Bound by art and life: sharing a vision, a dedicated couple revived a respected Mexican cultural magazine through stunning design and wide-ranging content.
For nearly thirty years Artes de Mexico was a fixture on newsstands and book racks throughout Mexico. The journal presented a cross section of visual disciplines from pre-Conquest times to the present day. Readers coveted each copy and often bound them in sets for posterity. The publication was the brainchild of Miguel Salas Anzures, a visionary in the cultural life of his country, who also founded the Museo de Arte Moderno in Chapultepec Park. Even though the plates were mostly black and white, his collaborator, artist Vicente Rojo, designed the journal in a manner advanced for a time when digital imaging and computer graphics were not yet available. The texts by experts, printed in Spanish, English, French, and German, made the publication popular with foreign tourists who often consulted issues as guides in their wanderings. Faithful fans mourned the magazine's passing in 1980, but their spirits rebounded eight years later when a group of lawyers purchased tights to the dormant journal and hired Alberto Ruy Sanchez and Margarita de Orellana to oversee its rebirth.
As distinguished writers in their own right and champions of all aspects of Mexican culture, they were the perfect choice. Since taking the reins they have produced sixty-five stunning issues in full color featuring writing by the country's best writers. The journal is once again solvent and growing in circulation, due to the sweep of its content and award-winning design.
Ruy Sanchez has described Artes de Mexico as "an encyclopedia of Mexican cultures." The magazine embraces a remarkably broad range of topics while refusing to discriminate between so-called high and low art. Objects, events, cultural manifestations are celebrated for their high aesthetic quality and with an attitude toward authorship defiantly egalitarian. Potters and weavers, woodcarvers and papermakers, even pyrotechnists are carefully identified by name, interviewed, and featured as the true artists they are. Some issues cover specific art forms like textiles from Chiapas, Talavera pottery front Puebla, lacquer work, riding tack (charreria), portraiture, and basketry.
Others deal with deeply rooted aspects of Mexican culture like the cult of mescal and tequila, the lottery and Other forms of gambling, the Day of the Dead, the importance of flowers, even that center of social life, the Mexican kitchen. A number of editions focus on cities and regions: Campeche, Guadalajara, Puebla, Oaxaca, Queretaro, Zacatecas, San Miguel de Allende. Several share with readers important but lesser knows museums, including the Museo Franz Mayer and Museo Ruth D. Lechuga in the capital, the Museo Jose Luis Bello in Puebla, even the holdings pertaining to Mexico at the Ethnographic Museum in Berlin, Germany. Rarely do issues celebrate individual artists, but frequently the publication harnesses their work in support of its themes. For example, a Francisco Toledo gouache depicting an array of bugs appears on the cover of an issue entirely devoted to insects, while a polychromed clay tree of life by Tiburcio Soteno Fernandez graces the cover of an edition about Metepec, a town famous for its ceramics. Images by other prominent artists like Elena Climent, Alfredo Castaneda, Rudolfo Morales, Brian Nissen, and Abel Quesada also often appear. The editorial board, as well, draws upon the wisdom and energy of the very cream of Mexico's arts community. Alvaro Mutis, Salvador Elizondo, Jose Luis Cuevas, Carlos Fuentes, and Pablo Ramirez Vasquez are just some of the members of the publication's advisory committee.
At their offices housed in a handsome, renovated Porfirian style townhouse in the Colonia Roma district of the capital, the couple explains that they had to start small but always thought big. "We only had five employees at first, now we have more than two dozen. As to potential topics, we began with a list of about two hundred. Despite the many subjects covered thus far, the list remains at that level because we constantly come up with new ideas. We used to publish four issues annually, but now we're up to five. At any given moment we are working on a half-dozen issues because it takes a great deal of time and effort to find the images we want and process essays submitted by specialists in their fields. Sometimes we turn an entire edition over to a guest coordinator much as a museum might assign a temporary exhibition to a guest curator. Art historian Gloria Giffords in Tucson, for example, coordinated three issues dealing with votive paintings, tinwork, and postcards. Here, on the ground floor of our headquarters, we also operate a sales outlet for limited editions, children's books, museum guides, and posters, all published by Artes de Mexico. In addition to advertising and subscriptions, these sales provide added revenue to sustain production of our expensive publication."
