Mujer India by Rufino Tamayo


Jessica Markley '23

Major: East Asian Languages and Literature - Japanese

Winter 2021

I have a name, but that is not what is important here, who I am matters much more than what you call me. If you have to give me a name, though, just call me the Mujer India. As this world grows older and larger, the Zapotec civilization becomes lost to time, known to most only as the State of Oaxaca, Mexico. Yet here I am, a testament that not all is lost yet. In the summer of 1959, I stood outside in the sun's warm rays, waiting for my reality to be painted, waiting for who I am to be brought to life how you see me now. Had any other painter asked me to, I would have said no. But to only Rufino Tamayo, my childhood friend, I said yes. Rufino was also of Zapotec heritage, and he understood how few Mexican painters had been able to penetrate the European art bubble and earn the respect they deserved. He was uninterested in depicting the grand politics of revolution; rather, he wanted to depict that which he took pride in, his culture. As one of the few artists to enter that coveted bubble, he knew he had a special opportunity to show a different side of Mexico with an audience that may finally open their eyes to it.

Rufino had taken formal art lessons in his youth. He loved cubism, impressionism, and fauvism, but something about sitting inside, disconnected from the world, made everything seem less genuine. Disenchanted with academia, he decided to leave and find his own way in the painting world. As he created his niche, he was disappointed to find that his works were being placed in the same category of his contemporaries like Diego Rivera. He felt revolution was only going to bring harm to Mexico in the end and made his statement clear with his "Children Playing With Fire". If the flames of rebellion grew too bright, he warned, the people were bound to get burned. He succeeded in distancing himself from Rivera, at the cost at being labeled a traitor to some. He left Mexico after that, fearing he would not be able to express himself freely anymore. Although it pained me to see my friend go, I knew that wherever he went he would never lose touch with his heritage and the people that meant so much to him. I am glad to say I was right. Although he found refuge and praise for his work in New York and Paris, he never lost his heart. On that summer day, though, I did not see a traitor nor a famous artist; I saw a friend.

Although I had agreed to be painted, I was shocked when I saw what paints Rufino was planning to use. I am no artist, but I can recognize when the paint being placed so delicately and gently onto the canvas is the same old, chipping paint that was decidedly less gently thrown onto my neighbor’s house. If he has his own museum, surely then he had the money to buy better paints? Was this some kind of joke? But when I asked him, he simply told me he wanted to use very cheap colors, because they were the only ones the people could afford. I also noticed he had only brought a few colors, but he assured me that using less was better because it meant more. Although I was still skeptical, I kept true to my word and stood while he painted. I was mostly there for reference, since he was not so concerned with it being realistic. If people wanted realistic art, they could just look at a photograph. In fact, I was so excited to see Rufino trying out something he called mixografia, where he used all different kinds of strange materials to make his prints seem so lifelike. Still, he wanted to use few colors and few shapes, and let his technique tell the rest of the story. Far removed from some stuffy studio in New York, the creation process was not so formal. We talked, we laughed, we took breaks and ate food and shared stories to fill in the gaps of lost time. The actual print only took a few hours, but we made it a whole day event. In the end, the print was humble, simple, and honest. Just like Rufino, and just like us. Today, that print stands in an inconspicuous space, where I imagine if you had not actively sought me out, you would never know I was there. Few people come down this hall, and even fewer ever stop to look at me. But I think I prefer it that way: Never the center of attention, never subject to all the prying eyes of the world, but away from the noise of life, where those who care enough will come and find me. If you look for me online, do not be surprised if I am not easy to find. I don't actually know how I ended up where I am today. In a sad sort of way, I am relieved Rufino did not live long enough to see that part, at least. I hope our memory stays just as it was. For you, our memory starts and ends now. I will be one mark upon one moment in one day of your life. But our life is art, and everything we experience is art. So even if you forget me the moment you look away, the world was made brighter because of our interaction. It's always nice to see new faces, but...well, I can't really see yours, can I? If that mask is a new fashion trend, I think I am content remaining a memory. Everyone seems so cold when you can't see their smiles.

Your world is so much busier than mine, but when you leave today, I hope you understand that your world, my world, and Rufino's worlds really are not that different in the end. Life your life the way you want, open your heart to those that deserve to listen, and never let another person be the judge of your ability. At the end of the day, this memory was the creation of the son of a seamstress and a shoemaker. You have the right to create your own future, and no one has the right to take it away from you.