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Ana Elena Mallet is an independent curator specializing in contemporary design. She recently assembled the exhibit Rethinking Tradition: Contemporary Design from Mexico, which which runs through Oct. 16 at the Mexican Cultural Institute.
WCP: Can you tell us a bit about your background?
AEM: I am a curator specializing in Art and Design and have been working independently since 2002. Before that, I was curator at different museums in Mexico City.
WCP: How did you come to be involved in this exhibition?
AEM: I was invited by the director of the Mexican Cultural Institute to propose a project regarding Mexican design, the subject I have been working in and studying for the past six years.
WCP: The show was organized in part to celebrate the Bicentennial of Mexico’s independence and the centennial of the Mexican Revolution. How does Rethinking Tradition relate to these historic events?
AEM: In revising our history it is important to re-examine historical issues regarding the social, the economical, the aesthetic, and the artistic. In order to know who we want to be or what we want to do in the next 100 years, we need reflect on these topics. This show has to do with that thinking.
WCP: How can everyday objects link us to the past and become agents for cultural change?
AEM: In Mexico the weight of history and the political narrative that has been built around it is very heavy. The only way to start digesting the past, let go, and move on is to confront history, but not violently. The work that designers are doing, using humor to create everyday objects, and poking fun at historical figures in a respectful way helps us understand historical processes in our country.
WCP: Why do you think that craftsmanship and ancestral traditions are so important for contemporary designers?
AEM: Mexico and its ancient traditions are still part of our economic system but are not really taken into account. It is a privilege that we still have so many good craftsmen. The way that design in Mexico can compete with global markets is to take advantage of ancestral traditions and techniques.
WCP: In your curatorial statement, you mentioned that you look for objects, which reflect “a reinterpretation of tradition rather than an appeal to nostalgia.” How do you determine the difference?
AEM: It is in the way designers treat the objects. The pieces in the show do not refer to better times that have passed, that would appeal to nostalgia. They try to review the past in order to take the best aspects of it (techniques, materials, forms) and reinterpret them.
WCP: You stated that “few spaces in Mexico or abroad have mounted retrospectives of national design–in either its historical or contemporary contexts.” Why has Mexican design been so underexplored?
AEM: We are still obsessed with painting and sculpture and with trying to understand how national identity relates to Modernism. In Mexico, design has always been considered banal. There are no scholars dedicated to studying design or fashion. Those aspects of Mexican art history are still missing. I am interested in design because studying it will help us understand Mexico as a Nation.
WCP: Another theme in the show is the mingling of high and low culture, whether it be the design firm, Tsimáni’s creation of paper vases, or the evolution of the Acapulco chair from everyday furniture to high design object. Can you talk a bit about the political and philosophical implications of this mingling of high and low?
AEM: In Mexico high and low culture has always been together. We are a mestizo country and our culture is hybrid in many ways. We are so used to mixing high and low that we never stop to think about it. It is just the way it is.
WCP: How has the global economic crisis affected design in Mexico?
AEM: Prices have come up. Few people are buying. It is difficult to produce design objects and to find industrial partners. But even so, I do believe it has not affected us as much as it has other countries.
I think that this crisis for Mexican design is more an opportunity than a catastrophe. The global market and all the international designers are rethinking the way they produce and where they produce. Many brands are going back to producing local and we, in Mexico have always had that. We are on the right track and we have to make the most of it.
WCP: How do you see Mexican design evolving in the future?
AEM: We have to seriously rethink tradition. The way we produce, the way we market, the way we sell, the way we promote and the way we want our everyday objects to look. Design in Mexico is in good shape. We just have to take advantage of the moment and work together with designers, promoters, curators and businessmen to create a real design scene in the country.