To coincide with the fair’s new edition opening this week, we explore Mexico City through the eyes of Material Art Fair’s founders Brett Schultz & Daniela Elbahara.
AFF: It’s interesting to look at Mexico City through the eye of someone who’s chosen it as a site of experimentation and cultural activity. Neither of you are defeños by origin—Brett is Chicago-born and Daniela is originally from Monterrey. Why did you choose to start a space here?
DE: Brett and I were living in NY, where I was studying on a grant that required me to return to Mexico after a year of practical training. We’d been to Monterrey a few times, but Brett insisted that he’d much rather live in Mexico City. I’d been working in film production in New York, so I was able to get a gig in Mexico City as a post-production supervisor on some film. But even back when I was in high school, I used to visit Mexico City and swore I was going to live there because of its openness and cultural wealth—there were many more museums, galleries, plays, concerts and fun clubs.
BS: We didn’t come to Mexico City expecting to start a gallery, much less an art fair. Yautepec began as a really loose project—just a space for young artists to show their work. I think we were known more for our parties than anything else, but it was a lot of fun and a great way to meet people. It definitely paved the way for what came later.
AFF: For Mexico City, the ‘90s were defined by a catastrophic economic crisis, enormous social upheaval, poverty, political corruption, rising violence and continuous instability due to the effects of globalization. During this period, many artists rejected traditional art forms in favor of radical, ephemeral, action-based and socially engaged practices that were often cynical, risky and irreverent. How have the city and its artistic conversations changed since then?
BS: I think the conversation has changed substantially, but there’s still a massive curatorial and market interest, both nationally and internationally, in maintaining the hegemony of that earlier narrative. It’s disappointing, actually; it’s as if nobody has yet arrived at an answer to Cuauhtémoc Medina’s question from 2009: “What Else Could We Talk About?”
On the ground level, I think the scene in Mexico City is incredibly diverse and has plenty else to talk about. There’s a massive amount of energy here; it feels akin to the Rupture Generation of the 1950s and ’60s. Not that the problems that concerned earlier generations have disappeared, but I think artists today are tired of playing the victim. Hopefully curators, especially international ones, can learn to stop treating them as such.
DE: During the ‘90s, I was living in a bubble called San Pedro Garza García, and all you’d hear about Mexico City was how dangerous it was. There was a paranoia about the city then, but by the time Brett and I moved there, things were already changing. The former mayor Marcelo Ebrard made a Giuliani-style effort to reduce crime and improve the quality of life, and by then, the level of violence was way worse in my hometown because of the war against the narcos. But Mexico has always been in a state of crisis. The peso is always being devalued. Irony and sarcasm as forms of expression are a given here, and I think good Mexican artists are using these themes in compelling ways.
AFF: You opened the first edition of Material Art Fair in 2014. What brought you to initiate a fair dedicated to emerging galleries and artist-run spaces?
DE: We’d been running Yautepec for five years at that point and had been to several fairs, both here and abroad. We’d have conversations with other gallerists and started to realize there was something missing in Mexico City. A lot of galleries wanted to come here, but they didn’t feel like the main fair fit their profile. They were looking for something different.
BS: As were we. We wanted a fair that was easier for galleries like ours to afford but that still had a great level of quality and freshness. The other main impulse was that as we were dreaming up the fair, a lot of young, media-savvy independent and artist-run spaces started to appear in Mexico City. Preteen Gallery was the first of that newer wave, but then came Lodos, Lulu, Bikini Wax and No Space. Then there were others, like Casa Maauad, Neter and Diagrama, all coming into being within a few years. Through Yautepec, we were tied into most of those spaces and really excited about them. We felt like Material could give them a certain visibility that they wouldn’t otherwise have.
AFF: What have been the challenges of establishing the fair on an international and local level?
DE: Creating a collecting culture for emerging Mexican art and bringing more Latin American galleries to our fair.
