When former Austin Museum of Art curator Elizabeth Ferrer heard the name of the then-upcoming photography exhibit at Texas State University’s Wittliff Collections, she said she was puzzled.
“Mexico lindo,” taken from the name of a popular mariachi song that pays homage to Mexico, didn’t seem to accurately portray what she knew not only about Texas’ southern neighbor but about the fine-art and photojournalistic photography that its people and foreigners had been producing within its borders throughout the 20th century.
Post-revolution, starting in the 1920s, the country blossomed from a cultural renaissance that championed the indigenous people through art: extensive murals painted by some of Mexico’s most well-known modern artists, including Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, and photography taken by natives such as Antonio Turok and Americans and Europeans such as Edward Weston and Tina Modotti who visited.
The ensuing decades produced great art, yes, that celebrated the beauty of Mexico’s people and landscape — but, as Ferrer pointed out, “there was pain, too.”
So why name the exhibit of more than 100 photographs depicting Mexico simply “Mexico lindo,” or in English “Pretty Mexico”?
Once visitors walk among the walls of photographs on the seventh floor of Texas State’s sprawling Alkek Library, the photographs and the stories behind them answer that question. Curator Carla Ellard selected them from the Wittliff Collections’ extensive archives, which serve as a repository for southwestern and Mexican photography, as well as for southwestern writings from authors and playwrights like Sam Shepard.
“(Our founding donor) Bill Wittliff titled his photography series ‘Mexico lindo,’ and after talking with him, we decided to title our whole show after that song, ‘Mexico lindo y querido,’” Ellard said. “On one of the walls for the show, we had a stanza translated. The song is about a longing for the homeland, and the show presents Mexico in all its beauty, with the humanity of the country predominant. The landscape, too.”
Ellard looked at every photograph in the Wittliff Collections’ archives by an artist she knew had taken photos in Mexico and ultimately chose 49 photographers to be represented in the show that runs through Dec. 13. The earliest photographs displayed were taken by pictorialist Joseph Keiley in 1901; the most recent was Rocky Schenck’s hand-tinted shot of Mexican landscape snapped in 2012.
And in between them is a roster of prestigious and groundbreaking photographers whose work document the sweeping changes that developed in Mexico following the bloody Mexican Revolution in 1910. There’s Marco Antonio Cruz, who spent more than two decades documenting the blind in his home country, a project that produced thousands of images. There’s Héctor García, who juxtaposed signs of wealth in the increasingly affluent Mexico City with the large pockets of poverty still existing that he never forgot from his childhood.
Then there’s Mexico’s most celebrated 20th-century photographer, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, whose influential work earned its own adjacent show at the Wittliff gallery, displaying more than 50 of the prints he took over the course of 70 years. “Manuel Álvarez Bravo” runs through Dec. 1.
Women photographers have also depicted Mexico with their artistic visions, including Álvarez Bravo’s ex-wife, Lola Álvarez Bravo, one of the first females in her field. Ferrer, currently the director of contemporary art at BRIC Arts in Brooklyn who specializes in Latin American art and photography, made sure to talk about them and all of the others in her speech at the Sept. 8 opening reception for “Mexico lindo.” Almost 200 people arrived for the opening and her talk, Ellard said.
Ferrer said that though many of the photographers often shot difficult subject matter, including the often poor indigenous people, their work matches well with the “Mexico lindo” title. It’s a phrase that perhaps meant “something different to each photographer,” she said, who found beauty in the country’s traditions, resilience and return to celebrating its native people.
Where: Wittliff Collections, Alkek Library, Texas State University, 601 University Drive.
When: Ongoing through Dec. 13. Check website for hours, which can vary.
For more information: 512-245-2313, www.thewittliffcollections.txstate.edu