At the time of the Conquest, the bright red of the Aztec textiles was everywhere in Tenochtitlan—what is now the historic center of Mexico City. Upon query, the Spanish learned the color came from the prickly pear cactus grown for the dye. They quickly shipped the plants back to Europe without realizing the locals had duped them. The plant was not the source at all, but the small white bugs called cochineal that grew on its stems.
The popularity of natural dyes went down drastically after the introduction of chemical dyes but there are rays of hope. Concern for the environment, local availability, and sustainability has brought cochineal farming back into production after a centuries-long hiatus. On the Oaxacan coast, the Mixtec people continue to create a vivid purple dye using purpura panza, a sea mollusk related to murex.
Carlos Couturier, Grupo Habita
This interest in bringing back traditional techniques and blending them with new global trends has brought an exciting cultural rebirth in Mexico. In Yucatán, architects are reviving the ancient Mayan stucco technique called “chukum” for contemporary buildings, merging modern architecture with regional history and culture. Made with chukum tree bark, the material has several defining qualities that separate it from traditional stucco, including impermeable properties and a warm earthy color. In Oaxaca, Grupo Habita tapped architect Alberto Kalach to rehabilitate the adobe interiors and high ceilings of an early 19th-century family home while conjoining it artfully with a new Brutalist build to create Hotel Escondido Oaxaca.
The design scene, concentrated in Mexico City, is also excavating inspiration. A new crop of young talent is creating a new language rooted in the handmade traditions of the country. The Dutch-Mexican designer Emma Gavaldon van Leeuwen Boomkamp is working with a weaving community in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca to create modern versions of traditional Mexican wool rugs and with artisans in Yucatán for braiding sisal pieces, typically used for bags, into large wall hangings. In 2015, Fernando Laposse began collaborating with Mixtec farmers and herders in Santo Domingo Tonahuixtla, Puebla to reintroduce heirloom corn (many varieties were lost and farmland ruined when chemical additives and pesticides were introduced in the 1990s). Now, they harvest the crops, and use its colorful oft-discarded husks to create Totomoxtle, a decorative veneer made with marquetry which can be applied to walls or furniture.
Not to be left behind, Mexico’s gastronomy has also seen a regional renaissance. The country's richly varied regional cuisine is driving the culinary experience to a whole new level. Restaurants such as Guzina Oaxaca in Mexico City by Alejandro Ruiz—which drew a rave review in The New York Times—is a celebration of Ruiz’s home state, a mountainous region known for its huge diversity of ingredients and deep culinary traditions. Taking a different approach to Oaxacan cuisine—one that focusses on the coast—is Nayarit-born chef Saul Carranza at Hotel Escondido. Highlights include Carranza’s green ceviche, a spicy, sour, tantalizing mix of fresh-caught fish, tomatillo, lime juice, and habanero chili. In San Miguel de Allende, a city known for its inventive cuisine, restaurant Moxi at the award-winning Hotel Matilda incorporates Mexican heritage with contemporary techniques.
Mexico stretches from the deserts of the northern border to the tropical forests of the south, with long Caribbean and Pacific coastlines in between, giving it immense biodiversity and a sprawling palette of ingredients. Its flavors are also shaped by its complex history, blending influences from its many indigenous groups, the Spanish conquistadors, European elites, slaves from Africa, immigrants from all over, and the ever-present United States. Go beyond the tacos and enchiladas to try lesser-known Mexican classics like cochinita pibil, the impossibly flavorful, slow-roasted pork dish from the Yucatán peninsula or escamoles, the ant larvae from central Mexico known as "insect caviar". All you have to do is wander the streets and learn about its antojitos or street snacks.
Frida Escobedo became the youngest person to design the prestigious Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in 2018. Her work often features simple materials and forms, such as the perforated concrete blocks that screen her La Tallera gallery complex at Cuernavaca in Mexico.
While it’s true that most people still think of Frida Kahlo when they think of Mexican art, Mexico City is quickly becoming a haven for artists across the globe. Big, bold arts projects have bolstered the city’s cultural cred and transformed it into a heavyweight on the global stage. Disused warehouses and factories have been replaced by, among other things, two formidable museums: the Jumex (housing an impressive collection of modern Mexican art owned by Mexican juice magnate Eugenio López Alonso) and the Soumaya (housing Carlos Slim’s vast private art collection).
Following in the tradition of the great muralists, many of Mexico’s most exciting modern artists go beyond the canvas to present their work. Urban art, or street art consisting of graffiti installations, posters, and even fashion, is exceedingly popular in large cities. A surprising number of murals can be seen running the length of Playa del Carmen’s Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue). In Puerto Vallarta, thanks to a project promoting the protection of coral reefs, there are tons of colorful murals smattered around the place. Finally, Monterrey was the birthplace of a now Latin America-wide street poetry movement, Acción Poética. This movement focused, at least at the beginning, on forefronting poetry and music through writing stanzas and lyrics in bold black paint against clean white backdrops. While these ditties can be seen across Mexico, Monterrey remains the spot to find them.
Words Vidula Kotian Date 05 November 2020
Images most by Vivek Vadoliya for Design Hotels
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