BS: There’s not a very rich history of adventurous contemporary art collecting here in Mexico. In the major art world capitals, you’ve typically got a solid base of collectors passionately hunting for new artists to buy up. Fortunately, a lot of those same collectors love to visit Mexico City for the fairs here. That said, I think we’ve done a lot to push that culture forward, not only through Material, but also through other year-round efforts. It’s starting to bear fruit.
AFF: The art scene in Mexico City has been very dynamic in the last few years, with an increasing number of international artists moving to the capital, the emergence of new project spaces, and curatorial initiatives connecting the local discourse to an international arena. How does today’s scene differ from the DIY realities of the mid-‘90s?
DE: The spaces are smaller, but the shows have more quality and clarity—they’re not so much about spectacle or cliques. Also, the spaces now are usually rented, whereas before they might have belonged to an artist’s family.
BS: With Yautepec, we were lucky to start off in a rent-free space. That didn’t last long, but it was nice to be able to learn without having that fear of the first of the month. I admire the spaces now that commit to a vision from the start and put all their resources into it. I suppose it feels less anarchic now than it did then, but it also seems less privileged somehow. There’s a lot of dedication.
AFF: I find Mexico City quite an extreme place, condensing the diversity of the whole country in one location. The dense traffic of people and cars, the mixed historical influences, the European aesthetics of its buildings—it’s a visceral reality, to use Bolaño’s term, at once archetypal and crude. Do you see these characteristics reflected in the work of young practitioners?
DE: Totally. Because most of these artists hang out in the same areas as Bolaño’s characters (Roma, Condesa, Centro, San Rafael, Coyoacán), the experience they get is the same. Every day, you get a mix of grime, shine and middle-class aspirations. There are cool restaurants made by amazing designers, but there are also really tacky and trashy places that become instant classics. This surreal mixture ends up translated in the work.
BS: I couldn’t have said it better myself.
AFF: As cultural producers, how often do you clash with issues of corruption and local politics?
DE: Pretty frequently. When we started Material, there were many “political” obstacles: nepotism, populism, and so on.
BS: As they say, you can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs, and we’ve had ours cracked more than a few times. In certain circles, Material was definitely not a welcome addition to Mexico City’s contemporary art scene.
AFF: In a 2014 public discussion at MAF, panelists were invited to reflect on the similarities between Mexico City and Berlin as sites for the production of contemporary art, comparing conditions of space, real estate markets, access to affordable production materials and crafters. How do you see this parallel?
BS: I wish that this whole “Mexico City vs. Berlin” thing would die a quick and painful death. Mexico City is not the new Berlin—it’s Mexico City, and it’s far too complex to be reduced to facile analogies. If you want Berlin, then move to Berlin.
AFF: Coinciding with Material is the Index Art Book fair, which is dedicated to art and independent publishers. How interested are you in constructing a broader dialogue between these two fields?
DE: We’ve tried to build those bridges from the outset, but instead of seeing Material as a complement to their projects, they see us as competition—which I guess is flattering.
BS: There’s no dialogue at all. I’d hoped that Daniel Garza Usabiaga taking over as Creative Director at Zona Maco might open up a renewed dialogue between our fairs, since we had a working relationship with him from his time at Museo del Chopo. But nothing’s changed at all. It’s petty—but then, I suppose nobody invited us to the party in the first place.
Attilia Fattori Franchini is an independent curator based between London and Mexico City. She is Director of Seventeen Gallery, London, as well as co-founder of the online platforms bubblebyte.org and Opening Times.
Images: Oa4s, Otras Obras (Tijuana), Material Art Fair 2014; Jordan Nassar and Shannon Michael Cane of Printed Matter (New York), Material Art Fair 2014; Works by Rose Marcus, David Petersen Gallery (Minneapolis), Material Art Fair 2014; Chris Sharp (Lulu, Mexico City) and Michael Clifton (Clifton Benevento, New York City), Material Art Fair 2014. Photo credit: Leonardo Daniel Garza López.