San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Art from the FUN Side of The Wall

It’s been one year since I last sat down to chat with Tania Noriz, the editor-in-chief of Atencion San Miguel, the local, bilingual weekly whose Que Pasa guide pretty much shapes the daily itinerary of residents in the colonia. It’s mid-February, high season, and the narrow sidewalks, barely wide enough for one person, are crowded with tourists, heads down to avoid tripping. In the parks, benches in the shade are hard to come by.

Everywhere, there are signs of renovation and new construction: a condominium complex advertising two bedroom apartments for $500,000 US, gated communities cropping up on the periphery of the downtown Centro area; and crews of Mexican workers gutting older stucco and brick houses, (only a couple years back priced at $150,000 but now listed for $300,000), to accommodate what Noriz describes as new “wealthier buyers” — ex-pats from the United States and from Canada, and Mexicans, too.

There’s a new Mexican President in office and a new mayor in town (a former mayor) and the challenge Noriz said is to figure out how the local infrastructure can deal with the boom in tourism: how can SMA handle such important matters as escalating prices in local food markets, heavy traffic on its rocky streets, overflowing garbage, and other needed public services? How can the city regulate a flood of new subdivisions and residences?

Tania Noriz, Editor-in-Chief, Atencion San Miguel

Noriz acknowledged that tourism, SMA’s only industry, provides lots of jobs for the community and that SMA has one of the largest number of NGOs in Mexico which helps the government provide residents with many public services like healthcare. Given SMA’s rapid growth, though, she expressed concern for the quality of life in the town. “People are feeling crowded in public spaces,” she said, “prices are high, and it is very difficult for local people to buy regular houses.” To deal with the growth spur, SMA is instituting a new series of regulations on Airbnbs and property owners so that a small percentage of the money will flow back to enrich the city’s coffers.

The growth in the tourist population clearly has had a positive effect on SMA’s art market, where galleries based in the textile factory turned art complex Fabrica La Aurora in northern San Miguel and those scattered throughout the city as well as home studios are flourishing.

I sat down with Alcides Fortes, currently owner and manager of three NUDO Galleries, all within blocks of each other at Recreo 10B, Recreo 36, and Soliano 20, in the Centro neighborhood. Fortes described SMA as having “exploded since 2011–2012, with big hotels like the Rosewood, famous for its sunset view of the Parochia, now attracting tourists who have no trouble paying nearly $400 per night. “SMA was once a secret place,” he said. “Now, it’s a place for wedding destinations. Recently, there were over 18 in one weekend.”

Alcides Fortes, NUDO Galeria

NUDO’s most recent gallery on Soliano Street was launched in November, 2018. On view in February was a group show of national and international artists including several works by Alejandro Santiago (1964–2013), an artist from Oaxaca who made 2501 sculptures (2501 Migrantes), each representing a person who left a village in rural Mexico in search of a better job in the United States.

Other artists on exhibit were Francisco Toledo, Demian Flores, and Romeo Tabuena. Several of the artists shown were members of La Ruptura (The Rupture), artists who in the 1950s and 1960s separated from the post World War II Mexican school of painting, more commonly called Mexican muralism. The new group, according to Fortes, was interested in more personal than social issues and it was influenced by Abstract Expressionism.

Artists from La Ruptura were also featured in a group show in NUDO’s second gallery, in addition to the work of Romeo V. Tabuena, an artist from the Philippines, who lived in SMA for 60 years. Tabuena’s work was also in view in the third gallery, Showroom Tabuena. Tabuea, who died in 2015, painted local and common people. His Mujer Azul (Blue Mother) from 1956 in Duco is for sale for $15,000 USD. A self-portrait from the 1960s, a watercolor on paper, is priced at $3,000 USD.

Political art was definitely to be found in San Miguel, especially at the Bellas Artes Cultural Center where a multi-artist exhibit focused on immigration. Clearly, President Trump’s wall was very much on the mind of Tijuana artist Enrique Chiu who began painting murals on the Mexican side of the US border in December 2016 with the help of community volunteers. The Bellas Artes show includes one of Chiu’s remarkable murals depicting people using ladders to climb over the wall, in addition to smaller paintings and a moving video showing young Mexican children at work painting a mural.

Enrique Chiu, Wall Mural

At the Gallery Huipilista at Juan Carillo # 1, artist Lena Bartula focuses on artwork that deals with social issues related to women. Bartula, who is originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico, has lived in SMA for 15 years. Drawing her artistic inspiration from huipiles, blouses that indigenous women wore in Mesoamerica for over 700 years, Bartula has created contemporary huipiles, more than 90 percent of them made from recycled materials, to deliver potent social and political messages.

