Oaxaca in the U.S at the Mexican Cultural Institute
Carlos Guzmán designed the ofrenda located in the solarium for Día de los Muertos, with contributions from the Institute’s artistic affairs director Enrique Quiroz; Credit: Michael Loria

Stepping into the Mexican Cultural Institute at 2829 16th St. NW feels like stepping into another era well outside of D.C. Built in 1911, the mansion is decorated with murals and traditional ceramics from the 1930s. This month, it is also home to Oaxaca, Lo Tiene Todo (Oaxaca, it has everything), an exhibition of Oaxacan art and culture as part of novel Oaxaca in the U.S. festivities. The monthlong celebration designed by the government of Oaxaca showcases the cultural patrimony of the state. 

Contemporary Oaxacan artists Amador Montes, Sabino Guisu, and Bayrol Jiménez are featured in the exhibit, as is a range of folk art titled “Hecho en Oaxaca” (“Made in Oaxaca”). The Montes and Guisu galleries are on the first floor; the Jiménez and Hecho en Oaxaca galleries on the third. The exhibition, as it coincides with Día de los Muertos festivities celebrated in Oaxaca, as in other states in central and southern Mexico, includes a traditional ofrenda or altar, located in the solarium on the second floor.

Curated by the government of Oaxaca, the exhibition is a response to the precipitous drop in tourism from the pandemic: Since March 2020, spending by international tourists fell by more than half, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI). “The month of Oaxaca in the U.S. is about understanding on a deeper level Mexico and Oaxaca, so we can reach new proposals for mutually beneficial relationships,” Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Esteban Moctezuma said at the exhibit’s opening ceremony

The exhibition is the third at the Institute since reopening to visitors in July 2021. It follows Catharsis, which featured work from the Institute’s permanent Kimberly Collection, and another exploring the history of the house, which was purchased by the Mexican government in 1921 and served as the embassy until 1989. It’s since been the home of the Institute, which serves as the cultural attaché of the embassy and, in addition to art exhibitions, hosts lectures and workshops on Mexican history and culture.

By D.C. standards, the house isn’t very old, but it is singularly preserved. The Mexican government made few modifications including the addition of a porte-cochère and the three-story mural by Roberto Cueva del Río. It also features Cueva del Río’s solarium redesign, and another mural by Rafael Yela Günther from 1925 (which was later covered in 1946 for unknown reasons).

In the tradition of Mexican Muralism, Cueva del Río’s work depicts historic moments and celebrates the diversity of Mexican society (though it offers little of the social critique found in the work of his contemporaries such as Diego Rivera). A self-portrait of the artist sitting in a tree can be found on the first floor. The solarium features traditional Talavera Ceramics from Cueva del Río’s home state of Puebla, with representations of the twin volcanoes there and the coat of arms for all the states of Mexico except Baja California Sur, which hadn’t yet been established when the space was redesigned in 1933. 

Otherwise the house is original, from the furnishings and tapestries in the library on the third floor to those in the Château de Fontainebleau-inspired drawing room on the second floor. It also houses a rare Aeolian organ, the pipes of which run from the basement to the fourth floor. “We’re very proud of the house,” Executive Director Ix-Nic Iruegas tells City Paper. “We know that you cannot even fathom what is inside here from the outside.”

Of the three artists spotlighted in Oaxaca, Lo Tiene Todo, Montes is the most established and calls the abstract works on view “Portraits.” The mixed-media painter blends oil painting, printmaking, photo collage, and text to evoke his subjects. “[The work] has to do with what’s forgotten, with those who passed away,” Montes says. “It’s an experience of seeing the dead from a different perspective.” Though the theme honors Día de los Muertos, the work is monochromatic when compared to the folk art upstairs.

Montes’ work follows the tradition of Mexican Breakaway Generation painters such as Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Toledo, both of whom were also from Oaxaca. In form, it has little in common with Tamayo, but they share a similar tone; the melancholy of memory and nostalgia captured by Tamayo is found in Montes’ art as well.

Guisu and Jiménez were chosen to represent the next generation of Oaxacan artists—their work breaks from the expressionist tradition Montes comes from. A multidisciplinary artist known for his neon light installations, Guisu creates works that include sculpture and paintings with the same vibrant electric-like color of his installations.

