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Mexico, Francis Alys, and Brotherhood

I would have never imagined that Francis Alÿs’s exhibition “Relato de Una Negociacion” at Mexico City’s Tamayo Museum would have such an effect on me. I wasn’t even planning on going there. I had left my AirBnB room that Sunday morning with the intention of going to the Museum of Anthropology—one of the city’s “musts”—and that’s where I had gone.

But before I purchased a ticket, some sort of a protest art in the museum’s palatial lobby caught my attention. As I stood there trying to figure out what the lines of empty chairs with photos of faces on them meant, a lady who I later learned to be a history professor named Angelica, handed me a flyer. She told me that the chairs represented the 43 students who “disappeared” almost a year ago in Iguala while protesting the government’s discriminative policies in teacher placement. The demand of the protestors, of which there were two, was simple: the disclosure of the location of these individuals, dead or alive.

“Since this museum is part of the INAH research institution, they still let us protest here, but who knows for how long,” she said pointing to her t-shirt with the INAH logo.

“The Church and wealthy Mexicans have made an alliance trying to privatize our education system. The kids are going to have to return to the time when they had priests for teachers,” she said as she ironically outlined the shape of a cross over her heart. “They have already privatized the medical system.”

2014 Iguala mass kidnapping protest at Anthropology Museum

Protest art in the lobby of the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City:  “Si Me Olvidan Ellos Ganan” [If you forget me, they win]

This graffiti art by artist Lapiztola refers to the violence of the 1960s when hundreds of students were killed or otherwise joined the ranks of the “disappeared.”  El Abrazo Ausente [The absent embrace] represents the longing of the mothers, who still await their sons’ return. It is impossible to walk through Mexico City and avoid the countless references to this dark period which has become a symbol for the continued suffering of mothers awaiting their sons.  The similarities between the way Mexicans keep their past in their consciousness (and on their city’s walls) and the way they protest the continued  disappearance of the 43 students who joined the ranks of the missing just a year ago in Iguala are painstakingly stark.

Angelica asked me about Turkey. I told her about the recent elections and that our future, too, seemed foggy. Coincidence has it, on the same day as Turks, on June 7, Mexicans had gone to the polls for municipal elections. However unlike in Turkey where the voter turn out was an all time high at 87%, in Mexico not even half of the country had gone out to vote.

I spent half an hour chatting to Angelica, another half an hour reading about the events in Iguala. I really didn’t feel like entering the anthropology museum. I walked out the building and headed towards the Rufino Tamayo Museum of Contemporary Art. Something modern was going to be more in line with my state of mind. Besides, I was hungry.

I got my ticket and decided to eat something at the museum’s cafeteria. The restaurant was crowded; all the tables were filled with Mexicans who had taken their dogs out for a walk in Chapultepec Park, enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon. The waiter sat me down in between two couples on a bar-style table. To occupy myself while waiting for my tacos de jamaica, I read about Alÿs.

Francis Alÿs was born in Belgium but had made Mexico City his home for almost 30 years. When he showcases his work in exhibitions around the world, he represents not Belgium but Mexico, the country that in his own words has made him an artist.

At first glance, it seemed like the topics that interest Alÿs are as varied as the mediums he uses to express them. He is a modern artist in all senses of the word. He is a performance artist who has thrown himself in the middle of tornados in the Mexican countryside to create “Tornado.” For “Paradox of Praxis I (Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing)” he pushed a giant block of ice through the streets of Mexico until it melted into nothing. He is a filmmaker, photographer, painter.

While reading about Alÿs using my iPhone’s terribly slow 3G, I had noticed the glances of the couple on my left trying to decipher my accent. Having lived for years in the US and then in Israel, I have become an expert at recognizing this gaze. Before too long, they couldn’t suppress their curiosity and finally asked where I was from.

I told them that I was Turkish, that I was traveling in Latin America for a year, that I was impressed with Mexico City. They were both brunette, a bit chubby, and had pleasant smiles. I guessed they were about 25-26 years old.

“Are you brother and sister?” I asked.

“No, she is my girlfriend,” the guy answered.

“Oh, you look alike, you must be together a long time,” I said trying to weasel my way out of the uncomfortable situation my tactlessness had once again created.

At that moment our encounter took an interesting turn. The girl mumbled something and as her words escaped her mouth, she swiftly covered it with her right hand. I couldn’t understand what she had said and asked her to repeat.

The girl, her hand still covering her mouth, looked at her boyfriend and communicated in silence with her eyes. It was as if she was asking for permission to continue. The boy tilted his head down, ever so slightly, in hesitant approval. By then, my mind had rehashed her words and made sense of them. I still wanted her to repeat.

“We are Jews, that’s probably why you think we look familiar,” she said, this time enunciating. I smiled. How could they have known that I grew up using code words for Israel in Turkish taxicabs.

“Don’t worry,” I said, “I’m also Jewish.”

It was obvious that they wished to close the subject. In any case, they had already paid the bill and were about to get going. They smiled and with their dog in trail, walked out of the restaurant.

“Don’t Cross the Bridge Before You Get to the River” Photo by Alex Wootton

A couple of hours later, as I roamed Francis Alÿs’s exhibition, I kept thinking about the short conversation I had with this young couple. Despite all our differences, Alÿs was trying to show with his art that we are all brothers. A video installation with two screens, “Sometimes Doing is Undoing, and Sometimes Undoing is Doing,” showed an Afghan militant doing and undoing his rifle in one screen, and a British soldier stationed in Afghanistan doing the same in the other.

In “Don’t Cross the Bridge Before You Get to the River,” Moroccan and Spanish kids holding little boats made of flip flops swim towards one another from opposing sides of the Gibraltar, dismissing international borders. As Alÿs showed, the border between the two countries was just made up of seawater. He built yet another metaphoric bridge between Havana, Cuba and Florida, USA. As fishermen from both countries lined their boats one next to the other, stretching towards the other side of the shore, Alÿs succeeded in opening silent lines of communication between the two peoples.

As I better understood Alÿs, I regretted the last sentence I uttered to the young Mexican-Jewish couple to make them feel more at ease. I wished I had let them believe that I was whom they feared. I wish I had told them that we weren’t so different after all.

***This article was originally written in Turkish and published in Şalom Dergi (July, 2015).