The bilingual exhibition by the Oakland Museum featured paintings, prints, movie posters, photographs, sculpture, costumes, masks, and musical instruments associated with Mexico’s la tercera raiz. It was a fascinating hybrid – a visual arts exhibition based on a cultural history. A similar exhibition, by the same name, was mounted by DuSable Museum, curated by Sangrario Cruz of the University of Veracruz, and Cesareo Moreno, the visual arts director of the National Museum of Mexican Art. This exhibition also used paintings, photographs, lithographs and historical texts to highlight the impact the Africans had on Mexican culture.
The exhibition examined the complexity of race, culture, politics, and social stratification. No exhibition had showcased the history, artistic expressions and practices of Afro-Mexicans in such a broad scope as this one, which included a comprehensive range of artwork from 18th century colonial caste paintings to contemporary artistic expressions. Organised and originally presented by the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, this travelling exhibition made stops in New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington DC and California, as well as Monterrey and Veracruz, Mexico.
The exhibition featured important historical figures, such as Yanga, and illuminates the contributions of Africans to the artistic, culinary, musical and cultural traditions of Mexican culture from the past through the present day. Also featured were Afro-Mexican artists such as Ignacio Canela, Mario Guzman, Guillermo Vargas, Hermengildo Gonzalez; and other artists such as Rufino Tamayo, Elizabeth Catlett, Francisco Toledo, Maria Yampolski and Francisco Mora.
One of the star features of the exhibition was the stunning photographs by Tony Gleaton of the black people of Mexico. Gleaton is an Afro-Mexican himself, and the looks of amazement and disbelief on the faces of first-time viewers of his photographs were eloquent testimony to the significance of the images. Particularly to those who had little or no knowledge about societies beyond the borders of the United States, these photographs were a revelation. The photos forced them to rethink many of their preconceptions not only about Mexico as a country but more generally about issues such as race, ethnicity, culture and national identity.
On a hot and humid July day last year, I rode with friends to the town of Yanga, which has received in recent years considerable attention as one of the Americas’ earliest settlements founded by fugitive slaves.
Today, a recently erected statue of the town’s founder – originally a rebellious Muslim man from what is now Nigeria –stands on the outskirts, more a testimony to the persistence of a few Mexican anthropologists who “re-discovered” the place than to the historical memory of its founder’s descendants.