly known as the VW Beetle. Only offering 19 miles to the gallon compared to 34 miles in more modern fuel efficient taxis, the green and white symbol of Mexico City was recently described as a "nuisance" by Victor Ramirez of the Transport Ministry. The City is currently offering taxi drivers 15, 000 pesos ($1500) to turn their "vochos" into scrap, citing popularity with kidnappers, due to the lack of a front seat, as another reason to bid good riddance.

Vw Beetles made their debut on DF streets in 1938, and were in production at the plant in Puebla up until July 30th 2003. There are about 80, 000 currently on the city streets which is the third highest number after Germany and Brazil, but for how much longer will they be such a common sight? Subscribers to the magazine "Vochomania" which features "Vocho del Mes" ( Beetle of the Month ) may well not be the only ones to lament their demise.

Will the streets of DF be a very different place without them? Is it good riddance to a dangerous, polluting nuisance? Or the sad loss of a valued symbolic icon?