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Mexican Cultural Institute Celebrates Mexican Artistry

By Virginia Sciolino

In the midst of the contentious debate over immigration, the Mexican Cultural Institute has waded into the polarizing issue by regularly highlighting issues such as migration and multiculturalism. But it also regularly showcases Mexico’s artistic diversity and international collaboration, as seen in works by Bosco Sodi and José Sacal now on display in the institute’s historic 16th Street mansion.

The mansion, designed by the architects of the White House West Wing, was a meeting place for 20th-century celebrities before being acquired by the Mexican Embassy in 1921. After six decades, the embassy moved to Pennsylvania Avenue in 1989, giving the country a permanent space to showcase Mexican artists, including Roberto Cueva del Río, whose three-story mural depicts some of Mexico’s colorful traditions and provides a breathtaking backdrop to the grand entrance hall.

This month, the ground floor is also featuring the exhibition “Topographies by Bosco Sodi.”

“Topographies” is a series of three-dimensional canvases, each layered with materials from Mexico — soil, sawdust, clay and pigment. Sodi, who was trained as a geologist, calls these pieces “Topographies” because they resemble raised-relief maps rather than traditional paintings.

Sodi’s “Topographies”
In Sodi’s “Topographies,” naturally-forming fissures run through the black-and-white and deep red canvases. Photos provided by: Mexican Cultural Institute

In the first room, footage shows Sodi working at his foundation, Casa Wabi, in Oaxaca, Mexico. He works with his hands, plastering media onto the canvas. Yet, he does not strive to control the art he produces.

Beatriz Nava, the institute’s director, pointed to the intensely dimensional canvases to show fissures that weave like valleys through Sodi’s complex yet primitive geographical landscapes. According to Nava, these fissures appeared after Sodi left his work to settle overnight. They were evidence of the materials interacting with each other — results that the artist could not have planned himself. In Nava’s words, “The art creates itself.”

This is one characteristic of the “wabi-sabi” tradition that inspires Sodi’s work. The practice, established in 15th-century Japan, seeks perfection from the imperfect. It finds beauty in authentic, natural and simple artwork.

When the paintings “create themselves,” they embody the wabi-sabi philosophy. The art is not governed by the artist itself, but fueled by the materials that compose it.

Footage also shows Sodi firing bricks in his own kilns at Casa Wabi. Per his wabi-sabi influences, these bricks present an organic, asymmetrical beauty.

He brought these bricks from Mexico to the United States at his first public installation, “Muro.” Shown in Washington Square Park in New York City, “Muro” asked passersby to construct a wall using Sodi’s bricks, then to deconstruct it.

The exhibit also showcases bricks sculpted and volcanic rock painted by Sodi.  

While “Muro” is his most obvious work of political commentary, “Topographies” also carries political echoes. With immigration disputes between Mexico and the Trump administration dominating the news, “Topographies” is the work of an artist who is familiar with Mexican and American landscapes — and the border that they share.

A few floors up, the work of Sacal arouses a different kind of Mexican cultural connection. His exhibit, “Un Mexicano Universal,” is comprised of two series: “The Paraphrase” series, inspired by famous artists such as Michelangelo and Frida Kahlo, and “Characters of Impact,” in which Sacal recreates historical figures such as Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, the Aztec ruler Cuauhtémoc and others.

The first of Sacal’s works on display is his portrait of Gandhi. The figure seems weighted to the ground by his languorous elephantine feet, yet his body springs up with a delicate sprightliness.

To not only depict but reconstruct a figure like Gandhi is bold, let alone adding a humorous dimension to the portrayal, as Sacal has. However, toward the end of the exhibit, it becomes clear that Sacal is neither trying to be brave or funny. He is simply expressing the essence of famous figures and works.

Sacal’s Gandhi
Sacal’s humorous yet careful recreation of Gandhi springs up with a delicate sprightliness. 

After Gandhi, viewers are met by sculptural portraits of Charlie Chaplain, Napoleon and Louis Armstrong, among others, and recreations such as Michelangelo’s “David” and Picasso’s “Guernica.”

Sacal carefully learned about art and its historical context, then discerned its spirit and composed his own interpretation.

Like Sodi, Sacal’s art repurposes Mexican media. He frequented flea markets to find material for his sculptures. His Charlie Chaplain sculpture sits atop a pair of roller skates, while Aztec ruler Cuauhetémoc wears a feather headdress filled with spoons.

Sacal, who passed away in 2018, was born and educated as a student in Mexican medical schools and psychiatric hospitals. He lived in India, New Guinea, China and the Amazon with his wife.

Works by Sodi and Sacal, although disparate in style, are united by more than the historic Mexican Cultural Institute. Sacal and Sodi both build upon their instincts, with Sacal intuiting figurative personalities for his humanoid sculptures and Sodi using his instincts to sculpt and layer clay. Each artist engages their subject in conversation, bringing it to life.

The Mexican Cultural Institute’s decision to show both artists simultaneously comes at a poignant time, when Mexican-American diplomacy is more challenging than ever. Yet, both artists embrace multicultural values and ties. From Sodi’s use of wabi-sabi and references to American politics to Sacal’s international influences, both artists demonstrate the unbounded potential of Mexican artistry.

“Topographies by Bosco Sodi” and “Sacal: Un Mexicano Universal” runs through until July 27 at the Mexican Cultural Institute, 2829 16th St., NW. For more information, please call (202) 728-1628 or visit www.instituteofmexicodc.org. 

Virginia Sciolino is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.




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