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ISTHMUS OF TEHUANTEPEC:

Treaties, tales and portrayals

“We passed through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Mexico's golden region with women dressed as butterflies,
and a smell of honey and sugar in the air”
Pablo Neruda. I confess that I have lived. 1986.

    The Isthmus of Tehuantepec is a world between worlds. Its infinity of connections have made the region, for many centuries, a magnet of international interest. Since pre-Columbian times, the different indigenous civilizations projected Guissi (land of reverberant heat, in Zapotec) as a strategic commercial and cultural passage from north to south: the encounters and disagreements between Zapotecs and Mexica give us testimony of the need to establish prolific alliances for transnational exchange.

With the arrival of the Spanish to the American continent, the isthmus of Tecuani Tepetl (Cerro del Jaguar) became a region of transoceanic interests. The narrow secret as Hernán Cortés named it in his Letters of Relationship to Emperor Carlos V in order not to spread the ambition of the European nations could not be so secret for long. The increase in communications and territorial discoveries of the new world made the region be seen as a possible step to connect Asia with Europe. Centuries of uncertainty passed, however it was in the nineteenth century when Alexander Von Humboldt in his Political Essay on New Spain (1811) managed to identify, after a detailed geographical study, the viability of building a route that would join the West with the East, through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

The multiple stories of a possible transoceanic connection that united two such distant worlds brought with it a wave of transnationals in order to agree and seal various deals for international relations. The deals immediately became treaties and with it the famous McLane Ocampo Treaty that during the time of the government of President Benito Juárez promoted the passage in perpetuity through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec by the United States, a situation that led to one of the moments of greatest Political tension in the history of Mexican diplomacy. The tension dissipated and the utopia of a more democratic international step reappeared on the world map.

Travelers, diplomats, writers and all kinds of artists began to cross the narrowest region of Mexico. The fascination overflowed between the limits that started the 20th century. The Tehuantepec National Railroad was inaugurated by Porfirio Díaz in 1907 and nobody could stop the incessant torrent of cultural curiosity: the deals and stories became portraits.

From Italy the lithographs of Claudio Linati and the documentary photography Tina Modotti; from the Soviet Union the cinematographic experience of Sergei Eisenstein, from France the idyllic narrative of Charles Brasseur and Mathieu de Fossey, together with the surrealism of André Pieyre de Mandiargues; from Germany the photography of Hugo Brehme, Walter Reuter and Giselle Freund; from the United States the iconic lens shots of Charles B. Waite, Nickolas Muray; and from Chile the poetic inspiration of Pablo Neruda. All these artists brought together for the same purpose: to portray the landscapes and the idiosyncrasies of the women and the inhabitants of the isthmus of Tehuantepec.

This virtual exhibition brings together the various representations of the Isthmus identity that have been built through different historical-political moments to this day. Given the COVID 19 pandemic, he and the 21st century traveler will be able to enter the region of the Mexican Isthmus and get to know it through cartographies and maps products of commercial deals centuries before, but also through the stories and portraits of Claudio Linati, Diego Rivera, Miguel Covarrubias, Aurora Reyes, Salvador Toscano, Tina Modotti, Frida Kahlo, Carlos Mérida, Ángel Zárraga, Mariana Yampolsky, Graciela Iturbide, Rogelio Cuéllar, Blanca Charolet, Ana Hernández, José Ángel Santiago, Luis Villalobos, Francisco Ramos, Yamil Guzmán Rosado, Enoc Mendoza, Sabino Guisu, Pável Granados, Natalia Toledo, Mardonio Carballo, Shinzaburo Takeda, Francisco Toledo and more.

This 2020 the Mexican embassy in Singapore together with the embassies of the Southeast Asia region: the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam have opened their doors to receive this exhibition that unites us not only because of the inexhaustible desire to strengthen our cultural relations and commercial for centuries, but because of a global context that the more distant it seems that we had to be, with virtuality we can walk and explore the routes that our immediate and even the most distant ancestors began to trace.

The Asian region of the world, since the internationalization of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, has been a desired arrival point, today we have the opportunity that it can also be a starting point. More than an end to address, we can do it as a new beginning from which to start.

We thank the Executive Directorate of Cultural Diplomacy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the vision of promoting cultural exchange between our country and the sister nations of the Asian continent, as said by the Mexican writer and diplomat Rafael Bernal during his visit to the Philippine region “The trade routes are not only used to carry merchandise; they carry people, and with people, ideas, words, ways of life, crafts and arts ”. We also thank in a special way the Government of the State of Oaxaca, the Interoceanic Corridor of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the National Museum of Art, the Soumaya Museum of the Carlos Slim Foundation, the Museo del Estanquillo, the Salón de la Plástica Mexicana, the Fernando Workshop. Sandoval, and the curatorial team of Transitante AC who are making possible of this new virtual edition not only an art show, but a long-awaited meeting of centuries and above all a new and fraternal bond of friendship.

Raciel Rivas
Curator