The Art Scene in Mexico City
A list of museums and studios
My experience speaking to local artists
Some examples of public art, architecture, and handicrafts
What I learned about Mexican art history
Lots of photographs
My thoughts on the significance of experiencing another culture’s art scene
At the MUAC
The goal of the trip was to learn about printmaking in Mexico City, and though that goal was accomplished beautifully, there was so much more art to experience around the city. This post will be comprised of everything I can think of that pertains to the art I saw in Mexico City, from paintings, to murals, to art ed and museums. Let’s jump in!
Our trip was called “SOMA Express,” an abbreviated version of some kind of summer residency that apparently the Painting & Printmaking department sends a student to every year. Without getting into what seems to be yet another instance of VCUarts—or perhaps just Painting & Printmaking—poorly communicating its international opportunities to its students, I will tell you about my experience with SOMA during this trip.
SOMA is a nonprofit organization that’s is all about “cultural exchange and the teaching of arts”.
SOMA has this thing called Miércoles de SOMA (SOMA Wednesdays). Every Wednesday evening, SOMA invites an artist from a different discipline to discuss their art practice. While I was there, the presentation was from an artist who specialized in sound art. I’m sorry to say that I can’t tell you much about him or his artwork because the piece he presented, in a crowded pitch black room, made me anxious and nauseous, and I had to leave in the middle of the presentation.
While there, we mostly attended lecture courses. I’ll be honest with you: They were boring. The content itself was really rich and interesting, and as an art history nerd who loves learning about other cultures I should have been drooling over it, but it felt like we were being taught a 300 level course when we should have been in a 100 level course. We just didn’t know the base knowledge of what the instructor was teaching, and it was too much information to keep track of, which made it difficult to engage with. However, there were indeed a few bits of information that I was able to retain and what I learned is scattered around this post.
We were told to bring a digital copy of one of our art pieces for a critique. The most satisfying part about that experience receiving some slips of paper that essentially were instructions on how to critique. One would think that as an art student of nearly 10 years, I’d know how to critique, but the truth is that even though I had a general understanding of how a critique should go, I hadn’t received any critiquing lessons since my first critique in 9th grade (a lesson called “Go, Grow, and Glow”). The paper strips I received from SOMA was the most instruction about how to critique that I had ever received, and though that in itself highlights a problem with the art education I received back home, I will for now only say that I’ve kept those paper strips in my sketchbook for almost two years now.
I know some of the experiences in that list kind of had a bitter taste to them, but I want you to know that the issues I just mentioned really had nothing to do with SOMA itself. SOMA seemed like a genuinely fabulous organization with a community of passionate, knowledgeable, and friendly people. I think that if I had experienced SOMA without the Express—or maybe outside of the university entirely—I would have had an experience that perhaps would have better highlighted all the beautiful qualities the organization seemed to have.
Panik – Right around the corner from SOMA is Panik, an art workshop that seems to do a number of things (like painting and sculpture) but primarily focuses on printmaking. It more or less describes itself as an “idea exchange center” and a headquarters for technical and conceptual artistic research. It’s a really lovely space with a collection of cool printmaking gadgets and an enthusiastic staff.
La Casa del Hijo del Ahuizote – A cultural center that houses the original El Hijo del Ahuizote anarchist newspapers, known for their satirical commentary on Mexico’s dictator prior to the Mexican Revolution. The current organization is still active and hosts printmaking workshops; while we were there, we made risograph prints.
Kurimanzutto – Alright, I don’t remember going here; I was either sick this day or the entire group didn’t go, but from what I can gather, Kurimanzutto is a contemporary art gallery.
Labor – Another contemporary art gallery that I don’t remember visiting despite it being on the schedule. Bear with me, friends.
OMR – This one I definitely didn’t visit because it wasn’t on the schedule, but I learned about it after returning to the U.S. It is another contemporary art gallery to add to your list.
Okay, I know that I don’t have memory of three out of five of the places I included in this list, but I wanted to include them anyway because I want you to see how saturated Mexico City is with contemporary art outlets (in a good way). It offered a kind of contemporary art vibe that I hadn’t seen in any of the other countries I’d visited and, in a way, all these contemporary art spaces reminded me of Richmond.
Let me first share with you some stuff I learned about the art scene in Mexico City leading up to today. So, trade wasn’t fluidly open between the U.S. and Mexico until the 1990s, which then allowed Mexico to get a huge influx of the kind of art that had been going on in the U.S. for the past few decades, notably things like performance art and sound art. They responded to it, creating their own contemporary art scene in part inspired by what they now had easy access to. The instructor at SOMA said that Mexico was still in this phase of an art movement, art with an emphasis on the experience of the audience and use of space.
However, Mexico City still has plenty of artists who focus on “traditional” art mediums like paintings, sculptures, woodcut prints, and photography. While at SOMA, we were taught about the way Mexican photographers have historically photographed things like protests and how one could infer what kind of photographer they were based on the image itself. We were told that the image of a protest taken at a distance probably meant the photographer was paid by the government. An up-close, “in the midst” kind of photograph meant the photographer was probably independent. Then there was the kind of journalist that inhabited a middle ground, the kind of journalist who took photographs of a protest’s aftermath, images that weren’t too provocative but weren’t sterilized either, images that could go on the front page of a newspaper.
It was at El Bazaar Sábado (the Saturday Bazaar) that my mini group stumbled upon some local artists selling their paintings, prints, photographs, stickers, graphic illustrations, and ceramics. The work we saw was lovely and clearly a lot of work had gone into making it, which is why we were surprised to see it all being sold at such low prices. When we asked the artists about it, they said that their work wasn’t valued as much in Mexico City as it would be valued in the U.S. or Europe, so they essentially had to keep their prices low in order to compete in a market that wasn’t interested in their products to begin with. One artist, a man named Ruben, asked us straight up how much one of his pieces would sell for in the U.S. and all of us readily said something between $150 and $300. “See!” he said, next expressing disappointment in knowing that his own community doesn’t respect his craft.
