If the pandemic has the world seemingly in a state of suspension, the Mexican Cultural Institute has an ideal exhibition for the moment.
Mexicalidad features 142 design objects suspended on wire armatures as if defying gravity. Shoes, chairs, and radios dance in the air, and portable stoves, water tanks, and makeshift lean-tos to help refugees regain their footing after natural disasters.
The wire armatures as display units are meant to lend the feel of a Mexican mercado, said Valeria Ixquic Mata, assistant director of the institute, and also “to give [the show] a sense of design, architecture, and art” instead of feeling like a retail store.
The objects cover a time span from 1968 to the present, from fashion and souvenirs of the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City to modern furniture that recasts earlier designs using current materials and technologies.
The Games were held the same year as Hemisfair ’68 in San Antonio, which gave rise to the Mexican pavilion that now houses the institute, making it an ideal site for Mexicalidad, Director Sergio Zapata Lozano said.
The show was supposed to open in March but was postponed by the citywide pandemic shutdown. After a five-month delay, it will open with a virtual event on Facebook at 6 p.m. Thursday.
For those months the objects of Mexicalidad were stored in boxes, having traveled from their previous stop at the institute’s counterpart in Washington, D.C. The Zoom videoconferencing platform connected the Mexican Cultural Institute’s staff with the exhibition’s curators stationed at home in Mexico City, where the exhibition originated at the hiply named Museu del Objeto del Objeto (The Purpose of the Object Museum). The curatorial team helped institute staff place objects in five galleries and hang the complex exhibition using the wire armatures specifically designed for Mexicalidad.
As a whole, the show aims to present a broader picture of contemporary Mexico than is usually seen, Mata said.
“It’s really common to see the traditional Mexican design that’s everywhere, with artisans and craftsmen and women creating beautiful pieces,” she said, but Mexicalidad demonstrates how younger generations of designers have adapted these traditions to new materials, processes, and functions.
Traditional textiles such as woven Purépecha strips of Michoacán appear, but incorporated by designer Armando Takeda in a fashion-forward, asymmetrical garment that embodies the combination of new and old, one side a slim spaghetti-strap slip and the other a billowy, pleated traditional dress.
Some designs balance social awareness with lightheartedness. Lozano pointed out his favorite piece in the show, a small Soda Crate bureau from 2011 by designer Vik Servin that incorporates old plastic soda crates as drawers, branded with soda pops Lozano enjoyed in his youth.
In the exhibition notes, Servin’s purpose is described as reusing objects that have been granted a long life through their materials, “instead of following the established lines [of] fast consumption.”
Many current designers recognize the potential social impact of their work, Mata said. Among the fashionable clothes, a nopal-themed carpet, and luchador bottle openers are colorful helmets for brain-injured toddlers, lightweight prosthetic limbs, and a bra that can detect breast cancer.
Mata said the main message of Mexicalidad is design that serves a purpose for its communities. “It’s gratifying to see the work of young people that are creating and putting their creativity in the service of others,” she said.
Though the objects of fine design might seem precious when presented in the rarified space of an exhibition, many are made to be affordable and easily available. The cleverly positioned luchadores of Ariel Rojo’s bottle openers were mass-produced by global design company Kikkerland after winning a design competition, and can be purchased just blocks away at Pig Liquors, for example.
The Mexican Cultural Institute remains closed to in-person visitors due to pandemic restrictions, but audiences of Thursday’s opening event will learn more about Mexicalidad through a virtual tour of the exhibition and guest speakers, including design curators.
The event is free and can be viewed throughout the run of the exhibition, which will be on view through November.