Friendly and easygoing, Ruy Sanchez and de Orellana lace their conversation with laughter and embrace their undertaking with youthful verve. (They are both in their mid-fifties.) "One thing very important for us was to remain independent," explains de Orellana. "Here in Mexico everything is controlled by different intellectual groups, one journal pitted against another: It gets very complicated. To be very independent I knew would be hard, and it was hard. Further, many thought we would fail because we had a very big ambition, that of making it the very best quality, a publication that would be competitive internationally." Her husband agrees: "For two years I served as managing editor of Vuelta, retarded by Octavio Paz, and it was part of the continual war between groups in Mexico's intellectual world. But I was eager to form a magazine not in the battle, which was a public forum, a confluence, where people would like to be, due to the quality of our strategy, even if they didn't agree among themselves. We only asked them to have confidence and participate, not to say the same thing. Of course we couldn't be neutral, but we thought that all parties could have their say. At one time, as you know, Fuentes and Paz were opponents in the worst of ideological battles, and yet we are proud to say we had both in our earliest issues."
"We first met in the early seventies as third year students at the Universidad Iberoamericana, the Jesuit school here in Mexico City," de Orellana continues in perfect English (although she claims to have the peculiar accent of the American School, which she attended before college). "We went to Paris together, a good place to do a Ph.D., we figured. I did my doctorate in communications at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. My thesis dealt with the Mexican Revolution and how it was both influenced and portrayed by the movie industry in the United States. Alberto pursued two doctoral degrees in communications and literature. He completed the former but not the latter because his sponsor, Roland Barthes, died before he could defend his dissertation on Pier Paulo Pasolini." Ruy Sanchez adds: "At that time, Barthes had lost faith in semiotics. He was more on the side of literature and what it means to life and less the scientific study of language, more life as a language. I was determined to be a writer!"
In 1975, the couple traveled to North Africa, a vacation trip that proved to be a pivotal event. As de Orellana recalls, "It was winter. We were cold living in Paris, so we headed for Morocco. We planned to stay a couple weeks, but with the $1500 we had saved--for us a huge amount--we were able to stay for two and a half months. We went all over the country and in the process discovered many similarities between Morocco and Mexico. After all, both are sons of the Andalusian world. We in Mexico have a lot of Arab blood in our veins by way of the Moors." Her husband continues, "I was looking for my own voice, as an artist, a creator, and I found it in Morocco because I discovered a way of looking at the world that eventually gave me a poetic of amazement, of wonder. Being a stranger in a country that has many .similarities with my own, but at the same time. is quite different, opened the door for me to imagine, but not in the manner of magical realism, one of the prevalent literary trends at the time. Instead, it was a magic derived from things of everyday life that for me were exceptional. But also on that trip I discovered I was a typical Mexican macho," he says with a mischievous grin. "I began to worry about that, what it meant, and that led to an inquiry on the nature of desire, and of course that was linked to a woman's desire, as a question, never an answer, always an inquiry, a search and research. All my work became that."
Gradually, he formulated a plan to write not one work but rather a tetralogy of books dealing with the senses, or better said, sensuality. Further, he decided each would embody the essence of those four elements fundamental to ancient cosmologies, hence their titles: Los nombres del aire, En los labios del agua, Los jardines secretos de Mogador, and La danza del fuego (a work in progress). "There is a fifth element, the so-called Fifth essence, from which comes the term quintessential," he says, revealing his passion for etymology. "Each book has a different narrator. The first book is in the third person. You discover that that person is one of the characters in the second book. The same happens each time so that the fifth book eventually will be a chronicle of our trip to Morocco and everything that has been happening since then. So it's the last mask, and I will be the narrator. It could be seen as a commentary on the four books, a nonfriction, but I don't separate the two. Everything you write is fiction in a way, and everything you write is informed by reality."
Los nombres del aire (1986) [The Names of the Air, 1992], published after ten years of work often interrupted by other projects and responsibilities, is an erotic tale that traces the awakening of desire in a young woman called Fatma. Befitting its title, the air itself as an invisible force, as a mystical vapor, as a vehicle for fragrance seems to suffuse each page; such is the author's remarkably deft touch as a wordsmith. The story is set hi an imaginary city on the coast of Morocco called Mogador, the ancient name for a real place, Essaouira, on the Atlantic coast, just west of Marrakesh. Founded in the eighteenth century, this small walled port has long enjoyed a reputation as an exotic place of mystery and otherworldliness, perhaps due to the seaborne zephyrs that caress it and the strong light that seems to enhance clarity of perception. "At the time we didn't know it for these qualities, only as a destination for hippies, rock stars, lots of occidentals," explains de Orellana. "We just arrived and were charmed by its character and especially its people."
