The Ruth D.
Mexico's Little-Known Gem
by Maxine Rose Schur
Maxine Rose Schur is an award-winning travel writer and children's book author. Visit her website at www.maxineroseschur.com .
While Frida Kahlo was fervently absorbed in self-portraiture, another young woman in Mexico City was also following her passion. At times their paths would cross. But while Frida Kahlo was destined to a brief, tragic life. The other woman would slowly and happily garner renown over a long lifetime. Her name was Ruth Deutsch. She was beautiful, blonde and all of eighteen years old.
She arrived in Mexico City in 1939 with her family, political refugees from Nazi Austria. Ruth Deutsch had no knowledge of Mexico nor the Spanish language but soon after her arrival, she saw a mural by the great Jose Clemente Orozco in the city’s Palace of Fine Arts. The mural sparked a lifelong curiosity about Mexican culture.
It was not so much the subject matter as the colors. That night I dreamt in yellows and reds. Such an intense emotion made me realize that this was a completely different culture that could not be understood through European eyes.
This insight would eventually draw Ruth deep into Mexico’s artistic heritage – the richest continuous artistic heritage on the continent, reaching back twenty centuries. Her journey began the day she visited the Indian village of Nahuzontla where she bought herself a blouse embroidered with vivid flowers. Gazing at the embroidery, she asked herself two questions:
1. Who made it?
2. Why did that person make it?
The purchase of that blouse propelled her on a sixty-year quest to discover Mexico’s finest folk art and to understand the Indian cultures that produced it. Early on, she realized what many others did not, that it is through indigenous crafts that the artistic richness of Mexico is most apparent.
Ruth trained as a professional photographer and in 1950 she married the equally adventurous Carl Lechuga. With camera slung over her shoulder, they ventured into the most remote regions of Mexico, seeking the authentic culture. It was not an easy life. She would sometimes traipse through jungles for days, frequently enduring deprivation and discomfort in her attempts to reach isolated settlements where Spanish had never been heard and no foreigner ever seen. Wherever she went she bought handicrafts and recorded with her camera the daily life and sacred ceremonies of the people. Today, Dr. Ruth Lechuga is a world-renowned authority on Mexican folk art and the author of several books on the subject and the creator of an important anthropological archive of 20,000 photos. Just as impressive is the result of her six decades of shopping: 10,000 folk art objects – all housed in her own apartment which is now a museum.
The Ruth D. Lechuga Museum is on a tree-lined street in the charming residential neighborhood of Condesa. When I visited last month I found that few people knew of this little gem and yet it is one of the loveliest museums in Mexico City as it provides an experience that is uniquely personal and inspiring.
After I rang the bell at the first floor apartment, the door was opened by a maid who beckoned me to wait in the dining room where the white walls were covered floor to ceiling with hundreds of masks. Peeking into the next rooms, I saw that her collection is separated into categories and spread out in every nook and cranny of her apartment – the floor, the walls, the closets and on every conceivable surface.
In a few minutes Dr. Lechuga entered, a frail woman with white hair and a kind smile. For the next two hours she graciously gave me a tour of each amazing room, speaking to me in perfect English. As she spoke, the burning passion she still has for these objects seemed to increasingly energize her. Whenever I commented on some specific piece such as a bird crown from Sonora, a beaded Huichol mask, a Michoacan wood tray painted with images of conquistadors, my comment opened up a world of stories about that one artifact. As there are 10,000 items here, I felt I had entered an enchanted place in which the most humble object revealed a multifaceted tale of both artistic individuality and communal values. Dr. Lechuga said that she has never bought an item without insisting on meeting its maker and learning its purpose. When buying a mask, she also wanted to meet the dancer who had worn it in the sacred ceremony. Once she had to wear the mask herself and dance with it as a condition of purchase. She remembers that the mask was smelly with sweat from the previous dancer but putting it on and dancing with it made her understand in a visceral way that the mask was not merely a work of art but an instrument for expressing aspects of the human spirit.
“There is,” Dr. Lechuga explained, “a whole cultural context that produces each object, and that is what lies behind my collection – a history and a reason for being.”
As the tour progressed I saw that it is her emotional relationship to each of the objects that enhances her academic understanding of the work and it is exactly this relationship that makes a visit to the Ruth Lechuga museum so powerful for the visitor as well. Dr. Lechuga’s tour is not a set one, for she is spontaneously guided by the enthusiasm and curiosity of her guests. For example, I was intrigued by a display case that holds a wide variety of tiny folk objects including a colorful collection of the most charming, intricate replicas of houses and flowers and people fashioned from gum! Just as intriguing to me was her collection of nativity scenes complete with sheep and angels, yet each scene created by a different village and from a different material – corn husk, sugar, paper, wax, pine wood, leaves, lead, glass, dried flowers and bone. “People use with great creativity whatever they have that’s plentiful in their region,” she explained, adding how the folk crafts of Mexico have changed dramatically in the last 50 years with the introduction of chemical dyes, plastic components, synthetic fabrics and the discouragement of native dress. Most significantly though, the greatest influence on Mexico’s folk art has been tourism.
