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  • Writer's pictureLinda Litchfield

Ruth D. Lechuga Folk Art Collection, Franz Mayer Museum, Mexico City

If you ever go to Mexico City and are interested in folk art, I recommend a visit to the Franz Mayer Museum at Hidalgo 45, Mexico City, 06300 and Ruth D. Lechuga’s collection.

Born in Austria in 1920, Ruth Deutsch and her family fled from the onset of wartime atrocities in Vienna in 1939. They reached Mexico via Holland and New York. Completing her education at evening classes, Ruth learnt Spanish, studied nursing and later enrolled in medical school. She qualified as a doctor and went on to supervise a medical laboratory. She also became an avid collector of Mexican folk art, a researcher and author of a number of articles on the indigenous cultures of Mexico, an educator and a photographer. From the beginning she embraced Mexico as her adopted country: “I never thought of returning to Austria, since this was a wonderful country where I had the chance to pursue my interests like any other Mexican”. In time she came to proudly describe herself as Mexican.

Her interest in and empathy for Mexican culture came quickly. She realised that “this was a completely different culture that could not be understood through European eyes. It is neither superior nor inferior – simply something else. Until you realise this and stop trying to observe the culture clinically, you will never be able to form part of it”.

Ruth’s father was very interested in archaeology and trips with him into the Mexican countryside became a determining element in her life. During her holidays or whatever time she managed to take off from her work at the medical laboratory, she went on long excursions with her father, always carefully researching their destinations. These trips became progressively longer and she began to take along a camera to create a pictorial record of their travels. On one of these trips in 1948 she met Carlos Lechuga, who she married in 1950. She had no formal training in photography but joined a photography club in Mexico City in 1952 where she acquired the technical expertise that she needed. Rapidly becoming alienated by the club’s set views on what subject matter was appropriate for a pictorialist photographer, she left and formed a new club and in due course had solo shows of her own photographs. She was interested in taking good documentary photographs of indigenous subjects and discovered her own method of forming an interrelation between the photographer and her surroundings or circumstances, which informed viewers of the event and made them aware of the photographer’s presence. Her pictures are subjective documents which display a narrative format made by someone who let herself get involved in the circumstances of the cultural act described. Although Ruth D. Lechuga left over 20,000 photographic negatives which document Mexico’s great artisanal practices (which in several places were disappearing), she did not consider herself a photographer: “…if I have good photographs it is because I happened to be in the right spot at the right time…My goal was not to photograph but rather to get to know a place…I think I was able to establish contact with people, because very few refused to let me photograph them”.

The desire to get to know the country and its indigenous peoples which informed her photography also underlay Ruth D. Lechuga’s approach to collecting folk art. In her lifetime she collected over 10,000 pieces. Each object was selected with care and feeling. On her trips around the country she focused her attention on the individuals who showed and offered her the pieces they had made – pieces that were meaningful to the communities where they created, to many other Mexicans and beguiling to foreigners. She listened to the artisan’s stories and tried to learn from them. In the last 30 years of her life particularly, she devoted her energy to this work. With the privileged perspective of a cultural outsider, coupled with the understanding of someone who has decided to experience and adopt the Mexican culture, Ruth collected with a clinical eye. Masks particularly interested her – she collected over 1200- and she developed relationships with the mask-makers and documented the dances in which they were worn. She emphasised the importance of identifying the creator of each piece she collected. From her perspective, many artisans were in fact outstanding artists, hence a collector should take the trouble to research the individual’s name. to ignore it would be to belittle the artisan’s role for she was convinced that “folk art is not anonymous”. She was also very keen to record the techniques of production and always enjoyed meeting the artisans. She felt great concern for the future of folk art and the welfare of its creators.

During the last decade of her life, Ruth D. Lechuga’s collection, collected over 50 years, was displayed in her own and two adjoining apartments in the Condesa neighbourhood of Mexico City: masks, ceramics, wooden and lacquered pieces, over 1500 textile pieces, dolls, miniatures, skeletons skulls, toys, basketry, folk paintings and ritual art. She died in 2004 and bequeathed her collection to the Franz Mayer Museum. She was keen to leave her collection to Mexico City so that the maximum number of people could see it:

“I want the collection to be useful, to demonstrate this country’s many roots. This is the real Mexico…As more people are able to see the collection and take part in the adventure of learning about the country, I can say that it was put to good use, and I didn’t waste my life”.

Hopefully one day Ruth D. Lechuga’s wish will come true and her collection will be viewable in its entirety, as it needs and deserves to be seen. At present it is housed in a purpose-built suite of rooms on shelves and racks and can only be viewed by appointment. The huge task of photographing the 10,000 plus objects and preparing an on-line database is on-going.

Selected bibliography:

“Mask arts of Mexico”, Ruth D. Lechuga and Chloe Sayer, 1994, Thames and Hudson

“Arte Popular – Museo Ruth D. Lechuga”, Artes de Mexico, no.42

“Ruth D. Lechuga –Una Memoria Mexico”, Jose Antonio Rodriguez, Artes de Mexico/Museo Franz Mayer, 2002

“El Cuarto Rosa de Ruth D. Lechuga”, Margarita de Orellana, Marta Turok, Ariana Landin Lopez, Gabriela Olmoro, Ruth D. Lechuga, 2014, Artes de Mexico


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