Also, at El Bazaar Sábado, and a market called La Ciudadela, were dozens of vendors selling handicrafts. Jewelry, clothing, furniture, décor—these places had something for everybody. I write more about them and show photos in my post about shopping in Mexico City.
Murals around the city
At SOMA we learned that before Mexico was big on performance art, one of the art forms that was most ingrained in their culture were murals. One place you can check out are the SEP murals (located at the Secretariat of Public Education headquarters). I didn’t see them in person, but I did see a handful of other murals around the city (both inside and outside of buildings).
Statues around Mexico City
Mexico City also seemed to have a lot of sculptures and statues dotting its metropolitan landscape. Ones that come to mind are the busts of musicians in the Plaza de los Compositores, the Einstein statue at Parque México, the Fuente de los Cántaros in Parque México, Las Alas de la Ciudad by Jorge Marín, and that sculpture of a nude woman riding an old timey bicycle outside the Museo Nacional de Antropologia.
Architecture around Mexico City
Condesa has a lot of art deco architecture
Baroque and Neoclassical architecture pop up a lot in Mexico, Mexico City included.
About 45 minutes outside the city is Teotihuacán, ones of the best preserved pre-Columbian architectural complexes. There’s also some kind of ruin in the center of the city that might be remnants of Tenochtitlan and some more ruins in Tlatelolco.
Casa Barragán is an example of modern architecture and, by default, Mexican modern architecture. This place was on the schedule, but I don’t think we got around to seeing it.
Mexico City was also filled with a lot of buildings that I couldn’t quite place within the (knowingly bias) art historical timeline I was taught in school. Mexico City has a lot of structures that felt modern but had elements of something else in the way the doors were ornamented, the style of a window, the use of wrought iron, or even the color of the building itself. So, as much as I loved realizing that there were baroque cathedrals in North America, I was equally as excited to see the buildings that seemed to exist within their own art movements. Those are the ones that made me curious about the history of Mexican architecture because an otherwise unassuming building with that kind of door or this kind of window has got to have a really cool story behind it.
Jumex – A private art collection that primarily showcases modern art. It has got works by all the heavy-hitting 20th century white male artists that one learns about in art history class and plenty of works by local artists too.
Museo Frida Kahlo/La Casa Azul (“The Blue House”) – Frida Kahlo’s (and Diego Rivera’s) house-turned-museum. I didn’t get to visit it, but it looks absolutely badass.
Museo Nacional de Antropologia
Museo Nacional de Antropologia – A huge anthropology museum, this place packs art and artifacts from fairly recent, Pre-Columbian, and early human history into 23 rooms. There’s also a really sick water sculpture in the courtyard.
Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) – A cultural center that hosts visual art, music, opera, dance and theatre events. We didn’t really visit it; our group just popped our heads inside, looked at the ceiling, then left. At the time, there was some manner of protest and/or strike going on. The protest wasn’t the reason we didn’t visit, we just didn’t visit because it wasn’t on the itinerary.
Memorial 68 Museum
Memorial 68 Museum – Also called the Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco Memorial 68, it is a part of Tlatelolco University Cultural Center (CCU Tlatelolco). This housed one of the best exhibitions I have ever seen anywhere. It focuses on the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre by highlighting the protests, the families of the survivors, what life was like in Mexico at the time, and the 1968 Summer Olympics. It is a colorful, dynamic, interactive, and engaging interdisciplinary exhibit that also features some works by contemporary artists. I can’t emphasize enough how fabulous this place is as a teaching tool.
Tlatelolco University Cultural Center – The same complex that housed the Memorial 68 Museum also had an incredible collection of Mexican political cartoons and Pre-Columbian artifacts. It was a private tour and photographs weren’t allowed in either section, but know that the stuff they had in their collection was incredible.
Museo Nacional de la Estampa
Museo Nacional de la Estampa – A museum dedicated to Mexican printmaking and graphic arts, art methods that are reproducible. It had both permanent and temporary exhibits, and our group got to browse through their book collection.
Caricature Museum – I came across this museum after returning to the U.S., so I didn’t get to see it, but from what I understand it is a museum dedicated to preserving Mexican cartooning (both political cartoons and cartoons just for fun)
Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) – A huge contemporary art museum that’s technically on the campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. The collection was very well curated, there was a variety of pieces, and generally it was just a really nice space to be in. this was one of my favorite museums to visit.
Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo
Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo – This is Rivera and Kahlo’s studio-turned-museum. It’s a really cool place to check out, stuffed to the brim with lots of sculptures by significant local artists and a few artifacts.
An ad for Les Misérables
Here is an article about the "new" art scene in Mexico City, written a decade ago when many of the institutions I’ve mentioned were founded. And here’s another article about the way Mexico City’s biggest art fair has been evolving over the years. There was also a Rodin & Monet exhibit, a symphony of Pixar songs, and a performance of Les Misérables scheduled to pop up in Mexico City around the time I was there. Seeing things like this in addition to the stuff on the trip that was scheduled (and the things I saw on my own) is what gets me excited about experiencing art in another country. There’s always going to be surprises because art in all its forms are dynamic, responding to life while simultaneously influencing it. Art is one of the things that has the ability to make connections between history, values, laws, trends, events, and cultures sometimes without anyone having to even say anything. You can learn so much about a place and its people by just taking a cross section of their art scene.