On display at the Museo de los Pintores Oaxaqueños
March 9, 2010: Exploring Oaxaca
I am a delicate southern flower who has been transplanted in Midwestern soil. The gray, damp winters depress me and make me want to curl up in my bed for large chunks of the day. Honestly, the area under my electric blanket is the only warm place in my life and even then it’s not a penetrating heat. In order to save energy in our old drafty house, the thermostat is set at 60 degrees for 20 hours a day. It’s not much better at work; my office always feels about six degrees colder than the hallway and there’s a distinct breeze that seeps through the window behind my desk.
So when I say that I am finally warm for the first time in months, it’s a really big deal.
Here in Oaxaca, the sun beats down on the square and seeps into my pores. I’ve been able to shed my sweaters and turtlenecks for tank tops and airy tunics. Even with my 85 SPF  sunscreen, I managed to get a mild sunburn. The heat makes me sweaty and red-faced, with wisps of salt-coated bangs plastered across my forehead. Sure, it makes me unattractive on the surface, but if my bones could talk, they’d be singing riotous ditties of joy.
The mornings, however, are slightly chilly as we sit on the plaza eating our breakfast. Fortunately, the little restaurant serves chocolate that warms you to the core while you wait for your food to arrive. Today, I ordered bravely and ended up with a weird amalgam of pancakes stuffed with chicken, covered with beans and chorizo, with creamy avocado and juicy papaya on the side . Again, the vendors came to sell us a variety of goods, making the patio nosy and crowded, vibrant and fun. After a while, though, we headed out into the city, taking our time to poke our heads into galleries and stores, museums and marketplaces.
Our first stop was the Museo de los Pintores Oaxaqueños, a little museum just off the zocalo. Two shows were on display: one vivid, colorful and weird, the other more sedate and airy. My favorite picture was a part of this second show, a painting called “evasion” by Miguel Carrillo Lara. Standing in the foreground is a young girl in a white dress, with a red shawl hanging from one arm. In the background, mixed among the muted whites and grays, are pieces and parts of the human form. Another favorite was this odd mixed media piece that blended together computer keyboards, phone cords and a camera lens with a cattle skull with a realist human painted on top.
From the Agustin Portillo show at the Museo de los Pintores Oaxaqueños
This was one of the America paintings.
The other show was much more brazen, filled with pictures of strippers, gay men, and naked women (although, in some cases, they could have been transvestites). Of course, only the “America” paintings were full of decadent behavior; the “Mexico” pictures, although they shared the same style, had very different content. So, I’m not quite sure what the artist thinks of our country, but apparently we are a monolith, characterized by what the Christian right would call “sinful actions.” I will let the artist speak for himself — here’s a YouTube video discussing his “America” show in the United States.
Painted wooden animals @ la Mano Magica
I eventually went back and bought the purple jaguar (you can see its tail here)
and the black coyote (standing under the giraffe).
After the museum, the group – minus a couple of people who decided to strike out on their own – ended up wandering around the streets of Oaxaca, popping in and out of galleries while we headed in the general direction of the Centro Cultural Santo Domingo. At one gallery, one of the art teachers scored a set of free postcards to take back to her students; at another, some of us posed with a giant skeleton. At la mano magica, I drooled over the wooden animals, wondering how I’d ever get one home without breaking it . Plus, everything in the store was expensive (one of the books that M. was looking through was close to $150!) and I wasn’t ready to part with my pesos so early in the trip.
Lunchtime found us crowded around tables in a small restaurant just off the market near Santo Domingo. This restaurant, El Topil, has apparently been reviewed by Esquire, but it was empty when we arrived. I only ordered a bowl of sopa Azteca, which was filled with strips of fried tortillas, Oaxacan cheese, and avocados and a glass of gloriously fizzy limonada. Other people loaded up on mole, chicken and pork. The problem, however, was that the waiter got incredibly confused about the number of dishes that were actually ordered and by the time everyone anted up their parts of the bill, we were still short. I guess they assessed us with a tax for being stupid Americans.
Santo Domingo Convent and Church, Oaxaca
Taken from inside the museum
By this point, the day had grown hot, so we sought shelter inside the Centro Cultural Santo Domingo which houses the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures and an ethno-botanical garden. M. escorted us into the room that housed the tesoros la tumba 7 from Monte Alban. I looked around for a while, but I’ll admit that my mind started to wander due to informational overload. Instead, I started to walk around, looking in the galleries, seeking out the modern, more political exhibits and some kind of access to the garden below. I found myself sitting in various nooks and crannies, savoring both the breeze and the quiet inside my head. You know, that’s one of the best things about these trips: although there tends to be a lot of external noise, my mind shuts out the everyday worries associated with my job. It’s a little bit like meditation, finding this calm, empty center inside myself.
The Garden with the Secret Entrance
I should note that while I did find the political exhibits, I never did get to go to the garden; by the time we found the entrance behind the convent walls, it was 4:30 and the guard wouldn’t let us in . My consolation prize? Finding an UNESCO World Heritage Site plaque marking Oaxaca as a historical centre (I’m starting to chalk up a lot of these!).
Next Time: Monte Alban and Wannabee Hijackers
- Three words: Grandfather, Skin Cancer. I don’t exactly relish the idea of having chunks of my ears or nose shaved off. Call me paranoid if you want to.
- I know that sounds nasty but it was actually the best breakfast I had on this whole trip. It’s downhill from this day forward, culminating into the Great Breakfast Meltdown of 2010.
- Last year, I brought home a set of wooden animals from Peru and ended up cracking the leg on one of them. Disappointing.
- I never did get an on-the-ground tour of the place. Apparently, you cannot go in and wander around on your own. Instead, you have to have a guided tour. Sigh.