At five pm last Thursday a group from the Museum boarded a bus and drove across the border to attend the opening reception for THE BEAUTY OF USE at Tijuana’s magnificent Centro Cultural (CECUT). The exhibition was to open to the public the next day. This was the culmination of more than a year of planning and weeks of hard work — conditioning, packing, shipping, unpacking, conditioning again and installing. The result was worth the trouble.
Although the event began at seven o’clock, we arrived at six. Rob Sidner, Mingei International’s director and the exhibition’s curator, had an appointment at that hour, so the rest of us were invited to wander through CECUT’s vast spaces until the reception began. The exhibition is in El Cubo, the nearly four-year-old building with three floors of galleries, that is shaped like its name, but the rest of the exhibitions were in the original structure, so we set out through the spare, high-walled courtyard with vines growing horizontally along strings, said “hasta luego” to the courtyard greeter, a seated Tijuana cultural hero sculpted of patinated copper, and found the stairs into the main part of CECUT. There we discovered more generous space for exhibitions and performances as well as lovely gardens seen through walls of glass.
We decided to spend our time in Fronteras Cambiantes, an exhibition of maps showing North America from the beginnings of European exploration, discovering that some early cartographers portrayed California as an island. It was a lesson in how people see, depict and name geographic areas. One map maker placed Mexico next to Oregon while another named each territory after the Native American culture that dominated it. Each map had a distinct personality, and they were all beautiful to look at. It was fascinating to see how “our neighborhood” has evolved through the centuries.
About halfway through the map exhibition, someone arrived from El Cubo to fetch us for a private preview of THE BEAUTY OF USE. Back we went, greeted our verdigris cultural hero and entered the soaring, multi-textured space that is the building’s atrium. Its monumental geometry, composed of three extra-high stories with walls meeting at angles and capped on the third level with honey-colored wood, is spacious, welcoming and warm. There is plenty of room for a crowd with seating provided by huge, circular black benches that are in gentle contrast to the angles elsewhere.
We entered the geographically arranged exhibition at North America, and I was delighted to see so many old friends among the objects on display. Niki de Saint Phalle’s red Snake Chair welcomed us, while to the right was Brett Hesser’s jewelry box and to the left were the yellow chicken weathervane that usually lives in the Museum’s administrative office and the Navajo weaving “Oh My Beautiful Horses.” Across from the entrance in cozy cases was a selection of mechanical toy banks. There were also new friends including a weather vane featuring a little boy flying by his shirt and britches, hands outstretched and feet in motion to catch the wind. Although I have known about this exhibition for quite some time, my reaction to seeing objects from Mingei International’s collection outside the Museum was at once surprised, excited and reassured.
The exceptionally high ceilings allowed visually dramatic suspension of full lengths of kuba cloth in the African section and saris in the Indian section. Wall colors were strong yet subtle, and are used effectively as accents as well as backgrounds. For example, in the yellow Mexican section hangs the object I call the Parade Angel. She’s life-size, and her dress is yellow, fashioned, I believe, from dried flowers. Next to her, suspended from the not-quite-the-same-shade-as-the-angel wall is a yellow wooden chair of a slightly different, but harmonious, hue with its seat leaning toward the viewer. The effect is witty and just a little reminiscent of Alice through the Looking Glass. In other sections, Japanese objects are set off by a lovely coral lacquer shade while the African section has a sandy tint. Remarkably, more than 500 objects are presented in two very large galleries in such a way that each is allowed to speak for itself.
Our private preview ended, and we returned to the atrium where we found a crowd of guests and were officially welcome by CECUT’s Director General Virgilio Muñoz and our own Rob Sidner, who spoke eloquently in Spanish. Now it was time to enjoy others’ reactions to the exhibition.
The grand finale was an impromptu dinner at La Querencia, a popular restaurant not far from CECUT. Delicious food was served in small bites on large platters, a casually elegant version of family style. We sampled an array of delicious concoctions prepared in a style the chef calls” Baja Med,” a blending of Baja California and Mediterranean cuisines. The restaurant’s musicians played and we sang along, performing at one point a spirited rendition of the Beatles’ Yesterday. Perhaps we should have requested Annie’s Tomorrow as well in honor of the exhibition’s opening.
There was no wait at the border, and we returned easily to San Diego exhilarated. Our time in Tijuana had given us refreshment and stimulation. I felt as if I’d had a whole vacation in only six hours.
From the top:
Saris hang in the Indian section
Jar from Patamban in the Mexican section
Guest looking at objects from India
Japanese baskets and brooms
Rob Sidner (center) with Virgilio Muñoz, CECUT Director General (right) and Armando García Orzo, Director of Exhibitions (left) talk about Sicilan cart