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If Anamario Hernandez’s house were on fire and she could snatch only a few belongings from the flames, the 50-year-old Mexican painter knows exactly which objects she’d choose: an aged china pitcher, a small lavender talisman/pouch, the spiky husk of a walnut, a Ricardo Martinez nude painting, a photograph of Marcel Proust, a bowl of sand from Cancun, and the first still life she ever painted, done in Paris in the ’70s.

These—along with dozens of other curios—are currently on display at the Mexican Cultural Institute, on 16th Street NW, sealed behind glass in a specially constructed gallery. The translucent dinnerware, red Chamula sashes, and battered tin cups in the case operate as the real-world reliquaries that feed Hernandez’s paintings.

They have long been the objects of Hernandez’s painterly interest. Now, they are the subject of her new exhibition, “Where Does the Silence Drift?”

In a fantastic series of figurative—though not strictly representational—oil paintings, Hernandez paints and repaints the objects, grouping and regrouping them on cloth-covered tabletops, inside abstracted, monochromatic cabinets, or before windows. Colors and shapes recur similarly: lavender and deepest blue; red ribbons; sloping curves. Hernandez paints from life and from memory, intertwining in her method the two major themes of the exhibit.

The jagged walnut husk is not just a husk, but also love, says Hernandez. “When you hold it, it hurts in your hand,” she says, pointing to a depiction of one tied on a red ribbon, to represent passion. “But it is also very fertile.”

When I meet her, Hernandez is wearing a watch case filled with a small painting of a beach and some sand from Cancun that shifts and shakes like the plastic snow in an airport souvenir. “I was missing my country,” says Hernandez of the necklace charm, painted while in London during a period when the wet English weather had led to a palette of foggy grays. The case is replicated in some of Hernandez’s small Almud series paintings, and it also appears in several larger still lifes.

Almuds are small wooden boxes, traditionally used to measure grains in Oaxacan markets. Hernandez transforms them into frames for fascinating, small still lifes or diorama-like exhibitions of symbolic objects. Clearly influenced by the bodegón tradition of still-life painting from Latin America and Spain, Hernandez’s paintings nevertheless refer to more than her own cultural background; they purposefully lack a powerful ethnicity.

Hernandez seeks also to move beyond her very strong ties to Mexico and her illustrious family. Her father is a well-known Mexican modernist architect; her grandfather was the mayor of Mexico City in the ’30s; and her aunt is the current director and choreographer of the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico. On her mother’s side, her great-grandfather Plutarco Elias Calles served as president of Mexico from 1924 to 1928. “I grew up with very strong family roots,” says Hernandez.

But those roots did not keep her rooted, and Hernandez is a bit of an international. Thirty years ago, she moved to Paris, where she began her career as a painter. She’s also spent years living in London, New York City, and Geneva. And for the last 16 years, she’s made her home in Bethesda, where she now lives with her husband and three of her four children. —Garance Franke-Ruta