"I had no idea it would eventually assume such an important place in my work," adds Ruby Sanchez. "I would be out exploring a neighborhood, and there would be a beautiful woman crossing the street. All I could see were her eyes! We never exchanged a word, but I assigned those eyes to a character in Mogador. So the city became an imaginary notebook, like a filter. There are these places. They haunt you like a ghost." Elsewhere the author has described Mogador as a sleepwalking city, also as a city of desire, where intensity dominates every sensory impulse.
The Names of the Air contains detailed information concerning the mostly secret behavior and customs of women in Morocco: the dyeing of hair, makeup, tattoos, an entire chapter set in a bathhouse for women, various sexual practices, and yet the book is neither voyeuristic or prurient, nor does it read like cultural anthropology. It is less a story, more pure prose poetry, although Ruy Sanchez likes to call it a "book of instances or one of images."
Given the social constraints of Islamic society and particularly the separate worlds often occupied by men and women, one can't help but wonder whether de Orellana had to do much of the research, but she emphatically denies this. "No, I did it myself," says Ruy Sanchez, "partly through reading sources available in Spanish and French, but also I developed a great 'wheel of listening' by listening to women and learning what they do. I made a lot of inquiries on 'that side'. You will see. It still goes on. In each of the books I have more and more of that research. The fourth volume that I am still working oil deals with the eroticism of pregnant women. I spent five years talking with women in many places about their sexual life while they are pregnant so that even though I am telling a story, I feel it is well documented."
In 1982, the couple returned to Mexico City, in part to start a family. (They have a daughter, Andrea, and a son, Santiago, eighteen and fifteen respectively). "When I finished the first book set in Mogador, I had difficulty finding a publisher. Publishers of poetry said it was a novel, and those who printed novels said it. was poetry; so I received ten rejections. In reality it was somewhere in the middle--they didn't have in their mental drawer a place to put it--so I developed a concept I called 'prose of intensity,' something different from poetic prose, longer, more like an extended poem. This handle by which publishers could grasp what I was doing finally worked, Joaquin Diez Canedo who, as the owner of Editorial Joaquin Mortiz, had published important Mexican literature from the sixties onward, accepted the manuscript. He said, 'I like it, but it won't sell more than twenty copies.' Instead when it appeared in 1987 it sold surprising well. It even became something of a cult book.
During the same year it won the Premio Xavier Villaurrutia, Mexico's most prestigious literary award. It is still in print in an edition published by Editorial Alfaguara. An English language version is also available in a translation by Mark Schafer. The Beat poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, then in his seventies, cane here personally to arrange for its publication by his printing house, City Lights Books."
"We did not return to Morocco for twenty years," says de Orellana. "That did not happen until Los nombres del aire had been translated into French and found its way to Morocco. Almost immediately locals could see it was set in Essaouira. It circulated widely and was even translated into Arabic. We were invited to return for literary conferences that included discussions of the book. Essentially they adopted us, even making Alberto an honorary citizen of Essaouira. Since then we've been hack four more times."
Ruy Sanchez admits he works very slowly, patiently, with a sense of discipline. "I would call it obsession," he says with a laugh. "I start but wait and wait some more until the story gets filled full of life, by new observations along the way. In the case of Los jardines secretos de Mogador, for example, I was already finished. It was in the hands of the publisher, but there is a part of the book where the father of the protagonist dies, so rereading that, I had to go inside what was happening to me because my own father had passed away, so I withdrew the book and worked on it another year, aid of what I originally wrote, only perhaps twenty pages survived. It was a complete transformation."
