Sunday, July 26, 2009

Mexico's National Museum of Anthropology

One of my favorite things about Mexico City is the Museo Nacional de Antropología, one of the world's most interesting museums. It has an incredible collection of statues, pottery, jewelry and large scale reproductions of pre-Colombian buildings from all over Mexico. It also takes a nicely serious but accessible stab at educating the museum-goer about the history of Mexico and its peoples. The pre-Colombian part is the most spectacular, but the whole second floor is devoted to the colonial and post-colonial cultures of the same peoples and places, showing both some considerable continuity of images and cultures, but mostly a great deal of hybridity between those older traditions and what the Spanish brought it. Fascinating stuff at both levels.

Here are some of my favorite items and images, from those I took there with my trusty iPhone camera. Unfortunately, I had forgotten my good camera, but the iPhone did pretty well. The first, above, is a very figurative statue of Mictlantecuhtli, the God of Death, from about 100 AD.

The second here is an image from a reproduction of an entire wall from the temple of Quetzalcóatl in Teotihuacan, just outside Mexico City, about 400 AD.

The third is a wall painting from Cacaxtla, about 800 AD.

The fourth, which made me think of my son, Christian, for some reason -- thinking that he would like its expression, is a Toltec statue of a jaguar, from Monte Alban, probably around 200 AD or so.

This doesn't even count all the Aztec and Mayan things that people are probably more familiar with.

Amazing times and places, but probably not ones I would want to live in. Very serious mixtures of warfare and religion that perpetuated warfare. Related to a very serious pre-occupation with death. But a lot of people also had time to create amazing art.

Adios México

I spent last week in Mexico City at a conference of the International Association for Media and Communication Research. Of the various academic meetings (quite correctly seen by my wife Sandy as summer camps for grown up intellectuals--read David Lodge novels for very amusing takes on these) I go to, this is one of the more fun since it draws most heavily from Europe, then the US, then Asia, Latin America, and lots of other places. Very cosmopolitan. Found myself at the closing social dancing to mariachi music with Portuguese, Indians, Australians, Chileans, and a whole bunch of Mexican students who had been volunteers at the event.

Here is a representative picture from the opening social, at a former convent, turned mansion, turned art museum, built over a corner of the sacred central plaza of the Aztecs, which built over a lot of earlier folks. (The downtown of Mexico City near the Zocalo has more layers of history than anyplace in the Americas.)

Shown are two Portuguese professors I am doing research with, Cristina Ponte and José Azevedo, with a gigantic 20th century statue and party-goers below in the background.

One of the things I like about this particular organization is that they always pick interesting places to meet in and the organizers do their best to give you some flavor of the city and country. Sometimes one goes to meetings at the airport hotel in St. Louis. Not quite the same.

We were meeting in a building that was formerly the cultural center for the foreign ministry and now does the same for the National Autonomous University of Mexico, deliberately named to show its independence of both church and state. Nice building with nice rooms, but at a big meeting, you still end up sitting in auditoriums a lot, like the one shown here.

However, I was listening at the time to one of my favorite academic researchers in the world, a Mexican anthropologist named Nestor Garcia Canclini. He helped define a lot of how we think about how cultures met and hybridized together in Latin America, so hearing him is always interesting. I found it better to listen directly to him in Spanish because the English translation was awful-- reinforces my feeling that although many things eventually get into English, sort of, you get a much better understanding if you can read or listen to the originals.

It is always fun to be in a big city with a distinct local flair. Mexico City has modern cosmopolitan areas, our hotel was in one on Paseo de la Reforma. But what I like most about the city is its distinctive folklore. Here are two indicative images I saw. First the classic Mexican image of the fashionable lady as a skeleton, the calavera catrina, who reminds us that the glamorous and wealthy die. To reword a bumper sticker, I saw in Austin, the one who dies with the most toys, still dies.

Second is one that shows another of my favorite things about Mexico, its unbelievable ability, in high art, low graffiti and in between to borrow or take in things and hybridize them around. So here is the ubiquitous Bart Simpson as calavera Bart.

Que vive México!