Category Archives: Cultural Commentary

Barcelona, Spain: Tapas at Midnight

We are still jet-lagged after two full days here in Barcelona and can’t seem to get the rhythm of sleep down. But, we have discovered the tap-tap-tap of tapas with a great orientation to Bilbao Berria tapas bar right down at the corner from where we are staying across from the Barcelona Cathedral.

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What’s the procedure, I asked our bar keep Alfre (muy guapo). It’s buffet, he said. Pick up what you like then put the wood stick in the container at your table. That’s how we charge you. I tell my sister, this is like eating dim sum.

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New dishes keep coming out of the kitchen to tempt you. I’m especially loving the anchovies and grilled cod. Oh, and then there is the aged jamon Iberico. Oh, and the deep friend camembert rolled in chopped pecans.

This is definitely not Mexico and it is too early for me to find any but the most superficial similarities. Compare and contrast. Can we drink the water? I asked the hotel staff. Madame, he replied, you are in Europe now. Well, we might be able to drink it but it doesn’t taste very good. Paper in the commode is okay.

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Here, it is tapas and pintxos, not tacos and tamales. Tipping is optional. Leave a euro (now valued at a little more than a dollar) on a twenty-dollar check, its sufficient.

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At many of the bars and at the stalls at the Boqueria market, a glass of wine or sangria or a beer on tap is included in the food cost, as is tax.  Try El Quim or Bar Central. Along the periphery are amazing seafood comedors with huge platters of grilled fish and shellfish. More about that to come.

Yesterday, I took over 400 photos at Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. It will take me a while to edit and post these. We ended the day today with gelato equal to any offered in Italy. The city is swollen with tourists who speak languages I cannot name.

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I’m getting used to this Old World version of Spanish, with its tildes, cedillas and x’s that sound like sh. Some of the words are familiar, like digame, tell me, when I start to ask a question. Gracias is pronounced grathias as in Barthelona. Think Mexican Spanish with a lisp.

I’ll say goodnight now. We are nine hours ahead of you if you live in California, USA. It was two-days in the getting here. Food and art are great salves.

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Sunday in Santa Cruz, California. Next, Spain

On Tuesday, my sister and I are leaving for a three-week trip to Spain, postponed from last October because of my knee replacement surgery. The knee is not totally back to normal but I’m bringing my beautiful hand-crafted North Carolina walking stick procured from the Pittsboro Roadhouse to help traverse ancient cobblestones.

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Yesterday, I spent the evening with my 99 year-old mother. I’ve photographed her for publication in Minerva Rising,  Mothers issue and on my Facebook page. She still looks great. Though, from moment to moment, she may not remember our relationship, asks Are you Norma? and I reassure her that it’s okay to forget as we hold hands. Santa Cruz is a long way from Oaxaca. I try to get here several times a year.

This morning it’s foggy on the northern California coast. It’s errand and laundry day. Deciding what to pack for someone who always takes too much is daunting. I promised myself to take only one medium size suitcase. Same clothes with several different Oaxaca quechquemitls and rebozos. Layers. Learn to wash out underwear and socks on the road. Travel light. Hard for a collector.

Then, there’s the camera equipment. The internal debate. Should I bring only the prime 50mm lens, lightweight and easy to carry? In the old days before digital and zoom, the greats only used this lens to capture everything.

Or should I haul the 11-17mm wide angle and the 17-55mm pro, very heavy 27 ounces, photojournalism-style lens? Any advice out there? I will not give up my Nikon D7000 camera body, so please don’t suggest a point-and-shoot or my iPhone!

I will blog from Spain. The connection between Spain and Mexico is deep and long. This fascinates me. Mexican syncretism, her identity and her culture is rooted in both New and Old World.

So come along with us — to Barcelona, Bilbao and Granada — over the next few weeks. Who knows what or who will turn up? Maybe even Brigitte Huet and her husband Ivan Campant, Oaxaca’s silversmiths who returned to France last year.

