One must-see for any lover of Mexican folk art is the town of Teotitlan del Valle near the city of Oaxaca, famous for its weaving of wool rugs. In the past 20 years or so, there has been a movement pairing these weavers with various artists. The goal is to create rugs with modern designs, but made with traditional techniques.
One person to do this work is American artist Mary Stuart. She has lived in Mexico City since arriving to the country in the 1970s to study mural painting at Mexico’s prestigious La Esmeralda School.
During Stuart’s career, she was worked in varous media, traditional and non-traditional. Her interest in designing rugs came about because of artist James Brown, a well-known New York artist. Brown had been enticed by a brother to go to Oaxaca and work with the artisans of Teotitlan del Valle. In turn, Brown has brought in artists from the United States and Europe, sparking a sub-industry in rug making in this area.
Stuart’s first rug project resulted in a pair of rugs with a “musical chairs” theme. Stylized chairs are woven onto a neutral background; the chairs themselves have a background of old sheet music that Stuart had found in the Lagunilla flea market in Mexico City. The resulting rug design was so long that artist and artisans agreed that it should be cut into two paired rugs. One of these rugs can be found in Stuart’s Mexico City apartment to this day.
Stuart states the experience of designing the rug and working with artisan Jerónimo Hernández Ruíz was like “being bitten by a bug.” Since then, she has thought of and sketched many ideas for rugs, but to date only a small portion of them have been executed. The main reason for this is that weaving rugs on a pedal loom is extremely time-consuming, so the resulting piece is expensive.
Initially, Stuart would design and execute rugs with the idea of selling them as artworks. She even obtained funding from FONCA, a major source of art project funding in Mexico, for such. While a number sold, too often she would hear that a buyer was interested but the size or color scheme was not quite right. This, and the unfortunate robbery of her former studio in Mexico and the loss of a number of valuable rugs, led her to making and selling the rugs strictly on a commission basis.
Stuart states almost apologetically that the rug work is more “fun” in the sense that she only has to focus on the design and color, leaving the tedious manufacture to others. But she repects their work, marveling how they need little guidance in the execution of designs and finding ways to create irregular shapes, even if that means undoing portions of the rug they wove.
Currently Stuart is collaborating with Hernández Ruíz on a set of rugs for an upcoming exhibition for the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City. This event, Arte/Sano, is a regular biennial which pairs artists and artisans to create innovative products. The Stuart/Hernández Ruíz project is a pair of black and white rugs based off of the concept of Muslim prayer rugs, something Stuart is familiar with as she lived for some time in Tunisia when she was younger. One rug is as black as possible, and the other is in the same design but as white as possible. The black rug is to symbolize the void and the white rug, the light of God. The design is extremely simple, reduced down to a representation of an arrow that Muslim prayer rugs have with the purpose of pointing to Mecca. The project is slated to be finished by August, with the exhibition being held by the end of the year.
Photos courtesy of the artist and republished with her permission.
One reason I feel at home in Mexico City is that there are similarities to where I am from, the NY metro area. Most Americans who come to Mexico don’t know that there is immigration INTO the country, and have little interest in such. But Mexico’s small immigration groups have had a much larger impact on the country than their numbers would suggest. And believe it or not, one of the most steady streams of immigration into the country has been from Japan.
Roberto Yuichi Shimizu is a second-generation Mexican who is fluent in Spanish, Japanese and English. And believe it or not, his family has made their home and mark in the working-class neighborhood of Colonia Doctores. Roberto’s father, Roberto Sr, is known for founding the Museo de Juguete Antiguo de México (MUJAM, Antique Toy Museum of Mexico), basically as a place to safeguard his tremendous collection of antique commercially-made toys, almost all from the 20th century. Despite having 3+ floors of a building in Dr. Olvera Street stuffed full, Roberto Sr. states that the museum holds only about 5% of the total collection he has amassed over his lifetime.
