Mexico’s Artistic Embrace

From the collection at the Museo de Arte Prehispánico de México Rufino Tamayo in Oaxaca, Mexico

What defines Mexican art? Are the murals of Diego Rivera and the art carved on the pyramids of Teotihuacan equally vital? Do the crafts native to indigenous villages throughout the country influence contemporary visual artists? The colors of the homes in every city, architecture that features volcanic rock, archaeological sites that provide examples of ancient creativity for the 21st century – all of this provides inspiration for Mexico’s artistic environment.

I was fortunate to visit Mexico recently, experiencing for the first time the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) in Oaxaca. This important holiday showcases Mexican artistic expression through food, flowers, music, rituals and costumes as everyone honors their ancestors as a community. The fiesta celebrates family in the most positive way possible, bringing ancient traditions forward into our modern world. This exciting combination of past and present defines for me much of Mexican artistry.

Interior courtyard of Museo de Arte Prehispánico de México Rufino Tamayo

In the middle of the 20th century, Mexican ancient art began to leave the country, purchased by art collectors around the world. With the goal of keeping Mexico’s artistic legacy in the country, Mexican collectors and artists made a concentrated effort to buy as many of their cultural treasures as possible. Because of their determination, prehispanic and mesoamerican art can be seen in Mexico today.

Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991) was born in Oaxaca of Zapotec heritage. One of the 20th century’s important painters and muralists, he collected prehispanic art over 20 years. In 1979, he and his wife Olga opened the Museo de Arte Prehispánico de México Rufino Tamayo in Oaxaca, an outstanding collection that was curated by the artist. Housed in a renovated 18th century building, the art provides a wonderful link back to Mayan, Aztec, Olmec and other indigenous cultures.

Prehispanic art in the Museo de Arte Prehispánico de México Rufino Tamayo
From the collection
Mayan art,
ceramic representations of Xoloitzcuintli, the sacred Mexican hairless dog,
and numerous other artifacts from the collection at the Museo Prehispanico.

Diego Rivera (1886-1957), muralist and painter, was also concerned about prehispanic and mesoamerican art leaving the country. He collected over 50,000 artworks and began to conceive of a specially designed building to house his acquisitions. Working closely with noted architect Juan O’Gorman, who was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Museo Diego Rivera Anahuacalli opened after Rivera’s death in 1964. Dedicated to Rivera and his collection, this unique building was specifically designed to house this incredible group of artworks.

Museo Diego Rivera Anahuacalli in Mexico City, designed by Juan O’Gorman

The building evokes the pyramids with O’Gorman’s use of volcanic rock and utilizes numerous nooks and crannies designed especially for a selection of the artworks. The first floor feels like a labyrinth, revealing treasures around every corner. Stained glass windows link the museum to the outside world and ceilings feature mosaics of animals and other sacred beings such as snakes.

Stained glass windows throughout the museum and a snake mosaic on the ceiling
Art is installed in every niche.
Prehispanic art at the Museo Anahuacalli
Ceremonial pottery from the collection

The second floor of the museum is a tribute to Rivera and provides additional exhibition space for the collection. Beautiful windows look out on Mexico City and supply natural light for the display of large preparatory drawings for Rivera’s murals. It is a stunning room that combines prehispanic art with 20th century drawings by Mexico’s most beloved muralist.

Second floor of the museum looks out over Mexico City

This example below is particularly important as it is a preparatory drawing for a fresco that was originally installed at Rockefeller Center in New York City. Titled Man at the Crossroads (1933), it shows aspects of early 20th century social and scientific culture. Although the fresco design was approved initially, Rockefeller had it destroyed because of Rivera’s insistent inclusion of images in the final fresco of Vladimir Lenin and a May Day Parade. In this drawing, he originally included Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse Tung (in the upper left corner). Using photographs, Rivera later repainted the composition in Mexico.

Working drawing for Rivera’s fresco Man at the Crossroads above artworks

Other working drawings for murals show Diego Rivera’s process in creating numerous murals for Mexico, New York, Detroit and San Francisco.

Working drawings for Rivera murals

Also on the second floor were various galleries with additional works from the prehispanic collections, as well as mosaics on the ceilings and walls that acknowledged ancient stories and spirits from past civilizations.

Mosaic murals in the ceiling of the Museum’s second floor

During our visit to Oaxaca, I also investigated contemporary art at one of the city’s numerous other museums. The Museo de Arte Contemporanio de Oaxaca (MACO) was founded in 1992 in a refurbished 17th century building. The museum exhibits Mexican contemporary artists and I enjoyed viewing an exhibition featuring the results of their Biennial competition. Upstairs, a solo show of works by Irma Palacios were a pleasant surprise for their quality and breadth of expression.

Museo de Arte Contemporanio de Oaxaca (MACO) in a refurbished building
Galleries at MACO showcase the old 17th century walls
Solo exhibition at MACO by noted Mexican artist Irma Palacios

Irma Palacios, born in 1943 in Guerrero, is one of Mexico’s notable contemporary artists. She is not only a painter, but she also creates ceramics, embroidery, and art books. I enjoyed the range of her creativity expressed through these various mediums. If you read Spanish, please zoom in for more information on the artist as well as a description of the exhibition. The photos below do not capture the shimmering nature of Palacios’ paintings, with paint that embraced a metallic and light-filled sheen.

Selected paintings from the Palacios exhibition…
(with apologies to the artist of skewed photos while trying to escape reflection)…



Palacio’s explorations of various mediums included embroidery, which seemed influenced by centuries of outstanding fabric workmanship by numerous indigenous people. She demonstrated her skill and vision on these beautiful fabrics. Museum ceiling fans also provided the fabrics with motion that accentuated the quality of both the workmanship and weaving.



Palacios also included examples of paper art and ceramics with vibrant colors and designs. Her ceramic art especially tied together centuries of mesoamerican influences dating back millennia. The paintings below were also beautifully exhibited to bring out the building’s history.



Paintings exhibited over remnants of the original 17th century building

Finally, Ms. Palacios drew together her various influences with these conch shell ceramics which paid homage to the prehispanic art of the communities which became Mexico.

Sculptures by Palacio invoking prehispanic influences.

Art is around every corner in Mexico in unexpected places and at numerous museums  – Mexican murals inside former Spanish colonial buildings, colorful festivals that celebrate ancient traditions, and modern architecture inspired by the past. Prehispanic and mesoamerican cultures included artistic expression in their daily life through ceramics, embroidery, painting and sculpture. Fortunately, preservation of the past has provided inspiration to contemporary artists for the vibrant and important artistic culture that exists in Mexico today.