P.S. I’ve started a Facebook Group: Mexico Travel Photography. Join and post your photos. Tell us what camera you use, lens type and settings. Let’s learn together!

P.P.S. Day of the Dead Photography Workshop in Oaxaca coming up in October.

 

 

Around the Zocalo, Sunday in Mexico City

MexCityPeacocks_StrLife-138Sunday is family day in Mexico. Most people work a long six-day week often until eight or nine at night, so this is the only time they have together for an entire day. On this particular Sunday, the Zocalo is filled with families flying kites across the great expanse that looks as huge as Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

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I love to stay in the historic center of Mexico City to walk the cobbled streets, take in the murals and enjoy the street life. There is a deep sense of ancient history here reflecting Aztec roots. The Templo Mayor is nearby with an impressive archeological dig going on to uncover more of Tenochtitlan.

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For art glass lovers, two buildings boast art nouveau glass domed ceilings. The central atrium of the upscale department store Palacio de Hierro has a fine example. The other adorns the Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico. The hotel is at the corner of the Zocalo (entrance on Av. 16 de Septiembre) and the store is a block away.

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On this particular Sunday, the last before Easter vacation ends and Mexican school children must return to the classroom, we are approached by youngsters needing to complete their school assignments: interview a foreigner who speaks English and record the interview. It is almost dusk. Time is running out. Parents are at hand with tablets and hand-held devices to help get this done.

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We finish off the Zocalo stroll at the rooftop restaurant of Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico with a mango mezcal margarita rimmed with worm salt and a magnificent Zocalo view as the sun sets.

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Then, it’s off to Calle Isabel la Catolica #30 for a grand finale dinner at Azul Historico.

Be sure to catch the indigenous clothing gallery, Remigio, on the second floor of Isabel la Catolica #30 featuring hand-woven garments with natural dyes.  Right next door, avant clothing designer Carla Fernandez offers hand-carved wood bracelets from molinillo parts. Both shops close at 6 p.m. on Sunday, 8 p.m. other nights.

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In the same building, behind the central stairway, is a mural by artist Manuel Rodriguez Lozano called the Holocaust — not to be missed!

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Lots to do in just a few square blocks.

Some of the highlights of our Looking for Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Art History Tour of Mexico City. Contact me if you want to join in winter/spring 2015-2016. MexCityPeacocks_StrLife-136

 

Looking for Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo: Garden at Casa Azul

Casa Azul, home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in Coyoacan, Mexico City, has a stunning garden. Once the home of Frida’s father and mother, and where she was born in 1907, Rivera bought the property after the family amassed huge debt paying for years of treatment after the bus accident that severely handicapped Frida at age eighteen.

MexCityPeacocks_StrLife-44 The garden is surrounded by intense blue walls, which F & D painted after they moved in. It was expanded when Leon Trotsky moved into the complex for security reasons. He later moved to another house in the neighborhood where he was assassinated by Stalin‘s henchmen in post-revolutionary Soviet Union.MexCityPeacocks_StrLife-34

The garden is a lush expanse of tropical plants, pre-Columbian sculpture, small pools, a miniature pyramid that is a sometimes altar and walking paths.  As you exit the house, built of volcanic stone, after the self-guided tour, you come down a staircase where some pause overlooking a pool lined in tiles painted with frogs.

MexCityPeacocks_StrLife-15 MexCityPeacocks_StrLife-17 MexCityPeacocks_StrLife-19Frida called Diego Frog and you see this both here at Casa Azul and at the Dolores Olmedo Patiño Museum in Xochimilco. Dolores was his patron and preserved the contents of Casa Azul for posterity through her foundation. Frida’s ashes are in the pre-Columbian frog urn on her bedroom dresser.

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There are benches for sitting under the shade and the calm of a fountain. Perfect for reflecting on their lives together and the iconic image of feminism that she has become. I often refer to her as our contemporary Virgin of Guadalupe because Frida Kahlo carries that reverence among art lovers and intellectuals that makes her almost god-like.

