In Dialogue with the Ancients at Anahuacalli

I recently visited Mexico City, which seems to be happening now in all the right places and all the right ways. Every street has a crazy mix of architectural and design styles and a vibrant population of hipsters, street characters and ordinary citizens.

Before I arrived I had decided I really wanted to see the Anahuacalli Museum, not a main attraction in most guidebooks, but the description I saw–“ a modern stone labyrinth of a museum resembling a Pre-Hispanic pyramid”—intrigued me. Thanks to Edgar, our O+A intern from the previous fall whose home is Mexico City and who is an excellent and generous tour guide, I got to visit the museum and the surrounding historic Coyoacán area.

Designed by Diego Rivera and completed after his death, the museum was built to house Diego’s vast collection of Pre-Hispanic sculptures. Constructed from black volcanic rock, the museum echoes the ancient style of the art it exhibits.

At the time of my visit a contemporary artist shared the space with Diego’s collection. More than a conventional exhibit, her work was inspired by, intervened with, collaborated on, and ultimately elevated the experience of the museum. Betsabeé Romero works with tires – old car tires. She has been for some time now, using them as her sculptural medium, carving Mexican & Pre-Columbian patterns into their sides and painting them gold. Her iconography was a perfect fit with the Anahuacalli collection.

A tire chandelier hangs comfortably in the archway as you enter the museum. A host of Diego’s small ceramic figurines greet you – but with Romero’s added squiggly and pointy halos placed behind each of the figures. A strange double-pointed rubber sculpture lives as comfortably amongst the prehistoric figurines as it might in a mechanic’s shop. Betsabeé also created patterns that she placed behind statues in alcoves, mimicking similar wall designs from ancient times. (I was reminded of patterns from the National Museum of Archeology I had visited the previous day.)

The Aztecs were really big on snakes, so she displayed snake sculptures carved out of tires, and also designed a snake-inspired pattern on the large window in the main space that houses some of Diego’s life-size mural sketches. My favorite piece was a room with two tires perpendicular on the wall, simulating the sports court where the Aztecs played their traditional ball game. Again, gold pattern repeated on the edge of the tires tied everything together. All through the labyrinth Romero created a fantastical dialogue with this bizarre museum of Diego Rivera.

I hope to get back to Mexico City soon and visit Frida Kahlo’s blue house, which I didn’t have time to see this trip—another example, by all reports, of art and architecture in vigorous conversation. It’s top of my list.

Written By Verda Alexander

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