Not even 1% of what the museum proper holds
Roberto Jr., who prefers to be called Shimi, grew up around this collection and his father’s obsession with scouring flea markets and other places to find more toys. These outings brought him in contact with Mexico City’s street culture, along with growing up in Doctores. It also seemed to instill in him the need to dedicate himself to something, even if it wasn’t toys. Shimi’s father also encouraged his children to read. The children were limited in what they could ask for, except in the purchase of books, of which they were allowed to purchase however many they liked. One book Shimi bought was on graffiti art in the United States. With this book, he became familiar with the work of famous graffiti artists such as D. White in New York. And he was hooked. Shimi would go on to become an urban artist, painting in various parts of Mexico as well as the United States and Brazil, but he is best known as an organizer and promoter.
Shimi studied architecture in college, becoming interested in urban studies and design. After working for a time in Japan, he returned to Mexico to help with the family business and, of course, the museum. Shimi decided to take a vacant warehouse in the same neighborhood and convert it into a kind of museum annex, calling it the Foro Cultural de MUJAM. It was dedicated to experimenting with new ideas in urban art, music and events for collectors of other items such as stickers. During its run, the Foro Cultural was sucessful enough to launch the career of several urban artists and musicians, but it became too big to run without outside support, which unfortunately, did not come.
Graffiti “tattoos” on the rooftop space of MUJAM. (L: AA Monk R:Lina Fresa)
The Foro closed, and Shimi began organizing street events in Colonia Doctores, as well as taking over the top floor and roof of his father’s museum as a kind of headquarters for his activities. The roof area is called the “rooftop” using the English word. Shimi describes as a kind of “speakeasy” (again using English) for urban artists as it is generally not open to the public, but it regulary hold events which are. These and other areas of the museum have urban art interventions, large and small, which Shimi likens to tattoos. Each tells a story of an event and/or people who have gathered there. About 100 works have been painted at the museum, but not all are still in existance.
Urban art murals inside MUJAM (L and C artists unknown, R: Nabs @nabsd.art)
Since the Foro closed, one of Shimi’s main projects has been the creation of the Doctores Art District, focusing on culture in six colonias (neighborhoods) located just south and southwest of the historic center of Mexico City: Doctores, Obrera, Algarín, Buenos Aires, Roma and Condesa. The first four are poor, working-class areas which are adjacent to Roma and Condesa, which are upper class and already known for culture.
This and his painting has since led to the launch of the Barrio Vivo (Living Neighborhood) Festival in 2018. It was an immediate success, and so far the only fully home-grown urban art event in Mexico City. The 2019, it had the participation of 90 artists, 70 of whom had to compete with hundreds of other contenders to win space to paint. Half of the winning entries were from abroad, from countries such as Spain, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, the United States, France, Canada and Venezuela. In the end, about 60 murals were painted in the Doctores Art District, and the event was supported by Osel Painting, Tuborg and Golden Kintama as well as borough authorties. Despite the event being only in its second year, the accepted artists paid their own expenses to come and paint, as patronage right now for the event is absolutely basic. These artists believe it is worth paying such costs to have a Mexico City wall in their “book.” It is also important because Shimi selects the participating artists taking care to have both well-known and upcoming artists working side-by-side.
Shimi is called the “curator” of urban art in the Doctores Art District, but he shrugs off that title. While it is true that he selects artists and assigns them space, he says the real curators are the “grafiteros” of the area. If they do not like a work, they will vandalize it. If they do like it, they will leave it alone. He calls it “street curating.” He expects only about 40 or 50 of this year’s murals to survive to next year.
Organizing the Barrio Vivo event takes a full year to do, so work on the 2020 version has already begun. His work with urban art has led to invitations to speak about Mexico’s role in it in the country and in the United States, with his experience and education giving a unique perspective. Shimi believes urban art is important in Mexico because it can rescue, or at least give value to lower-class neighborhoods such as Doctores. If quality murals exist, people from other parts of the city and even tourist will visit, allowing people to see a different side to these neighborhoods. For this reason, one of his main goal is to continuing the development of Barrio Vivo, if not in numbers of artists and murals, in better logistics and cooperation with more organizations.
Both Robertos (father and son) have emphasized that Mexico has been very good to their family and that it is important to give back. Both the museum and the urban art activities allow them to do this. The museum gets quite a few visitors despite its location and even more so now that it is an “embassy” of modern urban art, bringing together artists from all over Mexico and other parts of the world. The benefitting colonias have also responded very favorably, with building owners now approaching the museum to offer space to paint. And not only private buildings, Shimi has gotten wall space on local landmarks such as the Hidalgo Market and the public employee union building.}
Barrio Vivo is part of both Mexico’s muralism tradition as well as the modern global boom in urban art. It has already worked to mitigate Mexico’s reputation for violence and disorganization, but Shimi believes much more needs to be done.
