‘The African Presence in Mexico: From Yanga to the Present’ is an exhibition that throws a pictorial light on the history of the black man in Mexico. Hosted by The Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, it is on view through July 4, 2010. Through paintings, photos, lithographs and historical texts, the visiting exhibition highlights the indelible impact that Africans have on Mexican culture and examines the complexity of race, culture, politics and social stratification. The exhibition also features important historical figures, like Yanga, an African leader and founder of the first free African township in the Americas (Jan. 6, 1609).
When the Spanish first arrived in Mesoamerica (stretching from central Mexico to Honduras and Nicaragua), they brought free Africans with them. These Africans contributed to the conquistadors success in New Spain, but they did not share in the victory because of their status. The decline of the Amerindian population and the difficulty of making Native Americans into slaves and later the Pope’s prohibition against enslaving them, prompted the Spanish to import large numbers of Africans from Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Gambia, Nigeria, the Congo, and Angola.
During the colonial period in Veracruz, Spaniards placed restrictions on contact between Africans and Natives to discourage the formation of alliances. Intermarriage between the races, whose descendants were called Lobos in the caste system of New Spain and Zambos in other parts of Spanish America, was heavily discouraged by some individuals in the Catholic clergy. Africans soon outnumbered Europeans in certain areas, and the Spanish implemented many tactics to ensure that they remained the dominant racial group in Mesoamerica.
In the early days of the colonial period, slavery was very harsh, and lead to rebellions. In 1609 there was a black rebellion in Veracruz, lead by Gaspar Yanga and Francisco de la Matosa. After fierce battles, Yanga came to negotiate a peace with the viceroy Luis de Velasco. A black community, called “San Lorenzo” (Later renamed Yanga) was founded and still exists; it would be the first of several.
Culture critic at the Washington Post, Philip Kennicott said about the exhibition: “The most striking images in the . . . exhibition document what was hiding in plain sight. As Mexico created a new melting-pot identity that paradoxically assimilated but denied blackness, artists documented the racial diversity that was officially disappearing. . . . Like all good exhibitions, ‘The African Presence in Mexico’ raises more questions than it answers. But it goes beyond the merely good by raising provocative and painful questions in a forthright way alien to all too many exhibitions about race today.”
Through paintings, photos, lithographs and historical texts, the visiting exhibition highlights the indelible impact that Africans have on Mexican culture and examines the complexity of race, culture, politics and social stratification. “The African Presence in Mexico” is a bilingual exhibition that includes text panels, tours and various educational and public programming in both Spanish and English. The companion exhibition, “Who Are We Now? Roots, Resistance and Recognition,” examines the relationships between Mexicans and African Americans in the United States and African Americans in the United States and the country of Mexico.
“We are delighted to bring this important exhibition to the Smithsonian through its engagement at the Anacostia Community Museum,” said Camille Giraud Akeju, director of the museum. “The exhibition and the stimulating public programs that accompany it will highlight another significant yet little known aspect of the African diaspora.”
Organized by the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, this traveling exhibition has been presented in Chicago, New Mexico, California and Philadelphia, as well as Monterrey and Veracruz, Mexico. No exhibition has showcased the history, artistic expressions and practices of Afro-Mexicans in such a broad scope, with a comprehensive collection of artwork from historic pieces to contemporary artistic expressions. The Smithsonian presentation at the Anacostia Community Museum includes reproductions of two rare 18th-century colonial “casta” paintings not seen on display since the exhibition originally opened in 2006. The exhibition also features important historical figures, like Yanga, an African leader and founder of the first free African township in the Americas (Jan. 6, 1609).
Curated by Sagrario Cruz-Carretero and Cesareo Moreno, “The African Presence in Mexico,” illuminates the often overlooked contributions of Africans to the artistic, culinary, musical and cultural traditions of Mexican culture from the past through the present day. Elena Gonzales developed the companion exhibition, “Who Are We Now?” to offer a basis for discussion on contemporary U.S. relationships between people of African and Mexican descent. “At so many levels, ‘The African Presence in Mexico’ project is a landmark undertaking and the most important cultural presentation ever organized by the National Museum of Mexican Art,” said Carlos Tortolero, president and founder of the National Museum of Mexican Art.
Positive dialogue between African Americans and Mexicans
The National Museum of Mexican Art notes that “The African Presence in Mexico” serves as a catalyst for a more positive dialogue between African Americans and Mexicans, offering Mexico the opportunity not only to reveal its African legacy, but also actively embrace it as an important element in its national cultural heritage. “Visitors will learn that Mexico is a diverse country, that it has had its own struggle with slavery, race and class and that Africans in Mexico participated in the country’s seminal events as well as made important contributions to the nation,” said Portia James, senior curator at the Anacostia Community Museum.
The museum has worked with several Mexican and Latino civic, cultural leaders and organizations to collaborate on programming and promotional efforts and to generate ongoing dialogue in the Washington metropolitan area. The Smithsonian presentation received federal support from the Latino Initiative Pool, administered by the Latino Center. Exhibition programs and special events are presented in collaboration with the Smithsonian Latino Center, the National Museum of African Art, the Mexican Cultural Institute and the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
The national sponsor for the traveling exhibition is Chase. Additional sponsors include Sara Lee Foundation, Boeing Co., Wallace Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Polk Bros. Foundation, Ford Foundation, Nathan Cummings Foundation, Kraft Foods, Woods Fund of Chicago, Joyce Foundation, Albert Pick, Jr. Fund, Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and the Illinois Arts Council. The exhibition schedule is subject to change: DuSable Museum of African American History, Chicago, fall of 2010.
Sources: Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, PRNewswire, Wikipedia, Washington Post