Folk Art in Mexico City
You can only get here by making an appointment. A taxi deposits you in front of an old building and you climb up four storeys. The door to an apartment opens. A small, thin, blonde-haired woman in her eighties holds out her hand and introduces herself as Ruth Lechuga. She says she lives here. Okay, where am I? Is this just her home? Or is it a museum? Ruth explains:
Ruth: "It's my private home but has been a declared a museum....it's officially declared museum but it's a house museum."
What makes Ruth's house museum-worthy is that every inch of every wall and every table top is covered with Mexican folk art--and Ruth, as you can hear from her accent, isn't even Mexican. What brought her here was the rise of Adolph Hitler.
Ruth: "I came here from Austria in l939--from the beginning I loved and admired this country and very soon I began to travel around. I bought small little things like blouses--embroidered blouses---"
And then she bought skirts to go with the embroidered blouses...and shawls and hats and textiles and soon she got interested in just about everything that is made in every corner of Mexico. Today she has over 8,000 objects on display. In one room, there are dozens of speckled and striped human and animal masks with lolling tongues, protruding eyes and toothy grins. In another room, there are decorated gourds and dried vegetables that are used in native dances. I don't know where to look first.
Judie: "What's in that cabinet?"
Ruth: "Mostly creatures of all types of materials from all over Mexico.....this is black clay from Oaxaca.....the next one is carved wood....this is made of chicle....chewing gum...that's a virgin...that's a greeting card, a rose, a basket with vegetables...they are all made of chewing gum...
Ruth is very matter-of-fact but I'm thinking: this must be the only museum in the world with an edible virgin. In another room, I feel that the eyes of a thousand horned and red-tongued devil faces are jeering at me. Ruth explains why cartoon-like devils are so prominent in Mexican folk art. It seems that el diablo was unknown before it was introduced by the Spanish conquistadors.
Ruth: "There never existed the concept of bad and good. They're always both things together. Even the gods had good qualities and bad ones. When they came to know about the devil, they didn't know what to do with him. That's why we see so many devils who are laughing--they aren't so bad...they just make mischief....."
Now I begin to get it. Ruth is the lady of the house, the museum guide and curator. She has a story for each and every piece in the collection. Nowhere do I see signs of Ruth's personal life like a tea cup or a box of kleenex. She has given over her living space to 8,000 inanimate objects.
She escorts me to a room jammed with thousands of textiles. Most of them are in drawers with acid paper to protect them. When I ask Ruth why she doesn't hang more textiles on the walls, she says she already has put two apartments together to make this museum, but she needs more space. She shares her future plans:
Ruth: "I have now bought a third apartment which will open here....and then all around on the walls I want to put the kinds of textiles that can be extended."
I look in Ruth's eyes and they are dancing with glee and anticipation. It is clear that her quirky and abundant collection gives her life meaning and purpose.
Ruth leads the way to another room with fireplace bellows that are dressed in human clothes to disguise them. Then there is the room with papercuts. Just when you think there can't be any more rooms, you arrive in Ruth's sleeping quarters. Forget dainty, peaceful or private. The shocking pink walls of her bedroom are covered with skeletons and garish "Day of the Dead" figures. Ruth starts her day by staring at grinning cadavers with tops hats and prom dresses.
Ruth's house is a stark contract to most museums, which are so impersonal and passionless. Long after I leave her home...I can still see this tiny figure of a woman who was given refuge in a faraway land and now shares and honors its art and culture with anyone who is interested.
In Mexico City, and shlepping home a few folk for my own collection, this is Judie Fein for the Savvy Traveler.
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