All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia – featured image of work by CTNFZ
I live in Colonia Doctores, near the historic center of Mexico City. It is not a neighborhood one associates with foreign expats in this city, although it is next Roma and Condesa, which have large expat numbers. The reason for the lack of gringos and other foreigners is that Doctores has long been a “zona popular,” a lower-class neighborhood.
It is not the most dangerous neighborhood in Mexico City, but it is not the safest and lacks the architecture (old mansions) as well as trendy nightclubs and restaurants that Roma, Condesa and points west have. Despite hearing gunshots and other disturbances (which to be fair, happen in “safe” areas, too), I have lived with zero problems in my modest apartment just off Lazaro Cárdenas.
Mexico City has participated in the worldwide boom in street and urban art… basically, graffiti which has evolved into art. Most of this work still uses the signature spray paint, but it is not unusual to see people painting walls with brushes, rollers, stencils and even using other materials such as charcoal.
So far, global attention to artistic graffiti has centered on New York and Europe, with Banksy probably being the best known artist of this kind. But Mexico has a number of advantages culturally that may make it the next major powerhouse in the urban art scene.
The first is just the sheer amount of creativity the culture fosters. This atmosphere has one one major draw for foreign artists to not only come here, but often to stay the rest of their lives. As street art moves in mural making, Mexico is uniquely qualified to contribute to this endeavor with the tradition founded by Diego Rivera and others just after the Mexican Revolution. The kids with spray cans are now doing murals related to Mexican culture, history, social and political issues as well, but there are some important differences from their predecesors. First, many of these artists have little to no formal artistic training. They did not travel to Europe to study the masters or even go to the major art schools of their home country. They learned from their friends and through experimentation on their own. American artist and art teacher Jason Schell, who founded the Urban Art Show in Mexico, stated that there is a vast pool of “raw talent” that are creating with the bare minimum of supplies and support.
L: Mural covering a side of an apartment building by Jackson R: A stencil on a building, photo by Ezequiel netri
The muralism of the 1920s to 1950s was heavily patronized by the Mexican government, whose main concern was establishing the post-revolutionary regime’s legitimacy. To do this, they glorified the Revolution and created a new concept of what it means to be Mexico, one that included its indigenous past. The works that got commissioned were painting on government buildings, schools and other public places, with intended audienced (in most cases) ordinary people, not the elite.
Today’s urban graffiti murals are also aimed at the general public, but such work has only very very recently begun to be patronized by government entities and some community organizations. Until this decade, almost all mural work was self-financed, obtaining permission from property owners to paint. This meant that artists did not have government telling them what to paint; their only constraint was that it had to please the owner of the building. It also meant that their work did not appear on any government buildings, and have mostly been relegated to “zona populares” such as Colonia Doctores, other such neighborhoods in Mexico City and the adjacent cities to the north and east. It is interesting to note that these murals continue the tradition of glorifying Mexico’s mestizaje (mixed race) heritage, established in the 1920s, but does NOT glorify the government in anyway. In fact there has been work, both small and large scale, that is critical of the government and brings to light various social issues. One such issue relates to the still-missing 43 teacher-college students that disappeared in Ayotzingo, Guerrero and are presumed dead.
Mexico’s promise as a street/urban art community is such that the international organization Meeting of Styles established a Mexican branch in the early 2010s and holds a festival every year painting in the southern part of the historic center and into Line 1 of the Metro. In 2018, Mexico’s first fully homegrown urban art festival was started by artist Roberto Shimizu, who paints, promotes and organizes out of his father’s fascinating toy museum (Museo de Juguete Antiguo de Mexico) located in Colonia Doctores (two blocks from my house). This event came onto the scene and exploded by 2019. In Part 2, we will talk more in depth about this event, especially the 2019 edition which just (officially) concluded.
Featured image: Mural by the Axolotl collective as part of the Barrio Vivo event 2019 in Colonia Doctores, Mexico City.