The Museum of Art and History of Guanajuato (MAHG)

Conversation with the director of the MAHG

By Francisco Peyret

Magdalena Zavala, the general director of the MAHG at León city, gave us a tour of the museum. She told us a little about its origin and history, explaining each of the exhibition halls. According to Zavala, the idea of ​​building the MAHG arose in the 1990s, when Vicente Fox was governor of Guanajuato. Roberto Plascencia Saldaño (1935—2017), businessman and general director of the Flexi shoe company, promoted the creation of a contemporary art museum. Plascencia felt it was essential to have modern public spaces for a city like León, which was in full commercial and economic growth in the 1990s. With the support of the governor and civil organizations, he looked for appropriate land. The León MX District is today a cultural and entertainment center with museums, an exhibition center, parks, the fairgrounds, the Bicentennial Forum, and a pedestrian route that goes from the district to the city’s historic center.

Plascencia chose the legendary architect I.M. Pei, designer of the Louvre Museum pyramid, and began the work on the project with one of his sons. The area that offered the best site held the Nou Camp football stadium, the Poliforum convention center, and the Explora science and technology museum, and it was a bit complicated to get this land, according to Zavala. The Plascencia project included the construction of more than just a museum. By the mid-2000s, the first building, assigned to be the library, was constructed and opened on September 7, 2006. It was also used as Pei’s workshop. Another renowned architect, Augusto Quijano, joined the team. He was in charge of the construction of the performing arts center, and the Roberto Plascencia Saldaña Bicentennial Theater was inaugurated on September 7, 2010.

The MAHG itself was inaugurated in November 2008 and has rooms to exhibit history and plastic arts. Zavala explained that they had to build a multi-use space, so the idea of ​​combining regional history with modern and contemporary art came about. The Alhóndiga Museum of the city of Guanajuato had already existed for a few decades. But this was a museum about the history of Mexico, and they wanted to build a space highlighting pre-Hispanic and colonial history at the same time. The time frame would be from the pre-classical era with the Chupícuaro culture (with corn as a civilizing element) to colonial life (architecture, technology, and mining). The focus would concentrate on the evolution of the region’s social composition rather than on historical facts related to the history of a state or the country.

The history rooms were designed to bring about an understanding of social, cultural, and economic aspects, and of the native people of this region during pre-Hispanic times. Zavala explained that the cultures of the Bajío passed through a civilizing process, but these peoples were more concerned about their cosmogony—how they perceived the world—not through their languages but from oracles and magic, which were fundamental for these cultures. In the rooms, one can find wonderful museography by Jorge Agostoni Colombo and José Enrique Ortíz Lanz. Extraordinary works of Miriam Kaiser and Guadalupe Jiménez Codinach, among others, are on display as well as beautiful vessels and sculptures, provided by the INAH Center, and remarkable baroque art.

During the early years, the MAHG hosted successful historical exhibitions from countries such as Spain and Japan. It currently promotes modern and contemporary art. Zavala explained that along with MAHG, there are only five museums in Mexico built and equipped to have exhibitions and multidimensional pieces. These include the San Agustín Art Center (CASA-Oaxaca), the University Museum of Contemporary Art (MUAC – CDMX), Tijuana Cultural Center (El Cubo), and the Monterrey Museum of Contemporary Art (MARCO). She feels that there is a need and opportunity to further exploit the capacity of the museum she directs, especially in post-pandemic times.

As we continued to explore the museum, we found a large gallery with a collection of sculptures in the form of columns. Curated by Zavala herself, this is the work of Paloma Torres, who has been working in this space for two years to make it a contemporary art room and, at this time, to present the works of Torres. Torres, from Guanajuato, graduated from the Colegio de San Carlos. She belongs to the generation of artists that includes Jorge and Javier Marín. «The artist’s work based on ceramics is located in a territory where sculpture and architecture meet and overlap: between the monument and the city, or between ornament and function. To a large extent, her work takes up a certain Mexican tradition which has tended to bring the two disciplines closer together and even confuse them,» Zavala points out.

The MAHG also houses a selection from the FEMSA Collection. «Making Worlds,» an exhibition that covers modern and contemporary Latin American art of the 20th and 21st centuries through 110 works. Their common thread is based on the essay «Making Worlds» by Ursula K. Le Guin, in which the American writer addresses some central topics, such as political imagination and the utopias and dystopias that come from it. Curated by José Alberto Díaz Suárez, «Making Worlds» is comprises 110 works from the most renowned Latin American artists of our time: Miquel Vilá, María Girona, Claudio Bravo, Santiago Cárdenas, Gabriel Figueroa, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Mario Cravo Neto, Nahúm B. Zenil, Aristeo Jiménez, Wilfredo Prieto, Wifredo Lam, Carmen Herrera, Naomi Siegmann, Gloria de Duncan, Fernando Ramos Prida, Juan Soriano, Jacobo Borges, Lucía Maya, Sergio Camporeale, Felipe Mujica, Luis Benedit, Leonora Carrington, Kati Horna, Guillermo Meza Álvarez, Antonio Ruiz “El Corzo,” Agustín Lazo, Joy Laville, Liliana Porter, Alfredo Castañeda, Leonor Fini, Rodolfo Morales, Fernand Pierre, Raquel Forner, María Izquierdo, Circe Irasema, Pedro Friedeberg, Julio Galán, Francisco Toledo, Ángela Gurría, Rafael Gomezbarros, Carlos Amorales, Rubén Gutiérrez, Nemesio Antúnez, Hugo Leonello Níñez, and Pablo Rasgado.

Five themes compose the exhibition: “Prologue: thresholds,” “Where is the line drawn between imagining and dreaming?” “Making a new world,” “Making the world new,” and “Making this world,” the utopias. This unique approach to the FEMSA Collection was conceived in 1977, and it is made up of more than 1,200 works that illustrate the evolution, plurality, and richness of Latin American artistic production during the 20th and 21st centuries. With the variety of artists and the diversity of their works, it seems impossible to find a common thread. But Le Guin’s concept makes it possible; dreams, imagination, and utopia become windows that help us create a unique world. It is like a journey through time in which you can build your own interpretations, choose the window from where you can imagine, and thus create your own experience.

We also encountered the Quijotil Collection of the Franz Mayer Museum, which has around 800 works related to Don Quixote. Through the curatorship of MAHG, around 50 of these were chosen as being representative of historical richness, printing, and interculture. There is a beautiful collection of period desks from the Franz Mayer Museum itself. There is another from 1605—it is believed that there are only seven copies in the world—and another much more recent, from Thailand, 2005. It is interesting to see how, through the centuries, sculptors and painters chose to depict Don Quixote, an image we currently carry in the collective imagination.