Mexico City is a study in contrasts. All big cities are, but here the divisions are more extreme. The poverty is all around: homeless people; people selling household supplies on the street, or on the subway; ramshackle buildings, or buildings seriously in need of a coat of paint; and so on. And there are wonderful houses, high-rises with dramatic designs or using bright colours, and the same luxury stores you find around the world. It also has a cornucopia of museums and art galleries.
One of the things that always enticed me about Mexico was the artistic creativity of so many people. My iffy Spanish skills mean I can’t comment on the literature comfortably, but a huge proportion of people can play a musical instrument, and a significant number of people produce paintings and sculpture. Some of the 20th Century painters, like Diego Rivera, his wife Frida Kahlo, David Siqueiros or Jose Orozco have worldwide followings, and there are other artists who are commercially successful today, at least in Mexico. I noticed one time that my home town of Tepoztlan had three art supplies stores, a tally which, extrapolated for the higher population, would add up to scores, maybe even hundreds, in a city such as Toronto.
Last weekend included a visit with a friend to the Museo Jumex, to see an exhibit combining the work of Jeff Koons and Marcel Duchamp (he of the infamous Fountain), including some of both men’s best pieces. I’d always liked Duchamp, and my appreciation of his cubist pieces was enhanced by seeing them in actuality, the fine balance of colours and hues being something that’s lost in an art book. Koons … okay, he’s fun.
A blow-up copy of a Koons work outside Museo Jumex.
I left pondering the relationships between art and the people on the street. Both Duchamp and Koons were or are keen to disrupt that dividing line, the humour and eroticism of Koons’ work making it easy to approach. At the same time, people selling tacos on the street might be paying their way in the world, but they don’t get rich doing it. And the fact that Koons can charge millions for a commissioned work puts him a category not only outside that of most Mexicans, but possibly outside of their comprehension.
On the bus back home in the evening, the man in the next seat wanted to practice his English on me, so we talked for a while. He said that as a waiter, he scarcely made a thousand pesos in his home city of Cuautla every week, so he was working in Mexico City, where he makes three times that. The downside is, he can only go home twice a month to see his wife and six-year-old son. They all make the best of it, and I admired the man’s commitment to supporting them. But the strain on them all must be tough.
It’s easy to juxtapose people and situations like this: a waiter living in one room most of the week set against pop art that sells for a fortune. But Mexico City draws it out more than other places, there being little or no social safety net.
The eye-popping Museo Soumaya, named for Carlos Slim’s late wife, opposite the Mueo Jumex.
Oddly, there’s also often a commonality between the communities. “Mexicanidad,” shared Mexican-ness, is a reality. The Museo Jumex, like other galleries, is open for free on Sundays, so anyone can come in. Multi-billionnaire Carlos Slim’s Museo Soumaya across the street is the same. You can’t pin it down, and snobbery and classism are rampant, but the connecting threads exist.
It’s easy to make glib remarks that ignore how different a hardscrabble life is from one where you can afford to spend money on paintings and sculpture, but there’s a national consciousness here that bridges the two. I can’t offer a glib “And it’s all wonderful” wrap-up sentence or two, because it isn’t so, and it won’t be, but I’m forever impressed that Mexico has found a way to survive that is so different from the standards and the overall approach of the rest of North America.