Feeling it, in the Palacio Clavijero
Our objectivity was long gone by the time we reached the Palacio Clavijero in Morelia, Michoacan. We were already far too in love with Mexico by then.
So it didn’t surprise us that the Clavijero Cultural Center is housed in a Jesuit monastery from the late 1500s, occupied for just over a century before the monks were kicked out of the country by the Spanish king, then used by the government for things like running a legislature and raising troops to defend against the attacking United States in 1847. The baroque origin of the building was clear in the ornate pink stone of the elegant central courtyard.
Luckily for us, instead of passing laws or mustering troops, the building is now used as a museum. We were impressed before we even got to the exhibits. The main staircase is ringed and devoured by a stunning mural by local artist Adolfo Mexiac that shows the history and heroes of Michoacan and its main indigenous people, the Purepecha.
It’s always a pleasure to see and learn more about local history and culture, but I admit to a wide grin of recognition when I found a familiar friend in the first exhibition room. There on the wall, built of innumerable stacked layers of cut felt, hung a version of one of the greatest statues ever made by human hands: the Laocoon. Copies of this ancient Greek statue distract my tour members in Amsterdam’s RijksMuseum and Florence’s Uffizi Gallery before they get to stand before the incredible original in the Vatican Museums. And here it was, re-imagined, hanging on a wall in Morelia by local artist Jacobo Alonso.
It took me a moment to recognize another old friend in the next piece. For years I’ve enjoyed sharing my love of Giambologna’s “The Abduction of the Sabine Women” with my groups, and now here it was, shifted and interpreted almost into unrecognizability, and I knew I’d be thinking of this place next time I walk in the Piazza della Signoria. We continued past more faces and forms, and a collaboration of a dozen artists trying to save a lake from destruction.
We were riding high on a wave of Mexicophilia when we reached the last exhibit. The long room was dark, spotlights on the series of books and screens that told the stories of people trying to emigrate north. Recordings of US border agents played while projectors put lifesize images on the wall of a few of the families putting everything at risk to try and find safety and a better life in the US.
It was a sobering and troubling room. Here were reminders of the problems in Mexico (and beyond) that are forcing people to give up everything they’ve ever known, and here was the barbed wire reality of what they’re walking into. I remembered the agony on the face of Laocoon at his powerlessness to prevent the deaths of his sons, while forces beyond his control wrapped him in serpents to take everything away.
We came back into that beautiful courtyard and bright Mexican sun, and walked out into Morelia’s streets with a renewed sense of beauty, pain, art, gratitude, guilt, inspiration, motivation, and a slew of other emotions. Also hunger. We’d found great food so far on the trip, and I was eager to walk a bit and find more.
But we hadn’t quite counted on Morelia’s ability to astound, since there was arguably an even more impressive site right next door to the museum…