A plural gaze into death. RUTH LECHUGA IN HER CUARTO ROSA
Text of Alberto Ruy Sánchez
For over fifty years this woman slowly placed around her bed and on the walls of her room the best representations of death created by artisans from all Mexican regions. Many masks of every kind made from various materials, calaveras (skeletons) of clay and cardboard, wood toys, breads and sweets meant for the altar of the dead, wire figures turned into people and animals’ skeletons, carved combs, incense burners, candle holders, puppets, miniature sculptures, and papel picado (thin coloful paper cutout to create geometrical motifs and different scenes with calaveras). Over five hundred masterpieces related with death Mexican rituals inhabit a bedroom which has walls painted with a bright Mexican pink. Over this unsettling background, all the white pieces imitating skeletons, and all the colorful contrasting pieces became ghostly presences that seemed to float in an impossible sky of bright pink air.
Echoing between the contained laughter of hundreds of calaveras (skulls) and the latent memory of the many dances where their masks of death were danced, Ruth D. Lechuga’s laughter was the sharpest and fullest. When someone asked her if so many deaths did not take her sleep away, Ruth replied: “Why should they? We are all made of the same stuff. And one day, when I lie dead in this bed, I will become part of this collection.” And so it happened on October 2004, when she was 84 years old. She had come to Mexico in 1939, and very soon she understood that her fascination with this new country was connected to her trips throughout its territory discovering many forms of creativity. She studied medicine, and she can be seen in a photograph with her colleagues huddled around a dissection table; she is the only woman in the picture. She was a nurse and then a doctor, a lab technician, a promoter of the craft world, a scholar of deep Mexico, and finally an art collector that was relentless towards quality and the social meaning of every single object and craft practice.
For she knew how, unlike many other lovers of folk art, to establish a perspective: look thoroughly at everything and place everything in an insightful stage of tradition, rituals or practices. We could say, she learned to see Mexico in its forms. And she was devoted to traveling trough it non-stop; she was the greatest traveler of a changing path made out of the ritual parties in the villages and of the craft creativity cornered in the varied geography of the country. This privileged witness of Mexican carnivals and collector of masks (made exclusively for them) became a high quality photographer. Trained very seriously, and with a Rolliflex camera around her neck, she eventually became one of the major ethnographic photographers of Mexico.*
With her wanderlust and privileged gaze, she had an idea of death rituals in Mexico that was very different from all the others, because she knew the enormous variety of ways death was celebrated throughout the country. That is why so much of her collection is made of ritual objects, mainly masks and costumes used in some specific dances for certain parties. In her Cuarto Rosa (Pink Room), especially in those festivals in which one dances with death, censers and candlesticks with skeletal motifs are also rituals. Then there is that other form of ritual we call games, the handmade calaveritas (toy skulls) multiplied; some of them are placed in the graves of dead children on the day devoted to them (El día de todos los santos), before the Day of the Dead Adults (El día de los fieles difuntos); others are given to living children to play with and their parents smile. Amongst the anonymous creativity of artisans it started to highlight a small galaxy of protagonists recognized by their name, style, expertise, and transforming advocacy in their communities. Creators of exception within a tradition they constantly reinvent.
Roberto Ruiz, the great bone miniature carver; Pedro Linares, creator of cartonería (cardboard) figures that has become the genre of alebrijes; Saulo Moreno, the wire figures sculptor; are just three prominent crafters among many others that were discovered and valued early on by Ruth Lechuga and are very significant in her collection. Some of them, like Saulo Moreno himself, within the tradition of written Calaveras (which verse with a distinctive black humor about the living as if they were dead), wrote some portraits of Ruth as a photographer, a doctor, or a mere witness; unique, beloved and laughable at the same time under the large glasses that characterized her.
An important feature of her art collection, crystallized and decanted in her Cuarto Rosa, is that each piece is significant in many ways. It’s not just a collection of beautiful or curious crafted pieces, but also a deep and moving portrait of the creativity of a country. That is to say, the best of the country she loved. No other collection or thematic exhibition about the crafted death is as vitally integrated and has as much significance, because in the Cuarto Rosa the attention is sustained over the several decades a wise and passionate woman spent looking and selecting, taking the pulse of a complex and contradictory country. A country she saw as it reinvented itself ritually with crafter hands.