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I’ve organized the art history tour Looking for Friday Kahlo and Diego Rivera for the past two years and I’ve been to the house no less than six or eight times during this period.

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It is always enthralling, but this time I decided to put myself in the garden, find a backdrop that I liked and wait for photographs, a la Henri Cartier-Bresson.

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I recall Rivera who went to Europe for fourteen years to study the great masters, copying them, refining classical painting techniques, experimenting with Cubism and Impressionism before developing his own remarkable style after returning to Mexico in 1921.

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So, I have ordered the book Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Mind’s Eye, so I can understand the philosophy behind his picture-taking and practice his style.

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Frida Kahlo lived most of her short life in pain.  She died at age 47 in 1954. Rivera died in 1957.  He was twenty-two years older that her. The exhibition space is devoted to indigenous dresses she wore to hide her deformities, polio which she contracted at age eight and then the accident that necessitated living her life in a spinal brace with regular surgeries and hospitalization for traction.

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She was never able to conceive a child and this was a focus of her later painting which captures this life tragedy.

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If you are interested in organizing a small group to explore the Mexican Muralists and the life of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera accompanied by a knowledgeable art historian, please contact me. We are organizing this art history program for fall/winter 2015-2016.

 

Photography: Cartier-Bresson Exhibition in Mexico City

The Mexico City exhibition featuring 398 pieces by French photographer-filmmaker Henri Cartier-Bresson closes May 17, 2015 at Palacio Bellas Artes. Please don’t miss it. Considered the founder of photojournalism, this is the first major retrospective since his death in 2004.

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An hour is not long enough to absorb the emotional intensity of Cartier-Bresson’s work. If you love political history, photojournalism, the decades leading up to World War II and the beginning of photography as an important artistic and cultural vehicle for storytelling, you will love this exhibition. I needed more than two hours to do it justice.

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It represents Cartier-Bresson’s interest in painting, drawing, photography and filmmaking. It is an in-depth view of pre and post-World War Europe, of poverty and racism, of what happens on the street among the people. There are also amazing portraits of notables who he was commissioned to photograph.

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Oaxaca Day of the Dead Photography Workshop, October 2015

Chiapas Festivals and Faces Photography Workshop, January 2016

For example, the exhibit features photographs taken during the coronation of King George II of England. But Cartier-Bresson concentrates on the expressions of people in the crowd and not the regal procession. Some are using raised mirrors to watch the parade, and to do so, they must turn their backs to the King.

 

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Cartier-Bresson uses this as a metaphor for how the people must turn away from monarchy and embrace a republican government.

Program Notes: Impressions of Africa. “He took little interest in local customs or ritual feasts, as he did not want to get drawn into “Exoticism” or what he called “detestable local colour.”  In a style very much influenced by the European New Vision (high angle shots, geometrical compositions, repeating motifs) he tended to photograph subjects like children playing in the street, dockers at work or the effort of rowers in a boat: in other words, the rhythm of African life.

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Aligned with the intellectuals and artists of the time, he was a powerful voice in support of Communism, active in the Spanish Civil War and the French Resistance.

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As a contemporary of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Cartier-Bresson came to Mexico to photograph, and many of the images shown capture the poor and disenfranchised, including children and prostitutes.

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As I moved through the exhibition, I learned more about photography by seeing this work. Cartier-Bresson shunned fiestas and processions, the formalities of organized life. He concentrated on what was messy and spontaneous.

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His technique was to find a backdrop with texture and interest that he liked and then wait for people to pass through the space.

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As we walked from Palacio Bellas Artes to see the Diego Rivera mural Dream of a Sunday Afternoon on the Alameda, I stopped to take photos of young men practicing their skateboard moves a la Henri Cartier-Bresson — perhaps — and a man sitting on a steel post mid-sidewalk, waiting, surrounded by passersby who paid no attention.

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The Decisive Moment, an essay by Cartier-Bresson, describes his philosophical approach to photography and is considered a foundation for all photographers.

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