“A Requiem to the Polluting Car” (c) Betsabeé Romero in front of the Grand Palais in Paris.

Betsabeé Romero is now listening to the suddenly silent streets of Mexico City, North America’s largest city. From her little street house in the Villa de Cortés district, the artist is on the lookout for the sadness that invades the world faster than the disease. The absence of funerals, the hidden violence against the women and children in her country, and of course, her own personal fight fight for female artists. 

The following column is contributed by Jean-Christian Agid and is part of his regular ‘Not At Your Home’ cultural blog on his 37 Street media site. A reminder: we make our content free worldwide in the public interest. If you like what we do, then please contribute to our journalism.

Confined, she writes, draws, and reads, mostly philosophy, at the moment. She is thinking about art installations to illustrate the staggered mourning that many people will experience. Incidentally, she has been invited to create and speak on this topic at the Frieze in London this Fall, as well as in Sydney and Rome.

With Betsabeé Romero – Hasta el último aliento – Bellas Artes, Mexico City 2017

Jean-Christian Agid (J-CA): What does Mexico City look like?

Betsabée Romero (BR): Like a city that has never been able to stay in total confinement. Traffic has been cut in half, total silence during the night, unfortunately always interrupted by ambulance sirens. The ability to confine oneself to at home has been a luxury that only a part of the population can afford

We are listening to the birds; they are singing everywhere. Spring has burst forth with its jacarandas and bougainvillea, more colorful than ever. There are also those who walk door to door selling tamales, cookies, gas, water, fruit, flowers, each with their own sound signal, an urban symphony of street vendors who wake us up to life every morning to remind us that we are still in Mexico City.

J-CA: I miss this Mexico, at your home Betsabeé Romero, but without me, for too long a time already. If I were in your city, before coming for dinner, I would wander around the somewhat art deco district of La Condesa. I would stop at the counter of Elena Reygadas’ Lardo for some fried avocado fritters and lemon salsa, zucchini flowers filled with cheese, maybe black rice with a bit of squid and spicy ginger. For dessert, I would let them make one of those fragile red fruit mille-feuilles in front of me, with cardamom ice cream on the side and of course one or two glasses of Casa Dragones to go with it.

I would then walk down Veracruz Avenue to the entrance of Parque España. There, I would once again admire this red-ocher vintage car parked around the corner of the Hotel Condesa df, a white lightning bolt on both sides of the chassis, and forever motionless, its driver in laminated metal, blue suit and white gloves, ready to leave.

Betsabeé Romero during Miami Art Basel Week 2018 (Photo: JC Agid)

One of your sculptures

The car is for people, an object of extreme consumption, the extension of the body in movement. Here, it is brought back to its toy state, but on a human scale. The interior is made of sheet metal, as are the seats and the driver. There’s a big key on the outside of the car. If you turn it around, everything lights up: the headlights, the vehicle cabin and the music too, a song by Agustín Lara, Veracruz, that this immense 20th century composer had written when La Condesa became a very modern district of Mexico City.

J-CA: The automobile is at the core of your artistic creation. Last year, at the invitation of Art Paris, you installed a Jaguar car carried by bicycles in front of the Grand Palais. Your work on mobility and tires, some of which have been visible for several months on New York Avenue in Washington DC are now leaving brake marks behind. It must be an eerie feeling in Mexico City, a city that usually experiences endless traffic jams.

BR: The very meaning of the vehicle has always worried me and seeing them without movement fascinates me. More than 500,000 cars are parked indefinitely in Mexico in front of houses and buildings. Their owners don’t want to get rid of them.

Not to mention the immobility of cars stuck in traffic. When you don’t move, you’re thinking, you’re with yourself, you’re going through a crisis of thought. All these daily journeys in large cities, all this time spent in a car in slow motion, often stopped, time wasted, between home and work, between work and where we go afterwards, are all moments of intimacy and introspection for drivers and passengers. 

J-CA:Your artistic work confronts the world of consumption, a world that is evaporating. What does the crisis we are going through evoke in you?

This world revolving around consumption has reached an incredible frontier. Health, instead of being a human right, has become part of this world. It has become a luxury for people who have enough money to pay insurers and go to hospitals, for a world of pharmaceutical laboratories that sell drugs as if they were commodities, with the reinforcement of advertising to convince us. Healthcare is part of this irrational world. Even though we knew this pandemic was coming, the system was not preparing for this crisis.

