Why art lovers are flocking to Mexico City
Alastair Smart examines how a rich history and a new creative boom have forged a reputation that goes beyond Frida Kahlo
The queue for entry snakes around the block like a serpent of Aztec mythology. As happens every morning, several hundred pilgrims from around the world have descended upon Casa Azul (The Blue House) in the Coyoacan district in Mexico City’s south. Once the home of Frida Kahlo, Mexico’s most famous artist, these days it serves as a museumcum-shrine, with everything from her paintings, jewellery, Tehuana dresses and earthenware cooking pots on display within the cobalt walls.
Kahlo (1907-54), who as a teenager had suffered a tram accident that left her infertile and in lifelong pain, shared this house with her philandering, domineering husband, the muralist Diego Rivera. Her unflinching self-portraits – pained, bloodied but unbowed – hark back to the Mater Dolorosa of Catholic tradition and have turned Frida into a feminist icon worldwide. An icon, too, for anyone who’s suffered emotional or physical pain. Hence the queue. Casa Azul has more than a whiff of a secular Lourdes about it.
A ballet about Kahlo’s life, Broken Wings, was premiered earlier this year by English National Ballet in London, proof that Frida-mania shows no sign of abating. What is changing fast, though, is the notion that art in Mexico City is synonymous simply with her. The Mexican capital’s increasing popularity with international visitors is in part down to a thriving art scene that goes far beyond Kahlo’s work.
“Galleries and independent spaces are popping up everywhere,” says Zelika Garcia, director of the city’s art fair, Zona Maco. “There’s so much artistic talent, it’s hard to keep up.”
This talent shows itself in many settings, from converted taco stalls and newspaper kiosks to the pristine, white-cube space of Gallery OMR in the trendy neighbourhood Roma. Interestingly, the days of Mexican art meaning explicitly Mexican subject matter (such as cacti or sombreros) seem to be over.
“The discourse is broader now, more international,” says Garcia, referring to the fact her country’s bestknown artists in the 20th-century – from Kahlo and Rivera to the photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo – made work that was rooted in “Mexicanidad” and the question of Mexican identity. The concerns of today’s artists are often different – a symptom of the globalised 21st-century art world. A typical work is People on People by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, for Gallery OMR, in which you walk around the exhibition space but with the image of other visitors projected within your shadow. Tackling themes from surveillance culture to individuality in a digitalised world, this installation could have been made by any artist, anywhere on the planet.
Held every February, Zona Maco, the biggest art fair in Latin America, this year celebrated its 13th edition, welcoming 125 galleries from 25 countries. It is testament to Mexico City’s growth into an art-world hub. How to explain that growth, though? Well, money certainly helps. Mexico’s economy is growing at a healthy rate (it’s predicted to be the world’s fifth biggest by 2050) – and a hip, new generation of art collectors has followed in its wake.
The telecoms magnate Carlos Slim, the second richest man in the world, has invested heavily in the once rundown central district of Plaza Carso, which has seen disused warehouses and factories replaced by, among other things, two formidable museums: the Jumex (housing the art of the family that owns Mexico’s eponymous fruitjuice empire) and the Soumaya, which displays 5,000 pieces from Slim’s own collection.
The latter’s glimmering exterior calls to mind an outsized, aluminium hourglass; its interior presents a mishmash of art, European and Mexican, from the 15th to 19th centuries and it squarely meets Slim’s own aim: to offer his countrymen free access to some of the great artists of Western civilisation without having to leave Mexico City.
The Soumaya boasts six storeys, all connected by a ramp staircase that rises to a show-stopping top floor, complete with skylight and resplendent Rodins. Among its other highlights is Van Gogh’s Cottage with Peasants, possibly the first painting the Dutchman ever signed. Another is Valle de Mexico, a landscape from 1897 of the very spot where the Soumaya now stands. It’s a strikingly rural vision, and proof of how much the city has mushroomed.
The current skyline is littered with buildings of great variety, marking the many epochs of the city’s past: preHispanic, baroque, art deco, modernist (notably, Ricardo Legorreta’s structures in bold geometric shapes and even bolder colours) and contemporary. Mexico’s capital has never been bound by strict building regulations, as so many cities are. Hence innovative edifices like the Soumaya, and also La Lavadora (The Washing Machine) and El Pantaloon (The Pair of Trousers), whose names tell you all you need to know about their appearance.
Passing down the city’s central boulevard, Paseo de la Reforma, eclectic new buildings appear at every turn, a riot of mismatched windows and projecting planes. As Garcia points out, “It’s not just art. All areas of creativity are flourishing: design, food and architecture, too.”
Clearly, life for all 21 million of the city’s inhabitants isn’t a bed of dahlias. Traffic is still a problem – though developments such as elevated highways and car-free Sundays in much of the city centre have helped.
On the plus side, despite Mexico City’s reputation for pollution, there’s also a huge oasis of green at the city’s
Mexico City, above, boasts several new galleries and art spaces; Casa Azul, below, is a popular attraction Frida Kahlo, below, remains Mexico’s most famous artist