For most Indonesians, Mexico is synonymous with foods like nachos or tacos and hosting the football World Cup in 1970 and again in 1986.
Far less is known about the nation’s arts, which are nevertheless a vibrant part of the country’s heart and soul.
Recently, Indonesia’s Galeri Nasional in Jakarta shed light on this unfamiliar world through the “Visual Anthology of Mexico” exhibition, which features the works of some of the country’s leading artists from 1940 to 2009.
The exhibition marks 60 years of bilateral relations between Mexico and Indonesia and is focused on the role of art in Mexican society and government.
“The art featured in the ‘Visual Anthology of Mexico’ exhibition is from the collection of the Ministry of Budget and Public Finance and Patrimonial Heritage,” museum guide Natasha Tontey said.
“The ministry received them [the pieces of art] as part of the [Mexican] ‘Payment in Kind’ [‘Page en Especie]’] program. Under the policy, which was formalized in a 1957 presidential decree, impoverished artists can pay their taxes through the government by sending them their artwork.”
She added that the value of the art was scrutinized by a special selection committee before being accepted.
Among the artistic figures who came up with the “Payment in Kind” program were David Alvaro, Carlos Merida and Diego Rivera, a legend of Mexican art who is best known as the creator of murals throughout Mexico City depicting various eras in the country’s history.
“Many of the artists featuring in the exhibition were influenced by him. Among them is Rodolfo Morales, whose surrealist style was [also] inspired by Marc Chagall,” Natasha said.
“Morales’s painting ‘Beyond the Silence’ pioneers a style that was known as magical realism, which originated in the state of Oaxaca. The painting is also inspired by the Day of the Dead, which is a pre-Christian tradition unique to Mexico and the country’s tradition of pre-Columbian art.”
The fusion of cultures is shown by the unearthly portrayal of two figures floating in the air lamenting over a dead man. While the corpse evokes the Day of the Dead tradition, its stillness also reminds one of the Pieta paintings and sculptures by artists like Michelangelo or El Greco, which show the Virgin Mary mourning over Jesus’s dead body.
Another work that brought up the same theme is Gustavo Adolfo Monroy’s painting “I’m Not Here.” Painted in a style reminiscent of Byzantine icons, the painting profoundly conveys the feeling and mood of loss and death.
The themes of death, religious belief, and pre-Columbian art can also be easily recognized in other pieces of art, particularly in Graciela Iturbide’s photograph “In the Name of the Father.”
“ ‘In the Name of the Father’ is part of a photo series touching on Mexico’s matriarchal society,” Natasha said. “The lamb represents [Christ’s] sacrifice in the name of the father. But the hand holding the animal is that of a woman, thereby representing the matriarchal social structure that has always been at the heart of Mexican society.”
Contemporary artist Patricia Henriquez uses video animation to comment on the cycles of life. Henriquez used trees, seeds and shadows as a metaphor for life. She used breathing and heartbeats to convey the sense of the earth as a living organism.
The exhibition also includes the work of foreign artists like Russian-born Angelina Beloff and British-born surrealist painter and novelist Leonora Carrington, recalling a time during the last century when Mexico was a haven for foreign artists.
“Beloff was strongly influenced by [Diego] Rivera, as she is none other than his former wife,” Natasha said.
Beloff’s work “Santa Maria Park” seems to combine the impressionist and expressionist styles of Matisse, Cezanne and Picasso with a uniquely Mexican touch.
The prominent role of women in Mexican art is seen in the status of Beloff, as well as Henriquez’s video collage, Carrington’s surreal work, such as “Gramercy Park IV,” and Frida Kahlo, perhaps the nation’s best-known female artist.
Besides painting, the exhibition also highlights the strides that Mexico has made in sculpture, a development that occurred late in the 20th century.
“Betsabe Romero’s ‘The Way to El Dorado’ is a reflection of the exploitation of humans and nature alike by capitalism,” Natasha said.
“Romero uses a golden wheel to make his point. The rubber on the wheel is derived from nature. It rides roughshod over people, while the gold layer represents capitalism.”
Another work, Jorge Marin’s “Archer On A Horse,” represents larger-than-life Renaissance nudes and equestrian statues, as well as sculptures depicting the archangel Michael.
The “Visual Anthology of Mexico” is a vision of modern art that is part contemporary, part visceral, and all Mexican.
Originally published by The Jakarta Globe on Apr. 22, 2013