J-CA: Did we remain blind to the threat?

And to nature’s signals. The H1N1 flu, which passed through Mexico, marks the beginning of the current situation. We knew that the next war would be a fight against a global health or a digital virus.

J-CA: Is it the very idea of the individual, of his ability to decide for himself in a democratic space, that is being challenged by this fight against Covid19?

De-Confined | Illustration by Marion Naufal (c) |You were born with the silver moon (by Agustín Lara)

A French philosopher, André Comte-Sponville, wrote that people should be given the right to die as they wish. Totally isolating the elderly is worse. Physical health is becoming the most important human being value. But that is not true either, physical health is not what is keeping us alive. We are not just a machine with a functioning heart. If health becomes an excuse to monitor us “inside” as well as “outside,” we could be entering a new form of obscurantism. 

J-CA: In Mexico City, as almost everywhere else in the world, the Covid pandemic19 has monopolized all eyes and efforts, first and foremost in hospital services. You too were hospitalized during this containment, but not because of the coronavirus.

BR: I had confined myself in the middle of the countryside, far from the city. One Sunday morning, a few hours after a lively sports and dance session with my mother, sister, daughter and niece, I felt a big pain in my stomach. I consulted a doctor over the phone. The diagnosis was muscular, and he prescribed me anti-inflammatory drugs. When I woke up the next day, the pain was frightening. I called a friend this time, a gastroenterologist. He ordered me to rush to a hospital reserved for non-Covid19 care. When I arrived, everything was already prepared: the auscultation, the operating theater, a room too. I had a major attack of appendicitis and narrowly avoided peritonitis.

If health becomes an excuse to monitor us “inside” as well as “outside,” we could be entering a new form of obscurantism. 

J-CA: I wonder how many people have become ill or did not get proper treatment in the last few weeks. What will we find out when the wave of containment recedes? What happened to the sick, the depressions, the sadness? The media almost gives us the impression that the world next door is holding its breath, suspended.

BR: We die today without being able to say goodbye. We arrive at the hospital in a serious state, we can no longer see anyone, we die, there is no mourning. It’s all over now. Even science fiction films and novels never imagined the suspension of funeral services. We didn’t prepare to live without saying goodbye, without closing the circle. We are not even allowed to see the body of the deceased.

Canto al Agua – Zocalo Día de Muertos Exhibition – 2016 (Photo: Betsabeé Romero)

Once dead, here, the body is cremated. What’s happening right now will leave a lasting wound on Mexican society. 

J-CA: You express yourself by writing poems, painting, creating sculptures, extraordinary installations in the cities and the countryside. How are you going to integrate this period in your art?

BR: It is important to work on artistic projects to accompany the collective mourning that will remain in our society for a long time. This experience, I hope, will bring us closer together. I have even already proposed a great tribute to the doctors and nurses who died because of Covid19. They are like soldiers in combat during a war. In Mexico, they suffered a lot. 

The conquistadors did not need military force to defeat the natives. Diseases took care of it and killed 90 per cent of the population.

J-CA: Mexicans have a different relationship with death and the funeral rite than we know in the Western world. You celebrate the deceased and experience a festive intimacy with mourning.

BR: It is a private relationship that can be collective. It is important to know that we are accompanied, that we all live through the same predicament. 

“Por Ellas Une Vela, Una Flor y Un Pan” – Casa Azul (Photo: Betsabeé Romero)

The famous Día de Muertos.

It is because of situations similar to this pandemic that funeral celebrations have become very important in our culture. At the beginning of the 16th century, the Spaniards brought along with them syphilis, measles, smallpox and the plague. The conquistadors did not need military force to defeat the natives. Diseases took care of it and killed 90 per cent of the population. The Indians fell like insects. The Catholic Church, established along with the Spanish conquest, had to do something to help the survivors overcome their pain, a deep and infinite pain. It needed to embrace the Indian rituals, this celebration of the dead that transcended the centuries.

The Mexican tradition is much more cathartic in this respect than that of the Catholic religion.

J-CA: The Spaniards therefore did not want to break with the pre-Colombian cultural rites and, among other things, this multi-day’s celebration and offerings to the dead?

BR: The Spaniards had to tolerate the Aztec heritage: the family gatherings to revive those they loved; sharing their favorite meals and drinks; and making offerings to them on an altar. The church had nothing better to offer to help the Indians transcend their sadness, a sadness that prevented them from working. The Mexican tradition is much more cathartic in this respect than that of the Catholic religion.

