Mexican Cornucopia


Smithsonian Offers Array of Culture from South of the Border

During and after the Mexican Revolution that lasted from 1910 to 1920, many artists celebrated the nation’s unique mixture of ethnicities and cultures through their artwork. The post-revolutionary Mexican government greatly supported these endeavors and helped make art accessible to all Mexicans.

Today, the Smithsonian Latino Center carries on this egalitarian tradition with “Mexico at the Smithsonian,” a series of exhibitions, concerts, film screenings and lectures in collaboration with the Mexican Cultural Institute and other Washington organizations. The center seeks to showcase Latino heritage, culture, spirit and achievement in America, focusing its attention on the art and culture of Colombia last year. This year’s focus on Mexico coincides with the Latino Center’s 10th anniversary.

And what a fiesta it is. The series offers a cornucopia of works ranging from the museums along the National Mall to the breathtaking 16th Street mansion that houses the Mexican Cultural Institute.

A good starting point is the Smithsonian’s S. Dillon Ripley Center and International Gallery, which illustrates Mexico’s artistic roots through masterful folk art that represents urban, rural and indigenous communities across Mexico. Also at the Ripley is “Mexican Treasures of the Smithsonian,” which showcases the full range of the Mexican presence in the Smithsonian’s collections through art and artifacts that span several centuries—from pre-Colombian indigenous objects to contemporary pieces.

The 126 objects on view were selected to reflect the country’s history and its cultural diversity. Highlights include an Aztec obsidian mirror, historical maps reflecting fluctuating borders, coins and currency, flags, stamps, and costumes worn by Mexican-American Tejano music singers Lydia Mendoza and Selena.

Another major artistic element to “Mexico at the Smithsonian” is photography, which strikingly captures the country’s breadth and beauty. Mexico has long been a magnet for great photographers—not the least of which was famed American photographer Edward Weston, who traveled there often with his professional and romantic partner, Tina Modotti. So not surprisingly, the Latino Center has put plenty of world-class camera work on display.

At the Natural History Museum, “Mexican Cycles: Festival Images by George O. Jackson de Llano” offers a display of about 135 color photographs depicting the religious festivals of 30 indigenous communities across Mexico. Back at the Ripley Center, the talents of modern photography pioneer Lola Álvarez Bravo—Mexico’s first widely recognized female photographer and considered by many to be the country’s most famous photographer—can be viewed in 56 vintage photographic prints spanning six decades.

Another photographic component of the series features a rather unique cultural transplant. It is well worth the trip to the fabulous 1910 mansion that houses the Mexican Cultural Institute to view the captivating work of a Polish-American woman who fell in love with Mexico.

Mariana Yampolsky, a Chicago native, was born in 1925 and died in 2002. An esteemed modern photographer, she was also known for her printmaking, book design, editing and activities as a curator and collector.

Born to a family of artists and intellectuals, Yampolsky went to Mexico in 1944 after completing her undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago. Attracted to the progressive social and artistic climate that marked the decades following the country’s revolution, she initially planned to spend a year of study in Mexico. Plans aside, Yampolsky wound up spending the rest of her life in Mexico.

Juan García de Oteyza, director of the Mexican Cultural Institute, told The Washington Diplomat that many photographers fall in love with the landscape, indigenous peoples and architecture of Mexico. In particular, he observed that the landscape is an incredibly powerful terrain with desert similar to the American Southwest, as well as highlands in the central part of the country and tropical jungles in the south. The Mexican terrain “has tremendous spiritual force,” García said. “All of the great photographers of that time [1930s to 1950s] went to Mexico. Left-wing artists of the world went to Mexico.”

During that golden artistic period, Yampolsky befriended Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, translating ideas from their murals into photographs. But the most striking of Yampolsky’s photographs on display at the institute are the images of Mexico’s indigenous people.

But why was the Polish-American photographer so focused on the natives when the country was filled with such a diverse pool of immigrants from which to depict? García offers an explanation: Mexico and Peru were the only two countries that at the time of the Spanish Conquest had ancient cultures. Although only a small fraction of the population was purely indigenous, these Indians became a symbol of Mexican nationalism after the Revolution of 1910. Thus, artists were naturally drawn to chronicling this segment of the country.

Yampolsky’s portraits of indigenous people reveal faces of forbearance. Even though the politics of the time was revolutionary, feverish and exciting, Yampolsky’s subjects had already long experienced grinding injustice and poverty. García observed: “By the time Yampolsky arrived in Mexico, the country had reached a certain peace and it became a social experiment on the role of the artist. The government was telling artists to paint murals all over the country. It was very much a left-wing dream for intellectuals. There was a tremendous impact on arts. The landscape, people and politics were what drew the artists.”

In the exhibit, Yampolsky’s photograph of old, shawl-shrouded campesinas (farm workers or peasants) waiting to see a priest is heart rendering. Her sexually charged close-ups of plants, meanwhile, are reminiscent of Georgia O’Keeffe paintings. According to García, Yampolsky ultimately became enamored of Mexican kitsch that included American pop culture scenes such as Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Walt Disney characters painted on walls in rural Mexico.

But perhaps the most poignant photograph in the display is “Road to the Cemetery,” in which four figures walk downhill on a cobbled street in an obviously rundown section of town. A small coffin is strapped to a man’s back, indicating that a child is going to its grave. In the near distance is a white light, providing a compelling mystery to this pictorial story. Is the light real or just a photographic technique?

García offered a more pragmatic explanation, noting that the photo was taken in Chapas, an area with a tropical landscape and very high mountains. “The mist creates a very mysterious effect,” he said. “But at that time, the [photographic] challenge was never to pose a subject. You would have never told a campesino to ‘look this way.’” Indeed, Yampolsky documented subjects much like a photojournalist. “You needed an ‘eye’ but you were never supposed to intervene,” García added.

Revealing his own acquaintance with the extraordinary Yampolsky, he remarked: “I knew her, and she was always with a small light camera.” No mist machines at work here—just phenomenal talent.

Embracing Mexico: Mariana Yampolsky, Art and Life through Nov. 21 Mexican Cultural Institute 2829 16th St., NW. For more information, please call (202) 728-1629 or visit

Mexico at the Smithsonian through at December various Washington-area venues For more information, visit or

About the Author

Rachel Ray is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.