Why art lovers are flock­ing to Mex­ico City

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Mexico -

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

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