Public art is an invaluable asset to communities that care to invest in it.
When I was a volunteer DJ at community radio, WORT FM, of Madison, Wisconsin in the 1990s, I sometimes made a musical tour of Africa starting, say, in West Africa, playing music from different parts of Africa, and ending the program in West Africa! In the process, I talked about these countries and peoples whose music I shared with my audience. And they were fun!
So, I’d like us to tour the world, using pictures of public art I took in cities I visited. But what is public art, and why does it matter? Public art is art in a public place, and can be any of a wide range of forms, and sizes, as it can be permanent or temporary. In the same vein, public art ranges from historic bronze statues to murals, memorials, architectural or landscape work, and in art digital form.
Public art matters for various reasons, including increasing economic growth and sustainability. In addition, public art strengthens cultural identity and the attachment of people to their community. The public art industry also supports artists and others in the creatives sector by giving them an opportunity to make important contributions to society. Public art also increases cultural understanding and improves public health by reducing stress. Finally, public art can significantly boost tourism, as has been demonstrated by experiences in India, Spain, and the United States of America (US), to name a few.
Toward the end of 2008, I was appointed as a volunteer on the Board of Directors of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a US non-profit organization which helps manage the domain name and addressing system of the global Internet. As an organization with a global mandate, ICANN organizes meetings in various parts of the world, hence the reason why I had an opportunity to see public art in far-flung places.
Although I started thinking that I could, in one article, cover all the cities I visited, this has not been possible because the number of cities are too many. For this reason, this article is on public art in three cities (Mexico City, Cartagena, and Buenos Aires) in Central and South America. I will, as time goes on, write about public art in cities in the US, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Africa.
In March 2009, I went to Mexico City, Mexico, to attend the ICANN’s 34th Annual General Meeting, amid reports of killings and fears for the security of meeting participants. Nevertheless, the meetings went off well, without any serious incidents. Although my schedule was packed full, I managed to see some public art installations near our hotel, and on my visit to the Embassy of South Africa to get a visa.
Mexico City, the capital of Mexico was founded in 1325 (697 years ago), and its agglomeration, Greater Mexico City is the sixth largest metropolitan area in the world with a population of over 21 million people. Greater Mexico City is an economic powerhouse, with a Gross Domestic Product of $411 billion in 2011. Mexico City is also teeming with public art, as I was fortunate enough to discover.
My hotel was not far from the Avenida Paseo de la Reforma, a thoroughfare that cuts throw downtown Mexico City, and has 91 statutes, 21 of which are women’s statutes installed in 2021. Some of the most popular statues on the Paseo de la Reforma are the Monumento a la Independencia (Monument to Independence or The Angel of Independence), commonly known as El Ángel which was built in 1910 to commemorate 100-year anniversary of the start of Mexico’s war of Independence.
I was within walking distance of important statues and art sites such as the Palacio de Bellas Artes (the Palace of Fine Arts). The Palacio de Bellas Artes is next to the Alameda Central park, which has established in 1592 and has over 10 fountains and statues. Among these are the Hemiciclo a Juárez (Benito Juárez Hemicycle), a monument located at commemorating the Mexican statesman Benito Juárez. The Hemicycle is a beehive of people taking pictures, and painters whipping out small paintings for visitors to buy.
Across Alameda Central park is a fantastic collection of statues of women including the Ariadna Abandonada, an 1898 sculpture by Mexican sculptor Fidencio Lucano Nava (1869–1938). Other sculptures nearby are the Flor de Fango, made in 1908 by Enrique Guerra, and an 1892 sculpture, Dolor (pain), by Clemente Islas Allende. All of them are part of a collection of Mexico’s Museo Nacional de Arte, (National Museum of Art), and installed outdoors for the public to visually feast on.
Other sculptures I visited include El Caballito, officially called Cabeza de caballo (horse’s head) which is a bright yellow, 28 meter high steel sculpture in front of the Torre del Caballito office tower on Paseo de la Reforma. El Caballito is by the Mexica sculptor, Enrique Carbajal (Sebastián) who has done over 200 such works around the world.
Right next to El Caballito, and on Avenida Paseo de la Reforma, is a gorgeous fountain, the Fuente de la República, which simmers in bright colors at night. Next to the Fuente de la República fountain, and at the intersection of Paseo de la Reforma and Juárez Avenue is the Puerta 1808 by Manuel Felguérez, who was one of the most famous artists in the Mexican Abstract movement. The statute was inaugurated in 2007 and is dedicated to the memory of the members of the City Hall of Mexico City, who in 1808 defended the rights of the city and spoke up for the sovereignty of the country.
I should also mention the statue of Cuban nationalist, José Martí at the Centro Cultural José Martí (José Martí Cultural Center) on the north-west corner of Alameda Central park, and at the intersection of Avenida Hidalgo and Paseo de la Reforma. José Martí was also an important figure in Latin American literature, and dedicated his life to the independence of all Hispanic America. His statue in Mexico City is, along with the numerous busts and statues of him around the world, a fitting tribute to him.
In December, 2010 I went to ICANN 39, ICANN’s 12th Annual General Meeting which was held in Cartagena de Indias (Cartagena, and pronounced “Carr-ta-he-na” in short), a major port city on the northern coast of Colombia and bordering the Caribbean sea. Founded in 1533, Cartagena is a delightful tourist city with a population of just over 1 million people, and is the fifth largest city in Colombia. Cartagena is also known for being the birthplace of the late Colombian Salsa star, Joe Aroyo, and once was home to 1982 literature Nobel Prize winner, Gabriel García Márquez, who is buried there.
Cartagena was important to the Spanish Inquisition (1481–1834; which imposed Spanish Catholicism on Spain’s possessions), and the slave trade. The historic center of the city is surrounded by 11 Km of defensive walls designed to protect the city from pirate attacks, and the construction of which began in 1586. It is thus not surprising that in line with its rich history, Cartagena has many monuments, and statues and sculptures for one to feast their eyes on.
Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have much time to see much of Cartagena’s public art, except those I could catch a fleeting glimpse of as I zipped through the city traffic. Nevertheless, some of them still come to mind, including the massive defensive walls, which along with the port, and other monuments were added by UNESCO to the World Heritage list in 1984. La María Mulata sculpture, a bronze statue of the Quiscalus lugubris bird by Colombian artist Enrique Grau is another fine example of public art in Cartagena.
I also cannot share pictures I took of public art in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which I visited in November, 2013. I attended ICANN 48 as a consultant to an applicant for a new top-level domain name, and found the city an enchanting place. Unfortunately, I cannot find pictures I took while I was there. But Buenos Aires also has a rich collection of monuments and statues, including its imposing and iconic Obelisco de Buenos Aires (Obelisk of Buenos Aires). The 67.5 meters tall obelisk is on Plaza de la República (Republic Square) and was built in 1936 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the founding of the city. I ’ll have to return to Buenos Aires to take more pictures of its public art — and make sure I keep them to share them!
I hope this tour of public art in Mexico City, Cartegena, and Buenos Aires has been an interesting, educative, and inspiring one. I certainly have enjoyed re-living visual memories of my visits to these delightful places, and I am looking forward to telling similar stories about public art in other cities around the world. Watch this space!