Jiménez’s work includes paintings and ceramics done in collaboration with fellow Oaxacan painter and multidisciplinary artist Rolando Martínez. Jiménez refers to the paintings—abstract works with vibrant colors like Guisu’s—as “pop art.” Unlike Montes’ pieces, his ceramics draw clearly from Oaxacan festivals, and are overtly political. His “Serie ‘El reposo de la máscara’” is a series of paper-mache masks done in the calenda or carnival style and painted with ceramic paint. Like the masks actually worn at such festivities, they have an almost surrealist quality, albeit with the vibrant coloring reminiscent of Jiménez’s painting, and they’re meant to evoke the same function as Jiménez explains: “When you wear a mask, you’re always playing the role of some other thing.”

“You don’t represent yourself, but something else so that that spirit can make peace with you,” adds Jiménez. The diablito (or little devil) mask, for instance, might traditionally represent a Spanish colonist, according to Jiménez; however, in the artist’s work, global capitalism is the new conquistador. On each mask there is a discrete logo from megacorporations such as Google.

The Hecho en Oaxaca galleries feature garments, ceramics, photographs of Oaxacan carnivals, and Waldo Hernández’s alebrijes (handcrafted figurines) of imagined animals. The term “Hecho en Oaxaca” refers to the protected designation of origin status of the work, which is available for purchase. The protected designation of origin status ensures that a product cannot be reproduced outside its area of origin or at least is not legally recognized as such (which is why any Blue Weber Agave spirit produced outside of Jalisco and some areas of Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacán, and Tamaulipas cannot be called tequila). Along with stimulating tourism, the government of Oaxaca is trying to secure the patrimony that a designation of origin can bring. Similar objets d’art are available in the first floor store.

The ofrenda was designed by Oaxacan artist Carlos Guzmán with contributions by the Institute’s artistic affairs director Enrique Quiroz. Guzmán’s design features traditional components, including Calaveras Catrinas (skulls of Oaxaca), cartolería, the paper-mache puppets, papel picado (decorative perforated paper), and marigolds.

The tradition of the altar refers to pre-Columbian conceptions of death, in which being forgotten is the most absolute death one can suffer. It is a space to remember the dead and a place mourners can invite the departed to return to, hence Quiroz’s contributions of mezcal, pan dulce, and chocolate. He added the elements traditionally used to protect the space as well, including salt, the indigenous incense of copal, and a sacred or religious figure, in this case St. Michael.

The altar also incorporates elements from the Catharsis exhibition, which was dedicated to the people who died from COVID-19 and offered visitors the option to leave notes for their dead. Quiroz has repurposed those notes here, where they are now on display. “If this culture or this tradition [is] going to help you to grieve your family members and remember them, and if Mexico can bring that to the world, like it has given so much, by all means take it,” he explains. 

Quiroz notes that the tradition of the altar is not widespread in Mexico, but it’s become more widely known in the U.S. following representations in the James Bond movie Spectre and Disney’s Coco. Also there are 1.5 million Oaxacan-born people currently living in the U.S., according to Moctezuma. Among Mexican states, Oaxaca has the second highest percentage of people immigrating to the United States, according to INEGI. That migration has been precipitated by a lack of economic opportunity for Oaxacan residents. On the opposite end of that spectrum are the tourism-rich states of Quintana Roo and Yucatán. 

The tourism industry and revenues from Oaxacan exports such as mezcal offer a clear path to growth, hence Governor Alejandro Murat Hinojosa’s slogan, “Oaxaca wants more of the world in Oaxaca and more of Oaxaca in the world.” Tourism had been growing consistently in the state before the pandemic hit. In 2019, the state surpassed the national tourism average breaking its own records, but COVID hit the industry hard. Oaxaca’s hotel occupancy rates fell from the typical 60 percent to 10 percent during Independence Day holidays last year. 

“Oaxaca needs allies like you,” Montes says. “To bring a little of what is Oaxaca to the world in these moments, as an artist, as a human being, is vital.” 

But ambivalence about the impact of outside influences persists. After the Hierve el Agua petrified waterfall in Oaxaca first closed because of the pandemic, local residents decided to bar tourists from visiting it, citing the exploitation of locals by travel companies and the degradation of the site due to the number of visitors. The site was reopened recently for its potential to create jobs.

This ambivalence is present in the exhibition. Jiménez may not overlap with Toledo in style, but he does share Toledo’s wariness of globalization. In 2002, Toledo famously stopped a McDonald’s from opening in downtown Oaxaca. In “Reposo de la máscara,” the first mask is a pig with a noose hanging from its mouth. Above its snout, there’s the gold key logo of Coppel, a department store found throughout Mexico and known for extending easy credit to its customers. “Then they get you, [they’re] like the executioner of Mexicans,” Jiménez says. “It’s the new type of colonialism.”   

The exhibition and the Institute are open to the public Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays; noon to 4 p.m. on Saturdays.