“Before, a village was a self-sufficient community, making and growing everything it needed to live. If they fashioned beautiful pottery bowls, the bowls were put to a practical use for themselves, such as to hold beans or water. Then a tourist comes and buys a bowl and says she will use it as a flower pot. Gradually, the village turns to making flower pots rather than bowls to generate money and eventually they find themselves in a cash economy where they are dependent on money to buy things such as electricity or gas.”
Dr. Lechuga does not see this change as bad. In fact, she views adaptation to change as the way that folk culture remains alive. She firmly believes the human spirit is endlessly creative, whatever the situation.
As I went from room to room I marveled at each dazzling sight: A wall of horn hair combs in whimsical designs, one shaped like a mermaid playing the banjo, another as a stork carrying a baby and yet another as a leopard eating a man. Colorful pottery tree-of-life candelabras balancing birds, goats and people, a large sparkling peacock fashioned from multi-colored tin, an entire room of miniature people in papier maché and another of lacquer boxes from Patzcuaro shimmering with gold leaf. The living room housed a diverse collection of pottery from every state in Mexico including the giant pulque jars that are made to purposefully leak so as to create a wet exterior that keeps the pulque beverage cool, and an alcove in which narrow drawers hold more than 2000 vintage embroideries and weavings.
Dr. Ruth Lechuga has always insisted on buying the very best of its kind. For decades she has been the judge of the folk craft competition sponsored by the Museum of Popular Arts and Industries. As judge she encouraged unknown as well as famous artisans to compete. Over the years, the competition has greatly increased Mexico’s appreciation of it own cultural heritage. The competition also not only helped Ruth Lechuga to buy the best, it provided opportunities for her to meet new artisans. Meeting the artisans is what Ruth Lechuga cares about most for, as she emphasizes, “Folk art is never anonymous but rather, always made by an artist, simply one whose name we do not know.”
Ironically, though Ruth Lechuga has devoted her life to encouraging appreciation of Mexico’s unsung artisans, she herself was long unsung. Her heart-achingly honest photography was disparaged at the time because her often shocking images of poverty and pagan rituals upset the vision of an idyllic Mexico that almost all photographers were promoting in the 1940s and 50s. Her love of folk craft also was ridiculed as it was considered low-brow and eccentric even by her friends. “Oh you and your Indian things!” they would laugh, as they gave her gifts of cheap tourist souvenirs. Ruth has had the last laugh for she has not only now received great acclaim for her pioneering work, but she has used those cheesy gifts as example of “fake folk art” in her lectures.
Her museum collection represents the very finest quality folk items, yet interestingly, it is neither their craftsmanship nor their value that gives her the greatest pleasure.
“I don’t gloat over the collection like a Scrooge McDuck, hoarding all the objects I have been able to acquire as if they were trophies whose sole value lies in their uniqueness or in the fact that they are not made anymore. I’m attracted to well-crafted pieces because I know how much work has gone into them. I want the collection to be useful, to demonstrate this country’s many roots. This is the real Mexico. As more people are able to see the collection and take part in the adventure of learning about the country, I can say it was put to good use and I didn’t waste my life.”
Visiting the Ruth Lechuga museum is similar to visiting a toy store for it is filled with bright colors, humor and fantasy. For fans of Frida Kahlo, the Ruth D. Lechuga museum affords valuable insight into the native, popular art that became Frida’s major inspiration. The bold colors, regional dress, death symbols, organic design and Indian interpretation of Catholic ritual all informed Frida’s work in her desire, as she herself said, to “Mexicanize my art.”
After an hour and a half, my mind reeled from the overload of beautiful and fantastic images, yet nothing prepared me for the tour’s grand finale. Just as I was about to thank Dr. Lechuga, she announced, “Now, you must come see the bedroom.” While it may seem odd to visit a personal bedroom on a museum tour, this last room is not to be missed. After walking down a short dim corridor, I emerged into another dimension. Here, in a vivid, deep rose painted room, I found myself surrounded with several hundred artifacts of the Day of the Dead. The rose walls sprouted white skulls and skeletons, some dressed in finery: Marilyn Monroe dresses, tuxedos, evening gowns and 1950s petticoats. From a distance all the sketchy white figures appeared to me as merely lace on the feminine pink walls. Even up close the vision was not macabre but humorous. Certainly Dr. Lechuga was amused. She called me over to a glass cabinet set along one wall which held a collection of tiny skeletons in scenes showing numerous melodramatic ways they had met their death. She reached in and withdrew her latest acquisition: a tiny box showing a minutely detailed diorama in which a skeleton is shot at an ATM window. “It’s very imaginative, isn’t it?” she smiled.
The Ruth D. Lechuga Museum
Museo Ruth Lechuga De Arte Popular
Museum visits are by appointment only.
The museum can be visited individually or in groups up to 15 people.
Tours are $15.00 (150 pesos) per person and given in either English or Spanish.
Also provided are:
Courses in Mexican folk art
Appraisal of folk objects
Access to the photographic archive
Publications about and by Ruth Lechuga on the table she calls “My Ego Altar.”