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Arquetopia Co-Founder Revels in Local Culture

Francisco Guevara poses with an alebrije, a Mexican folk art sculpture of a fantastical creature.Puebla’s cultural melting pot is one of its great riches, a treasure that touches every artistic discipline — architecture, painting, literature, music, textiles, dance, and more — notes Victor Manuel Jiminez in the book Puebla: A Guide to Discovering the State’s Charm (Oceano, 2010). He cites novelist Elena Garro, poet Angeles Mastretta, painter Faustino Salazar García, and composer and musician Gerardo Pablo Muñoz among the talented and influential artists who hail from Puebla.

Looking to share the wealth with the creative community worldwide, local artist and curator Francisco Guevara in 2009 co-founded Arquetopia, a nonprofit foundation that offers international artist-in-residence and cultural-enrichment programs in Puebla and Oaxaca. Arquetopia seeks participants whose projects will draw from the surrounding community to produce cutting-edge work, giving preference to those who take nontraditional approaches to traditional techniques and materials (such as telar de cintura, papel amate, and talavera).

Of course, you don’t have to be a professional artist to appreciate everything that Puebla has to offer. All About Puebla recently asked Guevara to share his thoughts about poblano art and culture, as well as his picks for what visitors should see, do, and eat around the state capital, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

AAP: Puebla has a reputation for being a bit conservative. Do you agree?

Guevara: People in Puebla can be closed-minded, but our culture is somehow embracing and open; it’s not closed, not afraid of change. Although Puebla has a reputation for being conservative and Catholic, we’ve created a cultural icon that is relevant to everyone. The China Poblana was an immigrant. Why would you decide to have someone from India or the Philippines represent your culture? The process of incorporating something like that is very complex and acknowledges that Puebla is the result of very mixed heritage, not only Spanish and indigenous, but Jewish, Arabic, and others. If you think about it, mole isn’t just from Mexico; it incorporates sesame seeds, almonds, and spices that came from other places.

Speaking of other places, you worked in the U.S for a few years. How did living abroad change your perspective?

Before I moved to the U.S., I used to think that Puebla was so small. When I moved to Albuquerque, and only 500,000 people lived there, I began to understand identity and immigration in a different way.

Everyone in Mexico at some point in their lives will ask, “Should I move to the U.S.?” We belong to the ecosystem, and migration is a natural part of that. The U.S. is the place where everything happens — movies, the art scene, world culture, even the idea of the American dream, although that isn’t so much of a reality right now.

Coming back to Puebla, I realized that the city is one of the most important cities in Latin America. Its size alone — 1.5 million people — makes it relevant in the world. Puebla also has a very unique identity in terms of food and iconography and folk art.

Where would you send visitors in Puebla?

Any temple that has brown angels, such as Tonantzintla or La Capilla del Rosario, where you can see this great mixture of culture in the art and architecture. When the Spanish arrived to Mexico, they told the local people, “We want you to carve a lion.” But the locals had never seen a lion before, so they asked, “What does a lion look like?” And the Spanish said, “It’s like a dog with feathers.” And the locals took that image and created their version of a lion.

I’d also tell them to eat a quesadilla on any street corner. I always like the ones behind the Edificio Carolino on Palafox y Mendoza. Chicharrón with flor de calabaza and quesillo (pork rinds with zucchini flower and string cheese). Tourists can appreciate everything from the iconography of the plastic tablecloths to the cooking techniques and ingredients from 400 or 500 years ago — the comal, tortillas, beans.

I think there’s a cultural richness in Puebla and Mexico that you can’t find anywhere else. You can’t throw a rock in any direction without hitting an artist. There’s so much going on, it’s everywhere — folk art, contemporary art, history, food …

Beyond quesadillas, what else other foods do you recommend? Who makes the best mole poblano?

There’s one factory — my dad used to work there as a consultant — called El Relicario. He found out that they make a special mole for family and friends. The paste is made with hazelnuts. You can buy it in jars and buckets. It’s so delicious. Even the regular mole is really good.

The jocoque (strained yogurt) at La Oriental is the best. The milanesa with guisado (a breaded pork cutlet in adobo sauce) and roasted chiles at Tacos Roger in La Paz. Tamales canarios in Atlixco; they’re made with rice flour, butter, and pineapple custard. Casa de Sal near Beyrut.

What else would you recommend?

Calle 3 Norte from 8 Poniente to El Señor de las Maravillas (Heroes de 5 de Mayo Blvd.), you can find anything, from tools and tablecloths to any kitschy souvenir that your want to surprise your friends with. A religious tienda selling crazy Jesuses and popes with long eyelashes is next door to a toilet store. It’s like a [Christian] Boltanski installation.

Who has the best collection of regional art?

There was an attempt to create a museum for poblano art, but it failed. The most important museum in Puebla is Museo Amparo, but they don’t have any collection for local artists. They’re incorporating contemporary art into their program and maybe it’ll include that. The best collections of poblano art are private, owned by local entrepreneurs.

The architecture is beautiful. The Cathedral — I suspect you know the legend of how it was originally planned for Lima, Peru, and ended up in Puebla — also has a painting from the School of Raphael. It’s in the left corner behind the main altar.

Why visit Puebla?

I think it’s the jewel of Mexico, because the best of minorities converge here, and we manage to get the best out of each culture.

The chapel inside the Templo de Sto. Domingo is decorated with gilded plaster covered in 24 karat gold.A fountain dedicated to La China Poblana. A milanesa taco with roasted chiles from Tacos Roger in Colonia La Paz, Puebla.For more information about Arquetopia’s artist-in-residence and cultural exchange programs, visit the foundation’s blog.
—Rebecca Smith Hurd

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