J-CA: This tradition has grown even more at the beginning of the 20th century in a country that was, in fact, largely dominated by Catholicism. And this, thanks to an artist.

BR: The Mexican revolution in 1910 killed two million people in one decade, more than 10 per cent of the total population. It was at that time that Jose Guadalupe Posada, an engraver, created the Calavera Catrina and thus revived the iconography of the pre-Hispanic period. 

J-CA: The Catrina—a skeleton of a woman dressed in a French hat—symbolizes the Mexican indigenous population aspiration to adopt the Spanish and European bourgeoisie.

BR: The Catrina became the modern figure of the Days of the Dead and helped renew Aztec traditions.

We honor the life of the missing person, not its death. It is a very active, generous celebration.

“Por Ellas Une Vela, Una Flor y Un Pan” – Casa Azul (Photo: Betsabeé Romero)

J-CA: This tradition has become even more important since the annual re-enactment of days of the dead in the historic district of Mexico City—a James Bond Movie and a cartoon, Coco, featured these celebrations. Last year, parties multiplied even in New York City and competed with Halloween. In 2016, for the first Diá de los Muertos on Zocalo Square, you were invited to create a giant installation of 113 altars, based on a rendering of small flat-bottomed boats, the trajineras.

BR: These celebrations are particularly important, whenever there are too many deaths in a world that should be rational and safe. After a deadly earthquake, an ongoing war between drug traffickers, a series of inexplicable deaths, mostly that of migrants or feminicides.

J-CA: The Mexican writer Octavio Paz wrote, ‘A civilization that denies death ends denying life’. Have we reached a point of denial that we are living beings and therefore mortal?

BR: Día de Muertos is playful. It is a tradition that offers those who want to participate a way to remember the people we have loved by remembering the dishes we have shared together, the books we read, the music we played or listened to, anything that made that person alive. We honor the life of the missing person, not its death. It is a very active, generous celebration. My grandmother used to make mole, cut paper flowers, and while she was cooking, she would tell us about our dead grandfather, even the way he danced. My installations are contemporary interpretations of these rites. I involve the spectators in this creation. It helps. That was the concept of my work in the Zocalo Square in 2016.

Patio at the house of Betsabeé Romero (Photo: JC Agid)

J-CA: You created a similar installation in Frida Kahlo’s beautiful Blue House, Casa Azul, last October.

BR: This work was done in a museum, not in a public place or a park where everyone can make an offering. The museum context therefore restricted the artistic process, but this creation in the house of an icon of feminism was necessary and symbolic. The increase in femicides in Mexico over the last four years is tragic.

J-CA: According to the American think tank, Center for Strategic & International Studies, the increase is 145 per cent. Mexico comes second after Brazil for the number of women murdered because of their gender: 809 murders between January and October 2019!

BR: This is terrible. I thought Frida Kahlo’s house was a perfect place to pay tribute to all those women who died from the inconceivable violence of a man.

J-CA: These feminicides took place at a time when we could move freely. That is no longer the case today…

BR: The danger is extreme. Femicides during the pandemic are very high. Institutions helping women at risk seeking refuge for themselves and their children are receiving an increasing number of calls. Women are trying to escape from their homes and survive an abusive husband. 

It is inadmissible that this violence against women is not officially recognized.

J-CA: Almost 1000 femicides and infanticides since the beginning of the year according to several non-for-profit organizations, 163 femicides since the confinement started according to Marea Verde. Crimes go unpunished in 90 per cent of cases.

BR: These are men who are completely sick. Fragile beings are a material against which they can actuate all the violence contained within them. It is women and children who receive the blows.

J-CA: A violence, moreover, that is not recognized by the Mexican President, who admits the existence of machismo, but insists on the idea of a “family brotherhood” specific to your country, the ideal bulwark against violence.

BR: It is inadmissible that this violence against women is not officially recognized. These crimes, this suffering, are on the increase throughout the world during this period of isolation. How can the Mexican government deny that? We’re talking about a 30 per cent increase of violence against women. I have just signed a petition so that the urgency of this reality is recognized as lethal as the pandemic itself. More services should be put in place to protect women at risk today.

