Tucked away in the leafy, bohemian residential area of Condesa awaits a surprise. Nothing outside prepares you for what's inside. We go through the front door of a once-fashionable 1920’s apartment building, climb up to the second floor and rap at the door with the animal-shaped knocker. It could be your aunt's life-long apartment but it isn't. It belonged to Ruth Lechuga and we are about to find out who this amazing lady was.
The door opens and I stifle a gasp. There's no "auntie" smell of perfume and bath salts, of recent cooking or baking. Instead, it's a faint smell of the past, of items stored for years. As we go through the doorway, we step straight into an Aladdin’s Cave of Mexican folk art. The walls sag under the weight of hundreds of dance masks which Ruth collected throughout her life. Room after room is crammed full of furniture, showcases with nacimientos (nativity scenes), árboles de vida (trees of life), dolls, lacquerware, textiles, basketware and ceramics. We are immersed in the essence of Mexico’s indigenous people, surrounded by native craft traditions.
An Aladdin's Cave of Mexican folk art
An ornamental gourd with a carved bird on top
Ceramic pots hanging up
Our guide around the house, Marta Turok, is herself an exceptional woman – among other things, an anthropologist, a Mexican folk art and textile expert and writer. She knew Ruth Lechuga personally and is the curator of the house-museum, taking care of Ruth’s invaluable legacy. Her lively, interesting explanations bring Ruth and her collection to life.
Marta Turok guiding us around the house
Items made by indigenous people
Typical Huichol artwork
Ruth Lechuga (1920-2004) was born in Vienna, but when the Nazis invaded Austria, she came to live in Mexico in 1939, at the age of 19. She was immediately captivated by the Mexican people, the colours, the traditions, the climate, the coasts and the jungles and decided to make this her permanent home. Her father’s passion was archaeology and Ruth used to accompany him on his visits to different sites, where she was much more fascinated by the local markets and traditional life. During these visits, she would buy something, a small souvenir, and bring it home. Decades later, her collection has swollen to 10,000 items, gradually colonising and taking over the intimate space of these three apartments.
Inside the apartment
Some of the dance masks
The jaguar is a recurring theme
Although she studied Medicine, her real passion was for Mexican folk art. In 1950 she married Carl Lechuga and together they travelled far and wide, often by mule or in small planes, to reach the more isolated indigenous communities. A gifted photographer, she also built up an outstanding collection of 20,000 photographs, creating an important anthropological archive dedicated to the daily life and sacred ceremonies in Mexico.
Some of Ruth's photographs
Figures hanging up
Ceramics and masks
Her special interest in máscaras, dance masks, led her to find out more about the traditions and each item of her collection, whether masks or ceramics or textiles, was bought after meeting the artisano, finding out the story behind it and its purpose and the materials with which it was made. Not only that, she meticulously catalogued most of them, building up an invaluable legacy for us today. As we follow Marta through the apartments, the lights go on in room after room, revealing different aspects of Ruth’s collection. We learn about the multi-coloured artifacts and traditions of the tarahumaras, coras, huicholes, mayas, tlaxcaltecas or purepechas.
Art on a gourd
Ceramic Tree of Life
The final surprise comes after passing through a small corridor choked with a jungle of basketware and we emerge suddenly into Ruth’s bedroom. Sprouting from the bright pink walls are dozens of white calaveras (skulls), skeletons and other Day of the Dead items. Perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea for decorating their bedroom but entirely in keeping with this pioneering woman’s passion and way of life.
Pink and white bedroom
Skulls and skeletons
Bedside photos of Ruth Lechuga
(Note: Marta Turok kindly gave me permission to publish these photos in my blog provided I put a visible watermark on them. Thank you, Marta.)