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ANALYSIS : New Image for Mexico Is a Goal of Art Show

SPECIAL TO NUESTRO TIEMPO; Margarita Nieto teaches Chicano studies and humanities at Cal State Northridge

“Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries,” the landmark exhibition opening Oct. 6 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was organized to showcase the artistic achievements of Mexico’s past and bring attention to the political, economic and social reforms that Mexico is undergoing.

The exhibition, the most comprehensive show of its kind ever assembled within or outside Mexico, and an accompanying cultural festival are also a means of changing the stereotypical images of Mexico and Mexicans commonly held in the United States, according to the Mexican consul general in Los Angeles, Jose Angel Pescador Osuna.

At a time when U.S.-Mexico relations are probably the most cordial ever, Pescador said, culture becomes the “vehicle that opens up communication, understanding and the possibility of solutions to mutual problems.”

Currently, changes in the Mexican economy, such as the lowering of inflation, are being viewed positively in this country and Americans are investing in Mexico. Binational commissions on problems of mutual interest, such as drug trafficking and border issues, have been established, economic aid packages have been established and the real possibility of a trade agreement exists. Finally, presidents George Bush and Carlos Salinas de Gortari enjoy a good working relationship.

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But, Pescador said, a time could come when conditions would be less favorable. Should that happen, the cultural bonds strengthened by the exhibition and by events accompanying it could continue to serve as a means of communication between the two countries.

Vice Consul Martin Torres said planning for the exhibition began in 1987 under the administration of Miguel de la Madrid. In 1988, the Salinas administration adopted the enhancement and dissemination of Mexico’s new image beyond its borders as a prime foreign policy objective. At this point, the exhibition and its accompanying events became a major project.

Initially suggested to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art by Emilio Azcarraga of Televisa, the giant Mexican network, and his wife, Paula, the project was funded by Friends of the Arts of Mexico, a private group supported by a host of Mexican corporations and chaired by Azcarraga.

Miguel Angel Corzo, then president of the Los Angeles-based group and now head of the Getty Conservation Institute, was instrumental in bringing together the various institutions and lenders and in facilitating the massive administrative tasks that it required. The poet-essayist Octavio Paz and Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, the noted architect, served as consultants. Government support came about through Mexico’s National Council for Culture and the Arts.

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This public and private sector support, as well as the selection of the works themselves, reflect Mexico’s new orientation, Torres said. Moreover, the addition of works from private collections and the private funding do away with the paternalistic government shadow that hovered over past shows.

Torres said the decision to limit the exhibition’s time period to 1200 BC to AD 1950, a point of contention for artists and critics, was made “because we did not want to awaken rivalries and be accused of favoritism by artists who are still producing and who have not yet reached the hallowed level accorded Rufino Tamayo, who was still alive when the show opened in New York.”

Critics of cutting off the show at 1950 contended that the exhibition stressed those artists already familiar to U.S. audiences and omitted those who have yet to be exhibited here. While this is true, a number of concurrent exhibitions will concentrate on the generation of artists from 1950 to 1980, as well as younger contemporary artists.

From the beginning, Los Angeles was on the list of “Splendors” venues because of its Mexican tradition and large populations of Mexicans, Chicanos and other Latinos.

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The region’s demographics also play a role in setting a new direction for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, according to Thomas Lentz, curator of ancient art at the museum. The success of the 1989 “Hispanic Art” show brought about an awareness of a new and growing Latino audience at the museum. Consequently, it is making a major commitment to reach that audience.

Two major exhibitions focusing on pre-Columbian art will be held at LACMA in the next four years. Virginia Fields, associate curator of ancient art and the first specialist in pre-Columbian Art to be hired at the museum, said that a 1993 show, “The Ancient Americas: Art From Sacred Landscapes,” will exhibit objects from the American Southwest to South America. A 1994 exhibition will focus on southern Mexico and is entitled “Painting the Maya Universe: Royal Ceramics of the Classic Period.”

According to Fields, pre-Columbian art has a large following in Los Angeles, and the extensive works from that era in the “Splendors” show are certain to draw large crowds of spectators. According to museum spokesman Andrew Ferrin, attendance for “Splendors” may exceed that for the popular 1984 French Impressionists show.

The turnout is expected to overflow into the events being presented concurrently by the Artes de Mexico Festival Committee, a Los Angeles-based group, and “Mexico: A Work of Art,” the series of events supported by Mexican arts and cultural institutions. At a joint press conference held by the groups, numerous offerings, including theatrical presentations, folkloric dance groups, classical and contemporary chamber music, films and an array of art and photography exhibitions were announced for the next four months.

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According to Armando Duron, president of the Artes de Mexico Festival Committee, the local events were organized in order to provide a context for the LACMA show by emphasizing the cultural contributions of the Mexican, Chicano and other Latino cultures in Los Angeles. The formal opening for the Artes de Mexico Festival will be Sept. 14 at City Hall.

“Mexico: A Work of Art,” on the other hand, consists of privately organized events focusing on contemporary Mexican culture.

A strong feeling of anticipation and excitement about the exhibition is being voiced by artists and performers. For many Chicanos and other Latinos in Los Angeles, this is an opportunity to see works that have been viewed only in reproductions up to now. Gema Sandoval, the director of Plaza de La Raza, for example, drew upon authentic representations of dance figures found in the exhibition for her “Epopeya Mestiza,” an evening of dance and theater. She is looking forward to taking her performers to see the work on which their show is based.

Visual artists are looking forward to studying the paintings and sculptures of the show. Alfredo de Batuc, an artist who will be represented in several Los Angeles exhibitions, intends to visit the “Splendors” exhibition at least five times--"slowly,” he said with a laugh. He said he has never seen many of the works because they are from museums abroad or on the East Coast museums or from private collections.

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Despite the impressive array of activities, there are very few literary events scheduled for the festival. Three poetry readings by Nobel laureate Octavio Paz, which had been organized independently, were canceled.

Meanwhile, the museum is installing the exhibition in preparation for its opening. And, as if to emphasize its importance to Mexico’s image and foreign policy, Salinas de Gortari will inaugurate and view the show during a brief visit to Los Angeles on Sept. 30. The event will be celebrated with a private dinner to be attended by Gov. Pete Wilson, with the museum’s board of trustees as hosts.

It promises to be a stellar event, bringing together the cultural and political worlds of influence, and will be a fitting send-off to the exhibition in an exciting period in the city’s history.


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