Izamal Art Museum
The Art Museum and Cultural Centre of Izamal is a small modern space inside an old colonial building. It showcases popular art and handicrafts from around Mexico in eleven rooms and it has a café, and, atypically, a spa.
The museum is painted yellow, like the rest of the town. Izamal is actually called the Yellow City. The town has a Franciscan Convent which Pope John Paul visited in 1993 and the convent and the city were painted papal yellow in honour of his visit. This visit has been one of Izamal's claims to fame ever since.
The museum was founded with the intent of helping the rural artisans promote and sell their goods. Its shop sells fair-trade-certified crafts made by artisans from 12 indigenous communities. Any purchase you make is a direct source of income for rural indigenous families.
In the art exhibition there are wonderful pieces made of a variety of materials, such as stone, paper, clay, wood, silver, textiles, vegetable fibres and horn. The museum is just across the square from the convent, on the main plaza; you can't miss it.
I came here with my husband in December 2017 and we enjoyed the exhibits. My favourite part was discovering that we could peep at the K'abúl ruins through the museum's back gate as otherwise they are not open to the public.
The people: Hacienda life
I suppose that in an art museum the focus is on the artisans whose work is displayed here. But there is a section of the museum that displays the colonial times of Yucatán, in particular the life at the haciendas, which got me really interested. I have already been to a few haciendas in Yucatán, before coming to Izamal, but this displayed covered the haciendas that I have not visited yet.
The old black and white photos from the haciendas show both the hacienda owners, hacendados, and the indigenous workers/slaves. So let's have a closer look at Hacienda Chenché de las Torres.
It is one of the properties that arose during the nineteenth century henequén boom. The property originally belonged to the Count and Countess of Miraflores. In the 18th century, a family named Manzanilla acquired the ownership from Countess Dona Candelaria Peón y Peón, the last Miraflores descendant.
Just look at that photo! How many staff they had! All standing in front of the main house, which was built in the style of a European medieval fortress. I find this house rather unusual, as most of the haciendas in Yucatán were built in a Spanish colonial style, with open-air verandas with tall arcades and entry gates with arches in Moorish style. This is why this photo caught my eye.
The hacienda henequenera required large staffing for the cultivation of the fields and for the industrial processes: gathering the cut stalks and binding them together with a band of straw, separating the fibres from the plant’s fleshy leaves (initially done by hand, later by machines), washing, drying, brushing, threading (to make the ropes), spinning, transporting (on rail wagons).
From an unproductive and isolated backwater, Yucatán was transformed into a major exporting region linked to international markets. Sweeping change and immense wealth followed. The henequén business was incredibly lucrative for the few rich Spanish owners. They called henequén 'the green gold' as it truly made many of them millionaires. At the end of the century, Mérida was said to have more millionaires than any other city in the world. The map at the museum shows a number of haciendas around the town of Mérida (where the hacienda owners usually lived).
With government support, haciendas expropriated communal land, destroying self-sufficient Maya communities by ending traditional subsistence corn growing and restricting hunting, grazing, and access to firewood. Residency on a hacienda assured them of food, firewood, and exemptions from corvée (unpaid) labour and military service. Many Maya therefore changed from temporary labourers to residents. Each hacienda built an entire community, with houses for the labourers (for which they charged rent), a school for their children (for which they charged tuition fees), a church or a chapel (the labourers had to pay for the services as well). The workers had hardly anything left from their salary. The haciendas produced their own currency, and their coins could only be used at the hacienda shop. No wonder the locals revolted against the European-descended population, called Yucatecos. The Caste War of Yucatán (1848) changed the existence of the haciendas: many were destroyed.
All of the henequén plantations ceased to exist as autonomous communities with the agrarian land reform implemented by President Lázaro Cárdenas in 1937. His decree turned the haciendas into collective ejidos, leaving only 150 hectares to the former landowners. When the Manzanilla family abandoned the property in the 1950s, it had fallen into disrepair. However, they left the archives of the hacienda in a storage room. The current owner is Isabelle Kimmelman, who has taken over its latest restoration.
Other haciendas on display at the museum were Hacienda Sacapuc (now for sale), Hacienda Rosa (today turned into a luxury hotel), Haciendas Temozón Sur and San José Cholul (both now also renovated to beautiful boutique hotels). There were a few henequén haciendas also in Izamal; by now they have been all converted to hotels: Hacienda Santo Domingo, Hacienda Izamal, Sacnicte.
The Focus: Art Pieces
The main feature of the museum is the display of Mexican art work. The pieces are beautiful.
