Tearing Down Walls: How MANO Gallery is Making Room for the Colorful Textural Brilliance of Mexico



The Pilsen gallery space is filled with color—unique, bright and captivating, just as Mexico’s national identity. The past meets the present where craft techniques meet contemporary designs. Wooden looms reveal a textural brilliance that alludes to times past, as five artists come together to present the “New Age, New Rugs,” an exhibition that features woven textiles—pieces that can be rugs or tapestries, that can be square or not so much. “Here, the deconfiguration of traditional iconography is the most recurrent exercise,” as co-founder and director Jessica Rivero puts it.

MANO, an abbreviation of Mexican Art and Object, specializes in contemporary artistic and artisanal manifestations of Mexico. “Our goal is to expose international audiences to the diversity of contemporary art and design produced in the country and to connect the Mexican-American community with our motherland,” says Rivero. Her curatorial approach preserves and expands upon traditional mythologies and anthropology. She explains it as “storytelling through nomadic collections forever joined by their birthplace.” In Mexico’s case, this is frequently limited to Frida Kahlo and Day of the Dead, but Rivero is determined to change that. “We’re looking to collapse the distinction between craft and fine art, which most established American and European museums have only seriously attempted in recent years,” she adds.

“New Age, New Rugs” features five artisans from three different generations, all from Oaxaca’s Teotitlán del Valle, a town whose diversity is reflected in its popular art—from pottery and woodcarving to weaving, basketry, candle making and embroidery. Known for using traditional techniques, tools, dyes and patterns (at the time they wove mostly cotton and used the backstrap loom), the village’s weaving tradition dates back to ancient times, when they paid tribute to the Aztecs in the form of textiles. Experts agree that the Zapotecs have been weaving in Oaxaca’s Valles Centrales region since around 1500 BC and possibly as early as 7000 BC. Interestingly, in Teotitlán del Valle, some components of the craft are very much the same as they were a millennia ago.

Bringing Zapotec weaving to the heart of Pilsen, Beto Ruíz reimagines the ancient symbolisms into deconstructed graphics. Coming from a long line of folk artists, brothers Bulmaro and Diego embrace geometry and abstraction to rethink traditional rug designs, like the ones their family has been crafting for decades. Fidel’s loom works are heavy on abstract representations of natural landscapes and Omar Chasán’s attention to detail results in extremely elaborate pieces that require heavy post-production work, something unprecedented in Teotitlán over time. The artists are unafraid to step outside of tradition as aesthetic principles of then and now are masterfully weaved together (pun intended). The result: design patterns and unexpected texture and color combinations that impress, educate and inspire.

“MANO showcases work that combines traditional techniques with new design thinking and a fine art sensibility,” says Rivero. “We are creating a space that doesn’t currently exist for the next great Mexican artists to emerge,” she adds. “Galleries do not have to be sterile white boxes. MANO rejects the idea that a high-end, fine arts gallery must be quiet, minimal and passive. Instead we hope to remove the barriers we’ve too long put between communities and artists, buyers and art, craft and fine art.” More than bringing the community together through exhibitions, events, programming, and education opportunities that provide insight into how the art on the wall is made, MANO has made a commitment to Mexican culture amidst Pilsen’s growth. “While the increased interest in the neighborhood’s culture and real estate has resulted in economic growth, the majority of new businesses do not have direct ties to the neighborhood’s historically Mexican community,” says Rivero. “MANO is unique in that it is a new, hip business offering a high-end and innovative creative space to the community, while also being of Mexican roots and for our Mexican neighbors. It’s a unique example of how the growth of the Pilsen community does not have to solely be tied to the often culturally exclusive growth of gentrification.”

Appropriately named after the Spanish word for hand, MANO turns the spotlight to folk art—collectively known as “artesanía”—as a valued part of Mexico’s national identity. Nodding to the past by highlighting techniques passed down from generation to generation and looking into the future by embracing contemporaneity, “New Age, New Rugs” does more than creating exposure and appreciation of Mexican art, crafts, design and culture from both sides of the border in Chicago—it provides an immersive experience, a space to connect to place and to one another.

“New Age, New Rugs” is on view at MANO, 2150 South Canalport, Suite 1B 04, on view through June 10.

“Now that I’m living here, the fact that something so close to my culture is here with me, aids me a lot emotionally, to recall and remember where we are from and where we come from.”

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