“Por Ellas Une Vela, Una Flor y Un Pan” Casa Azul (Photo: Betsabeé Romero)

J-CA: You work in a very male-dominated sector. Your second installation in Frida Kahlo’s house evoked the success of Frida as a “painter” rather than as a “celebrity” in a Paris she did not like very much.

It is a little-known episode in Mexico. The public recognition of the artist Frida Kahlo and of her artwork is the result of a trip to France. It was not her husband, the painter Diego Rivera, who gave her this fame. Frida was of course all over the news because of her life, her suffering, her exotic beauty, but not because of her work. She travelled to Paris for the first and last time in January 1939, just before the Second World War. An exhibition was to be organized there by André Breton, but when Frida arrives, the surrealist movement is in full decadence and divided on the position to take on Trotsky, then exiled in Mexico. The exhibition was cancelled. Frida’s paintings, stuck at customs, were also slow to arrive. It is at this time that artists, among them Marcel Duchamp and his companion Mary Reynolds, fly to Frida’s rescue. It is art that saves her. It is art that finally allows her to exhibit her works.

J-CA: And to obtain, alone, the long-awaited recognition for her work?

Other Mexican artists are included in this exhibition, and among them Diego Rivera and Alvarez Bravo. But Frida is the one who receives public acclaim and praise from the great artists of the time, including Picasso and Dora Maar. Kandinsky, Miró, Yves Tanguy, Duchamp of course, Breton and his wife Jacqueline Lamba all attend on the day of the opening. Above all, the French government decides then to buy one of her works, a self-portrait—Le Cadre—for the Louvre collection, a first for a Latin American painter.

J-CA: It was not, however, Frida Kahlo’s first major exhibition.

She had just had a successful exhibition in New York at Julian Levy’s gallery. She sold paintings there but without being celebrated, as in Paris, by important personalities such as Picasso.

J-CA: In New York, she made a first forename for herself; in Paris, a last name?

BR: This trip made her appear as an artist in her own right. She travelled alone. When she returns to Mexico City, the first thing Diego, very angrily, asks for is a divorce.

Art has to be tasty.

J-CA: You live in a small house, also a mirror of your art, your own mini Casa Azul!

BR: My house sits right next to my studio. I found it by chance while going every day to my studio and visiting my parents. It was a house that had been abandoned for over 15 years. I was married at that time. We thought that we could reinvent this place.

Dinner at Betsabeé Romero (Photo: JC Agid)

J-CA: It looks like an artistic installation, a particular universe, mixing a traditional Mexican design and your contemporary vision of lights and objects.

BR: In the chaos of Mexico City, a city you know well, the home is an essential refuge. It is very important to be able to isolate yourself in big cities. So, I needed an interior patio, to let daylight in, to shelter plants. With an architect friend of mine, we opened windows and invented this little courtyard. We added a small outdoor dining room, to confine ourselves there, within the city.

J-CA: I like this outer space in your home, its big round table. It is in this open room that you invite your guests to gather around a glass of mezcal or tequila, a few olives, waiting to be seated to eat. In the main dining room—and in the adjacent two lounges—we are also in the middle surrounded by your art. But your habitat is not a museum, rather a living installation.

When you are an artist, you have to test your works to see if they can accompany people. The way to do that is to live with them. That takes time. 

J-CA: And then there is the kitchen, which is busy, multicolored, with multiple flavors. A friend recently reminded me that Jackson Pollock had been a fine cook, he also expressed himself by inventing dishes. In your house too, Betsabeé, a meal is a feast. You are an outstanding cook.

Kitchen at Betsabeé Romero (Photo: JC Agid)

It is all about cooking. Art is also about cooking. You have ideas, you have to simmer them, for a long time, patiently, add spices, bring out the hidden senses. Art has to be tasty.

J-CA: I can’t wait to come back to this house, to sit at your table. Perhaps one of your guests will sing Agustín Lara’s Veracruz, and then we will all be so happy to see each other again. In the meantime, here is your favorite version, performed by Toña La Negra. As the lyrics say:

You were born—Betsabeé—with the silver moon
You were born with the soul of a pirate
You were born rumbero and jarocho
A troubadour, really

Jean-Christian Agid is a former French journalist and foreign correspondent. He is founder of 37EASTPR, a media and business development agency based in New York with clients in France, Mexico, and the United States. He is also a trustee on the Advisory Board of the American Friends of the Paris Opera.

Jean-Christian Agid