Nonetheless the careful craftsmanship paid off. Upon its release in 2001, the book sold twenty thousand copies in Mexico alone. "This enthusiastic response in turn moved officials at the Museo Nacional de Belias Aries to organize a special exhibition to celebrate the fifteen years of Mogador's literary existence," says de Orellana "They invited people who had gone to Morocco simply because they had the read the book. They showed films. There were dance performances inspired by the book. A Moroccan woman, a scholar, came to give a lecture about things in the books from her point of view. Imagine, a feminist from Morocco reading what a man had to say about women in her country! The book also received a warm reception in Spain. Unbeknownst to Alberto, the book was one of twelve selected to compete for a local award, the Premio Calamo. The sponsor polled readers throughout the northeast-Valencia, Aragon, Zaragoza--and it won over other submissions from the Netherlands, England, the United States, and Latin America."
Much of the prolonged gestation for each of the books in the Mogador cycle can be attributed to the many other projects to which he has committed himself over the years. With some seventeen books to his credit, Ruy Sanchez is also well known for his nonfiction pieces, be they prefaces, essays on literature, reviews of work by visual artists, or the dozens of introductions and articles he writes for each issue of Artes de Mexico, a task he shares with his wife. Collections of poetry and essays include Los demonios de la lengua (1987) and Al filo de las hojas (1988). Works of literary criticism include Una introduccion a Octavio Paz (1990), Con la literatura en el cuerpo: Historias de la literatura y melancolia (1995), Dialagos con mis fantasmas (1997), and Cuatro escritores rituales: Rulfo/Mutis/Sarduy/Garcia Ponce (2001). He has also written the texts for lengthy monographs on four important Mexican artists: Mario Rangel, Adolfo Riestra, Georgina Quintana, and Rocio Maldonado. Ruy Sanchez received a Guggenheint Fellowship in 1988, and the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes in Mexico (FONCA) awarded him grants to support his writing in 1990 and 1991. Also as a visiting professor he has taught at Stanford University in California and for the last five years has directed a summer writing program at the Banff Center for the Arts high in the Canadian Rockies.
De Orellana, too, has been published widely. In 1988 she published Villa y Zapata, a historical treatment of the two most popular caudillos of the Mexican Revolution. A decade later the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (CONACULTA) issued her monograph on the Spanish artist Enrique Climent, who for years lived in Mexico. As an extension of her pieces for Artes de Mexico, she also authored an attractive book called La mano artesanal (2002) which, as she explains, "offers four ways to approach Mexican folk art: aesthetically, functionally, anthropologically, and symbolically. I also discuss how the external eye changes folk arts, especially when foreigners come into contact with the artists." Drawing upon her passion for film, she has edited an anthology on cinematic history: Imagenes del pasado: Cine e historia (1983). In 1991 she also issued a version of her doctoral thesis, La mirada circular: El cine norteamericano de la revolucion mexicana (1911-1917). In November 2003 Verso Books published an English language translation by John King called Filming Poncho Villa: How Hollywood Shaped the Mexican Revolution. It was produced to coincide with the release of HBO's cable production Pancho Villa Starring as Himself, for which de Orellana served as a consultant to scriptwriter Larry Gelbart and director Bruce Beresford. The film, which features Antonio Banderas as the famous revolutionary figure, covers a peculiar episode in movie history, when Villa contracted with director D.W. Griffith to provide the filmmaker unrestricted access to shoot his forces in actual combat with Mexican federales.
Despite periodic battles within Mexico's intellectual community, a high level of cooperation predominates. Ruy Sanchez and de Orellana in particular are noted for their big hearts: a constant willingness to pitch in, help others, nurture, and argue in defense of cultural values. "Yes," says de Orellana, "there is a great sense of comradeship here, but it works both ways. We try to contribute, but at the same time we can't always pay the going rate, especially for work by major figures. Often they do it as a labor of love." Ruy Sanchez concurs: "I think all of us believe in the transcendence of what we do as artists, that what we do is important. It gives sense to our lives. It's not just a way to make a living." When asked about potential tensions in their own relationship, particularly that of taking problems home after a long day of work, they exchange glances like two youngsters in love. "To begin with we've always had affinities that converge," she says. "Beyond that we get so busy with authors, designers, production deadlines, advertising accounts, we don't have time for conflicts." He chimes in seamlessly, "You must remember that before we were a couple we were friends. We still are, and that helps a lot!"
Caleb Bach is a regular contributor to Americas and a former professor of art history and Spanish.
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|Title Annotation:||Artes de Mexico|
|Publication:||Americas (English Edition)|
|Date:||May 1, 2004|
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