My visit to Oaxaca, Mexico, has been fun and interesting in all of the ways I expected. But it has also involved a mystery that has connected me to a lot of people in ways I could never have expected. The mystery involves a water color painting called “El Jaguar.”
The story of “El Jaguar” begins in 1990, when I traveled to Oaxaca with BFFs Vic, Sarah and Craig. During our visit, Vic and I bought “El Jaguar” for about $60 at a small gallery. There is some dispute about who picked the painting (I did) but there is no dispute about who has it now. It’s in a cheap frame over Vic’s fireplace. 🙂
After 1990, “El Jaguar” got the amount of attention most nice paintings get, not that much. But when I arrived in Oaxaca this week, I thought it would be fun to investigate whether there was anything interesting or significant about it.
I started by visiting several galleries and showing the gallery people a photo of the painting I had on my phone. The first three gallery people said “Looks like Alejandro Santiago but I am not sure.”
I did a little research and learned that Alejandro Santiago had become one of Oaxaca’s most important modern artists some time after 1990. He died in 2013 at age 49.
In the fourth art gallery I visited, the owner saw the photo and pointed to a man looking at a painting in another room. That man was Robert McDonald who (1) was in Oaxaca for a week and in the same gallery as me for a few minutes (2) is originally from Oakland and owns a gallery of Latin American art in San Francisco and (3) was Alejandro Santiago’s agent for the 20 years before he died. When Robert McDonald saw the photo of “El Jaguar” on my phone, he said “Looks like Santiago. I can’t be sure because it was painted before I represented him, but coincidentally I am having dinner with a woman who represented him when this was painted.” I sent Robert McDonald the photo of the painting.
The next day Robert McDonald sent me an email that said “…sorry, it’s not a Santiago…” I was disappointed but I decided to let it go. Sort of.
Something else that seemed unrelated turned out to be relevant. The same day I heard the bad news from Robert McDonald, I went horseback riding at a small ranch in the Oaxaca countryside that is owned by Mary Jane Gagnier. It was a great ride and, during our in-the-saddle chit chat, Mary Jane told me about her 26 year old son, Gabriel, who manages a gallery in Oaxaca called “La Mano Magica.” She herself had owned and managed the gallery for many years. I remembered visiting that gallery. I didn’t ask her about the photo on my phone because, in the moment, I only remembered that La Mano Magica had some nice handcrafts. I had forgotten that it was the same gallery that had the $12,000 Rufino Tamayo print.
On the day I went riding, Mary Jane introduced me to her favorite taxista, Jose Luis, who agreed to take me to the artisan pueblos the day after I sort of stopped thinking about whether the “El Jaguar” was a Santiago.
I loved talking with Jose Luis using my crude approximations of Spanish and he didn’t speed on the highway. After we had visited the Mother of All Mercados in Tlacolula, I asked him to take me to Teotitlan, the rug weavers’ village. He replied that he thought I might be interested in seeing his friend’s studio there. I expected a normal weaver’s workshop. But Jose Luis took me to the studio of Pantaleon Luiz, who is a very gifted painter, sculptor and rug weaver.
When I walked into Pantaleon’s studio, I saw a painting that had the feeling of “El Jaguar” so I asked Pantaleon if he would look at the photo on my phone. When he saw it, he said “Alejandro Santiago. He was my good friend for twenty years.” We compared signatures on his Santiago painting and mine. If I showed you a picture of Pantaleon’s Santiago painting, I would have to kill you. I asked him this question: “Why would Robert McDonald and his art dealer friend say this is not a Santiago?”
SPACE FOR A PHOTO OF PANTALEON’S SANTIAGO PAINTING
Pantaleon suggested I go to “La Mano Magica” because the owners would be able to confirm whether “El Jaguar” was a Santiago. Coincidentally (do I have to say that at this point?) I had planned a second ride with Mary Jane and coincidentally Gabriel joined us for that ride. During our ride, I told them the story of my search for information about “El Jaguar” and how it led back to them. They both thought the painting on my phone looked like a Santiago.
But Gabriel told me that if I wanted to be really sure of the painting’s authenticity, I needed to talk to Santiago’s son, Lucio. Gabriel called Lucio for me and Lucio agreed to meet me at his father’s studio, which is called “La Telarana.” Telarana means “the spider web” in Spanish…like the spider web of people connected to each other by one small painting.
Today, I went to La Telarana where I met Lucio and saw his father’s most important work — hundreds of statues of humans, large and small, that express the sorrow and hardships of the millions of people in the world who are escaping war and poverty. My Oaxacan adventure had connected me to my life-changing experiences with refugees in Greece.
And when Lucio saw the photo of “El Jaguar,” he said “Yes, of course, that is my father’s work.”