This is the first instalment of a CMH travel blog, documenting my research trip to Mexico City. The purpose of the trip is to investigate the practice of Mexican participatory artists, working in community and health projects, as an international comparator to the work of the equivalent artists in the UK.
Episode 1: Cultural acclimatisation
After an extended flight to a different continent most impressions are quite surreal, and so it was for me on arrival in Mexico for the first time. The images stack up, and begin to create a new landscape in which to make sense of experiences: humming birds, geckos and rampant cacti, crazy peseros (penny buses) full to bursting with people and their stuff – washing, musical instruments, vegetables – careering around breaking all the traffic rules, almost tipping over, and bearing the scars of numerous collisions; and then the sound of a lone singer late at night, lamenting at top volume across the quiet, residential housing (with lazy insects rasping a percussion accompaniment).
In the southern suburb of the city where our friend and anthropologist colleague Ana Rosas Mantecón lives, which is a semi-rural pre-hispanic settlement, there are low-lying, colourful stone houses, all crammed together, with washing lines on the roof, interspersed with grubby garages and oddball shops, with hand-painted signs on cardboard or corrugated iron. Then there’s the ultra-urban city centre almost an hour’s drive away, with grand galleries, parks, numerous sculptures, beautifully designed concert halls and theatres. ‘High’ culture is big here.
The ‘Centro Historico’, the old part of the city, is divided. While the area beside the cathedral is newly gentrified, the area behind the national palace is crumbling but beautiful, paint peeling off faded, colonial architectural treasures, some leaning backwards or sideways from subsidence. This is the area where one of my projects is located – the context is fascinating.
The timing of my trip is wonderful for developing an understanding of cultural context. Mexico is awash with final preparations for the national festival ‘Day of the Dead’ (Dia de Muertos), which takes place next week. One example of this is the temporary outdoor exhibition of ‘Alebrijes’ – enormous papier mache sculptural structures depicting mythical and fantasy creatures – which includes over 200 pieces, lining the main avenue – the ‘Champs-Elysées’ of the city.
These spectacular and brilliantly decorated sculptures were visited by hundreds of ordinary families, taking photos and crowding around. Any could have been a central feature piece in a carnival parade, and they seem to capture in magnificent excess of colour and ambition the essence of community arts and creative expression. Those made by professional artists and those made by community groups are side by side without distinction: the exhibition is a clear testament to the impact of product and to the power of collective authorship.
Two thoughts on cultural acclimatisation at this stage:
The sight of hundreds of ordinary Mexican families making the (lengthy) trip to see the sculptures, babies in arms wrapped in blankets, and tiny grandmas (also in blankets) stowed safely on the grass verge, taking photos of each other beside these wild and grotesque creations, speaks of a common openness to and appetite for imagination and artistic expression of a very immediate kind.
This grass roots level, Mexican arts appreciation and involvement seems to be matched by an equally impressive state investment in high level, world class international cultural activity. There is a huge array of public art commissioned from all over the world, as well as theatre, western classical music and dance programming, and of course a great pride in Mexican visual artists. The arts are alive and kicking in Mexico!
In my next entry I hope to write about the first events and projects related to my own field research, which I am reading against this cultural background landscape.