I was immediately taken by the Tree of Life by Óscar Soteno Elías. The tree of life was sacred to all the ancient Mesoamericans. However, Óscar Soteno narrates the history of the creation of man through biblical passages. I found out later, after visiting the museum, that it is in his family tradition. The Sotenos are from Metepec in the State of Mexico and are one of the main families of ceramic artisans specialising in sculptures called Trees of Life. The creation of Trees of Life is part of the pottery and ceramic traditions of the central highlands of Mexico. The depiction of a Tree of Life in paintings and other mediums was introduced as a way to evangelise Biblical stories to the native population.
The family’s prominence began with Modesta Fernández Mata, the mother, grandmother and great-grandmother of the Soteno potters today, who began experimenting with more decorative items along with utilitarian ones. The two most notable members of the family are Tiburcio and Óscar, second and third generation respectively, who have won various awards and have their works in collections worldwide. Óscar makes his trees from clay and he exhibited in the British Museum and one of his trees was also auctioned in New York.
Other popular topics represented by the artisans were the skeleton Catrina (an artistic symbol of the contrasts between the upper and lower classes), angels and devils, jaguars (sacred animals for the Maya) and clay figures of ancient Maya people.
I also loved the work of Angélico Jiménez. He is from Oaxaca and he also followed in his father's footsteps and became a woodcarving specialist. He creates alebrijes – carved wooden creatures. Alebrije is a slang Zapotec word meaning 'intricate tangled object of a confusing or fantastic theme'. Well, his figurine displayed at the museum is certainly that. It is actually labelled nahual at the museum and to me it looked like a tiger at first sight. On closer inspection, I realised that it has rabbit ears. So this is a nahual-rabbit. From my studies about Mayan culture I am aware of nahuales. I think of them as Mayan spirits or totems. Each nahual is associated with an animal of importance to the Maya, which then associates the main traits to the relevant humans. A person's nahual is determined by their date of birth based on the Tzolk'in calendar. So I presume that this rabbit character was made by the artist in a way that portrays the characteristics of a rabbit zodiac sign. Rabbits are very playful, childlike, and witty. They are also competitive, friendly, emotional, hard-working and arrogant. Blimey! Not an easy task to portray somebody's traits with a wooden sculpture. If your Mayan zodiac sign is a rabbit, (born between May 30-June 26), then look at that sculpture closely as it represents you. Do you see your own traits in it?
Mystery: the stucco mask of K'abúl ruins
There is a small café in the lovely yard of the museum. If you walk past the little pond (with some artistic plastic water-lilies), you will see a small metal-grill gate and you can peep at the ruins of the K'abúl temple through the gate. Frederick Catherwood and John Lloyd Stephens visited Izamal in 1842; K'abúl had a huge stucco mask on one side but it was since damaged, possibly in the Caste War (or so they say).
K'abúl can't be visited at this moment so this is the only way to see it. The museum has a room dedicated to Désiré Charnay, a French traveller and archaeologist notable for his explorations of Mexico and Central America, and for his pioneering use of photography. He came to Izamal in the 1860s, looking for that stucco mask, but found it already destroyed. I can imagine how disappointed he must have been.
The room dedicated to the archaeologists is currently not open to the public. It seemed to be used as a storage room at the time of our visit. What a pity! One does not hear enough about the life of the ruin explorers at any of the ruin sites and not in the museums either, for that matter.
For me the mystery is how such monuments got destroyed in recent history. They often blame the Caste War but I don't want to believe, that the Maya, who turned against their hacienda landlords, would deliberately destroy their own legacy and the sacred places of pilgrimage. This stucco mask portrayed the Sun God K'inich Ajaw, who was worshipped at Izamal (it resembled very strongly the K'inich stucco masks at the ruin site of Kohunlich). On the other hand, it is quite possible that it was looters. Were they the Maya or Spanish? Would a Maya put his hands on his sacred god to take him down and sell? Who was more likely to trade such a piece for money?
Don't miss: the shop
In the shop you will find many handmade items, such as embroidered cross-stitched huipiles (Mayan dresses), hand towels, silver filigree necklaces, earrings, bracelets, horn picture frames, letter openers and miniature boxes, hand-made soaps, hair combs, fibre or crocheted hammocks, sisal handbags, and pillows.
Afterwards, you can have a drink at the atrium café and even a massage at the museum spa. Pretty unusual, wouldn't you say?
Tuesday through Saturday 10am to 5pm, Sunday 10am to 3pm. The entry fee is 25 pesos.
How to get there:
If you are going by car from Cancún or Playa del Carmen, take the Cuota (toll) Highway and turn off 180D at Kantunil village. The journey takes 2.5 hours.
From Mérida take the Cuota road toward Cancún, and exit at km 48 towards Izamal. The trip takes 45 minutes. Or go by bus; the station is at Calle 67 between 50 and 52, with departures every hour. The cost of the ticket is $27 pesos one way, $54 pesos roundtrip. Also you can take a minibus (colectivo) on Calle 65 between 52 and 54.