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ABOUT RUTH LECHUGAMargarita de Orellana

Who would’ve thought that the young 19 year old Austrian girl who arrived to Mexico in the 1930’s, fleeing from Nazism, would teach us to better understand a reality that defines us, one which we don’t always value: our handicraft universe. Impressed by the differences between Austria and this country, she began travelling with her father, an archeology aficionado. While he focused on antique stones, she was constantly amazed at the different kinds of people she found in every state, and at the beauty of the handicraft creations. She travelled with her camera from the start, with the sole purpose of capturing each of those powerful images that captivated her so. She would’ve never imagined that – years later – she would play such an important role in the lives of so many of those craftsmen years later. That she would become a sort of fairy godmother to many, always maintaining a critical spirit and enormous generosity.

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Na-Ma,-1962-5

Na Ma, 1962

Ruth told me about how she got to Bonampak in 1948 when the jungle was still part of this Mayan site; how they got lost in it and how their guide had to cook black howler monkeys and make snail soup that her and her mother went to collect from the river. This adventure period would mark her for life. From then on, she made contact with the Lacandon people who immediately arrived at her campsite. “They were the owners of the jungle, of course. They would search our backpacks and if they found something they liked, they’d say: `Yours, mine, yes?´ If one said yes, they’d take it, if you didn’t, they’d leave it.” And that is how she began a friendship with them that lasted many decades. She respected them always and admired they innate wisdom.

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Na Ma, 1962

Ruth established similar bonds of friendship with members of different cultures of the country, throughout the years. And she registered their experiences through photography. She was profoundly grateful with Mexico for saving her family’s life and for having given her the opportunity to receive a medical education which she could’ve never gotten in her country of birth. She never thought of going back to Austria. She lived in the best country in the world.

She worked in clinical analysis for many years after university until she abandoned that profession, seeking to dedicate her life completely to her passion: the popular arts. And thus, being over 50 years of age, she began working for the Museum of Popular Arts and Industries (Museo de Artes e Industrias Populares) with Teresa Pomar, another expert in the subject. She worked there for more than 15 years, travelling around the country, buying and spreading the work of the communities. I remember that museum – located in front of the Alameda avenue which nowadays is a notary archive -, as the best place to buy true works of popular art that were hard to find anywhere else. One could tell there was an expert eye behind every one of the selected pieces that knew what they were worth. I always regretted it closing down and many craftsmen told me they felt the same way.

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Palenque,-1962-1

Palenque, 1962

The craftsmen always recognized her as someone who motivated them and understood them profoundly. Every time I accompanied Ruth to the competitions and the villages, they greeted her with overflowing affection, like a true friend.

Since her arrival to Mexico in 1939, Ruth began buying handicraft pieces, and by the time of her death, the collection had over 10,000 objects that she wanted to remain here, in the city, for Mexicans and foreigners to see them. When she passed, everything was donated to the Museum Franz Mayer, including the three apartments in the Condesa building.

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Chamula,-1968-1

Chamula, 1968

To this day, that small jewel of Mexican pop art has never again been exhibited to the people. For its part, the publishing house Artes de México inherited her collection of photographs with over 20,000 negatives. A huge responsibility. We’ve made several renowned public exhibits in the same place where the Museum of Popular Arts and Industries was, in the plaza behind it as well as the enclosing walls of Reforma Avenue and other municipalities. Her photographs have been featured in many national and international publications. But there is still a lot to be done. 

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Carnaval,-Chiapas-1970

Carnival in Chiapas, 1970

Margarita de Orellana has a PhD in Contemporary and Comparative History from the University of Paris; she is the author of many books that analyze Mexican culture in its various manifestations, especially historical and documentary cinema on the Mexican Revolution, art and handicrafts. She is currently the director of Artes de México publishing house.

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