Unzipped from 2014 is made of vintage zippers and women’s words. Bartula asked her Facebook followers to write and tell her what they were going to say when someone told them to keep quiet or “zip it up.” When zipped, we see a collage of color; when unzipped we can read what women had on their minds when they were silenced. Three examples: “I am not seeking your approval;” “I am Gay;” and “Mine is Not the only Truth.” There are many resonances here with the hashtag #MeToo movement. In another work, Bartula creates a patchwork quilt of world currency that is irregularly stitched together. “I intentionally made the stitches crazy,” she said, “because you cannot destroy the economics of one country without destroying that of another.”

Unzipped (detail), Lena Bartula

Leading a tour of street art in Guadalupe, artist Colleen Sorenson described her efforts to decriminalize street art in San Miguel. Since 2013, Sorenson’s hard work has paid off with the neighborhood now known as a Distrito de Arte. Sorenson understands the technical aspects of street art, carefully explaining to her audience how different paints adhere to different walls and how and when it is determined that works are to be painted over. A few days after the tour, I came across the most powerful mural of all, a woman in a burka, an intricate work on a wall in the San Antonio neighborhood. A crowd of tourists stood in front of the artwork, gaping.

Street Art Mural by Irving Cano in Guadalupe
Burka Mural in Colonia San Antonio

On the weekend before the much publicized, annual San Antonio Art Walk (February 23rd and February 24th), art historian and painter Hope Palmer took a group of art lovers (attendees at the San Miguel Writers Conference) on a curated tour of artist studios in the neighborhood. Originally from Detroit, Palmer and her husband photographer Dirk Bakker now live in SMA full-time in a stunning, modern home and studio in Colonia San Antonio. First stop on the tour was painter Diane Varney’s home/studio on Refugio where the artist described how she creates her art. “

Art historian and artist Hope Palmer leading a studio tour in San Antonio

My paintings,” she said, “all develop their own personalities.” This was definitely not always the case said the painter who first worked as a commercial illustrator and ceramicist. When Varney started as an artist, she did complete drawings on tracing paper before she painted. “Now, she said, “I’m giving birth to a monster. I don’t stop till I like it.” Palmer added her own critical commentary to the artist’s remarks: “The joy of Varney’s work is that you start to see worlds within worlds. She doesn’t give us everything at first glance.”

Artist Diane Varney in her San Antonio studio

Palmer’s art walk also included visits to the studios of painter Kathleen Camarata, Mario Mizrahi, and Suzy Taylor, as well as a special visit to her own home to see the current photography project of her husband, Dirk Bakker, its theme, water.

Bakker began photographing water over two years ago, traveling throughout Mexico. In the future, he hopes to extend the project to Antarctica. His digital images, which are only enlarged with no manipulation, illuminate the abstractions within water. “Someone called my work fractyls,” Bakker said, clearly liking the description.

Dirk Bakker with one of his water photographs

Bakker uses a digital camera and does all the printing himself and he shoots at noon for maximum sunlight. Criticizing young people for their obsession with Instagram, Bakker describes himself as a “photographer who never carries a camera. I already have it in my head,” he said.

Off the beaten path, and a half-hour taxi ride out-of-town from Centro, is mosaic artist Anado McLauchlin’s Chapel of Jimmy Ray, a multi-building site that can be toured three days a week by appointment for 200 pesos. The site which includes a mosaic chapel and a mosaic composting toilet is very reminiscent of Jose Fuster’s mosaic masterpieces in Havana, although the scale is smaller. Not surprisingly, McLauchlin tells the visitors assembled that Fuster is his friend, showing some tiles by Fuster.

Mosaic of Anado McLauchlin and his partner Richard Schultz
Dump Trump Mosaic by Anado McLauchlin at The Chapel of Jimmy Ray

McLauchlin is not only an artist; he is also an entertainer, unwinding yarns of his years in San Francisco and New York City. Pausing before a mural that included a Dump Trump message, he vented angrily on Trump’s flawed presidency. Noticing that one of the visitors from Alabama winced when he spoke, he addressed her directly: “I have a right to speak my mind,” he said, and “I’m happy to listen to opposing opinions.” Seconds later, seemingly unprovoked, his dog Dusty Springfield, jumped up on the woman, frightening her.

It was truly a San Miguel moment: art activism that could not have been predicted in this artistic oasis that the owner of the local Juan’s Cafe describes as “the FUN side of the wall.”

All Photos: Shael Shapiro

An arts and culture journalist for Guernica, Huff Post, Tablet, etc, Roslyn Bernstein’s books include Engaging Art, Illegal Living, and Boardwalk Stories.