Crafts magazine's Glenn Adamson celebrates the mingling of US and Mexican culture
Open an American newspaper these days, and you’ll see story after story about the southern border. Migrant families are being treated with disturbing brutality, even as the government debates the dubious virtues of building a wall. It wasn’t always so. The United States has intermittently welcomed Mexicans and immigrants from other Latin American nations, even actively recruiting guest workers in the 1940s to help in the war effort. In the post-war years, many Americans looked south for inspiration, seeing not a population of the unwanted and unskilled, but on the contrary, role models to emulate.
This summer, two timely exhibitions emphasised the positive aspects of cross-border movement – of people, forms, techniques and ideas. In a Cloud, in a Wall, in a Chair, curated by Zoë Ryan at the Art Institute of Chicago and on show until 12 January 2020, takes its beautiful title from a comment by Cuban-Mexican designer Clara Porset. Design can be found ‘in a cloud, in a wall, in a chair, in the sea, in the sand, in a pot, natural or man-made’, she said. ‘There is design in everything.’
This encompassing viewpoint very much included indigenous crafts, which Porset used as the basis for her own furniture and other designs. In 1952 she curated a groundbreaking exhibition in Mexico City entitled Art in Daily Life, in which she freely mixed the handmade and industrial, the contemporary and the historical. This was modernism at its best: universalising in its ambitions, yet attentive to local traditions.
As well as Porset’s work, the Chicago exhibition includes that of five other practitioners: the textile artists Anni Albers, Sheila Hicks and Cynthia Sargent; sculptor Ruth Asawa; and photographer Lola Álvarez Bravo. All, in their own ways, drew on the deep archive of the Mexican vernacular. Hicks, for example, took the rustic backstrap loom and reimagined it as an expressionist tool. Asawa’s transparent, volumetric sculptures had their roots in looped wire egg baskets she learned to make in Mexico. And Sargent designed stunning carpets in a palette taken right out of the country’s dye pots.
Such cultural borrowings naturally raise the question of appropriation, a topic that I explored in this column a few months ago. Yet according to Mexico City-born Ana Elena Mallet, consulting curator for the Chicago show, mid-century Mexico was a rich spectrum of cultures, with complex ongoing exchanges between rural and cosmopolitan communities and cultures. As such, artists from abroad were joining an ongoing conversation. Their experience suggests not only that migration is a good thing, but also that artistic cross-pollination should be seen in the same light as a way of knitting together cultures.
These themes also emerge strongly in America Weaves, a compact and powerful exhibition curated by Adriana Herrera at the Coral Gables Museum of Art in Florida (until 10 November). It includes works by artists from across Latin America from the 1970s to the present. The selection offers revelatory parallels for those familiar with fibre art of the same era from the USA and Europe.
A figure of particular interest and importance in the Coral Gables show is Stella Bernal de Parra, who was born in Colombia in 1932. Like others of her generation, she made a decisive shift away from flat-woven wall hangings and into more complex constructions. An early sculpture entitled Mi Cristiano, executed in earth-toned wool, evokes a crucifixion, while the later Eclipse Solar, which incorporates rods of copper to glorious effect, is reminiscent of Anni Albers’ explorations of luminous metallic threads. Sadly, Bernal de Parra’s career was cut short by a brain tumor that affected her vision. She is still with us, however, and Herrera hopes to undertake a more comprehensive study of her life and work.
Discoveries like Bernal de Parra and Clara Porset (a little-known figure in the USA, despite her decisive role in forging Mexican modernism) are a reminder of modern craft’s diversity and scope. It is a big story, which cannot be told from just one vantage point. Creativity respects no borders, and artists tend not to either. Unfortunately, it’s a lesson the rest of the US has yet to learn.