Mexican Students with Down Syndrome Find Artistic Voices
There’s a remarkable exhibition at the Mexican Cultural Institute — remarkable both because of the quality of the work and because of the artists who created it.
It’s called “Colors of the Wind,” with the lengthy subtitle of “Oil Paintings, Engravings and Lithographs from the Mexican School of Down Art at the John Langdon Down Foundation.”
This is not about making allowances, or calling something good because of who created it. No question, you might look at these artworks a bit differently if you didn’t know who created them (students in Mexico who have Down syndrome). But you would still look at the pieces because they have the power of all good art — the pull of imagination, the play and mesmerism of different color fields, the familiar made eccentric, and the idea that there is both empathy and alchemy at work here.
Having said all that, “Colors of the Wind” is an exhibition by students at La Escuela Mexicana de Arte Down, the Mexican School of Down Art that’s part of the John Langdon Down Foundation. The first of its kind in the world, the John Langdon Down Foundation was established in 1972 by its founder and president Sylvia G. Escamilla and named after John Langdon, the Englishman who discovered the existence of Down syndrome in the 19th century.
In a preface to the exhibition catalogue, Escamilla explained the singular event that led her to create the foundation: the birth of her first child, Eduardo. Six months after his birth, “I heard the sentence that would substantially change my view of the world. My small child had Down syndrome,” Escamilla recalled. “The words still ring in my ears. ‘Eduardo is not, never will be, like the other faces of reality [said the doctors]. I was thrown into the deepest despair, beyond all compassion and tolerance.”
Escamilla’s son died at the age of 5, but “he taught me to love life from his child’s heart to discover that the true meaning of life is service, which is done by feeling and constructing realities.”
From that profound experience came the John Langdon Down Foundation in Mexico, which provides general attention, health care, education and equal opportunity to children, adolescents and adults with Down syndrome, a condition usually diagnosed at birth that is often characterized by learning disabilities as well as physical effects.
The Mexican School of Down Art, which is a creative expansion of the foundation, was started in 1993 and quickly proved to be very successful. In the exhibit catalogue, Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico’s ambassador in Washington, described the school as a pioneering venture that stimulates “genuine interest in the visual arts amongst its students through a series of programs that foster creativity and imagination.”
“It is said that wind has no color,” the ambassador wrote. “However, in each painting of this exhibit, the artist urges us to see the invisible, the color of the wind which, like the creative process, brushes against us and envelops us forever.”
But in this display, you don’t have to imagine the colors — they’re right there in vivid abundance, even among the black-and-white engravings and lithographs.
The resulting artwork, and the attention it calls to the genetic disorder, has exploded beyond the borders of the school and of Mexico. This D.C. exhibition has already traveled far and wide, most recently in a spectacularly received European tour in Berlin and Poland. Following its Washington run, it will also travel throughout the United States. Likewise, although it’s expected that some of the subjects and themes are specifically Mexican, the universal intensity of these pieces spills across nationalities, as does the recognizable talent.
Inevitably, the fact that the artists in question suffer from Down syndrome does become a part of the way of we perceive their work, providing an emotional undertone to the act of viewing. But that can only take you so far. The existence of this art is an achievement in and of itself, but the fact is that it’s also good — rather remarkable, actually. The pieces exude emotional power, as well as humor, curiosity, strength, boldness, a love of thick lines in the lithographs and engravings and a passion for color in the paintings.
For instance, Armando Robles’s view of “Mexico” is drenched in stunning color, even though it consists mostly of urban blues and skyline. That modern depiction of Mexico though might not fit with Nathalie Velazquez’s “Face,” a mask of the past that echoes, in an almost overpowering and intimidating way, Mexico’s lost indigenous civilizations.
Jesus Melgarejo, meanwhile, gives us a spectacular, strange and awash-with-colors “Tiger” — an embrace of color that also shows up in works as diverse as Aaron Guzman’s “Red Dreams” and Ruben Larios’s “Tadpoles.”
In the lithographs and engravings, there’s less attempt at pure forms and more of a dance around themes, including the affecting “Old in Years” by Erik Navarro, as well as six works by Vincente Morales that range from the mysterious (“The Tree of Desires”) to the puckish (“Elviscente”).
According to the Mexican Cultural Institute, these students “use art as language to recreate life in their own terms.” But they do much more than that — they’ve found a voice that creates dreams by creating art.
Colors of the Wind: Oil Paintings, Engravings and Lithographs from the Mexican School of Down Art at the John Langdon Down Foundation through July 18 Mexican Cultural Institute 2829 16th St., NW For more information, please call (202) 728-1628 or visit http://portal.sre.gob.mx/imw/.
About the Author
Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.