On the outskirts of Mexico City: Visiting the Past and Present of Teotihuacan

(Published in SF Weekly on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017:

Located on the outskirts of Mexico’s capital, the ancient pyramid city called Teotihuacan is firmly established in the psyches of the Mexican people — and of the millions of tourists who’ve set foot on the stones and pathways that comprise Teotihuacan’s panoramic vistas. UNESCO calls it a “holy city,” and, like other places in that category — including Jerusalem, Mecca, and Rome — it’s been a scene of unrivaled triumphs, peaceful coexistence, woeful neglect, and unspeakable violence.

The site’s two main pyramids, built some 2,000 years ago, climb upward into the Mexican sky, toward the celestial bodies that Teotihuacan’s people viewed as gods who could determine their fate. By themselves, the pyramids are eye-opening marvels of form and architecture that compare to Egypt’s Pharaonic Pyramids at Giza. The biggest Giza pyramid is about twice as tall, and twice as old, as Teotihuacan’s pyramids. But like their counterparts across Egypt’s dusty plains, Teotihuacan’s ancient structures have always contained hidden artifacts — maybe not in the realm of King Tutankhamun’s mask, whose golden, jeweled face has thrilled art-goers for almost a century, but close to it.

In fact, for art scholars who specialize in Teotihuacan, the recent finds that have emerged from excavations of the ancient Mexican city are nothing short of history-making, because the masks, statues, and other objects have revealed secrets that had been hidden for almost two millennia. At its height, Teotihuacan was the largest urban agglomeration in the Americas — a cosmopolitan city of more than 100,000 people that was multicultural, multilingual, and economically advanced. The city’s very layout — with its open streets and lack of a citadel or other major wartime fortifications — suggests that the rulers fully controlled the entire Valley of Mexico, which gave them domain over a large swath of Mesoamerica, centuries before the better-known Aztecs, whose culture they would strongly influence.

A new exhibit at the de Young Museum, “Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire,” which opens Sept. 30, puts 200 objects on display, along with photographs, maps, and other renderings that transport the spirit and culture of Teotihuacan to the museum’s large lower-level gallery. It’s the same gallery that just had “The Summer of Love Experience,” and if there’s any overlap between the two exhibits, it’s this: Teotihuacan embodied an epoch where people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds formed a community that held together not despite their differences but because of them.

Each ethnic group had a role to play in Teotihuacan’s survival, and its leaders reframed the city’s philosophies to be inclusive. For example, the Old Fire God, a pre-Teotihuacan deity with different interpretations, became amalgamated into a new, purposeful figure. “Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire” features several Old Fire God sculptures, which were likely used for ceremonial purposes throughout the settlement. Fire was an important element at Teotihuacan, though a massive conflagration — it’s still unclear whether it was deliberate or accidental — ultimately led to its demise in the sixth century, C.E. Despite its decline, the Aztecs looked to Teotihuacan for inspiration on how to rule, and UNESCO celebrates Teotihuacan for its “harmonic” architectural layout and “unique artistic achievement.” Many objects at the de Young are being displayed for the first time ever or the first time in the United States, and their striking appearance speaks partly to the geographical position and importance of Teotihuacan, which is situated between mountains.

“If you look at the topography of this part of the valley as it relates to other parts of Mexico, this is the easiest route to get out and down to the Gulf Coast,” Matthew H. Robb, the de Young’s former curator of the art of the Americas, who organized the exhibit, said as he stood atop the Pyramid of the Moon on a recent Wednesday. “Teotihuacan was well-positioned to coordinate and control some of trade from the Gulf Coast coming into the Valley of Mexico.”

That Wednesday, Robb led a contingent of media and de Young staff on a tour of Teotihuacan’s grounds, which upward of 4 million people visit every year. Teotihuacan is an especially important pilgrimage site for those who trace their ancestry to the peoples who founded it. School kids across Mexico City visit the site as a kind of history lesson — to see first-hand the pyramids and structures that are such an integral part of Mexico’s narrative. Images from Teotihuacan, notably the Pyramid of the Sun, have adorned Mexican currency for generations in the same way that the White House and other civic structures appear on the backs of U.S. denominations.

During the 1968 Summer Olympics, held in Mexico City, the Mexican government made sure that the Olympic torch passed through Teotihuacan, where — amid a wave of celebrants, colored lights, and movie cameras — a runner held the flames aloft as he crested the Moon Pyramid at nighttime and lit a fire at the top.

Pomp and pageantry aside, what the spotlights usually gloss over are the continuing excavations at Teotihuacan. Only about 8 percent of the ancient city has been excavated and researched. Archeologists and diggers regularly discover new spaces, and Robb took a contingent wearing hardhats through a recently found tunnel that goes right under the Feathered Serpent Pyramid. The tunnel walls were lined with pyrite — the mineral the Teotihuacan people used for blades and weapons. The tunnel has also revealed beautiful pendants, vases, and masks that were offerings to the gods, gifts they believed would allow the cycles of earthly existence, like the sun’s daily rise, to continue.

“I talk about them as ‘psychic infrastructure,’ that you need to have these things in order for the city to function,” says Robb, who is now the chief curator of UCLA’s Fowler Museum. “We’re not talking about raw blocks of jade. We’re talking about finished objects.”

And the objects — because their stones or jewels originated from neighboring parts of Mesoamerica — showed Teotihuacan’s early economic reach and pull. “

The shells are referencing the Maya world and referencing Oaxaca [south of Teotihuacan],” Robb says, “so already when this tunnel was established, Teotihuacan was on some level in contact with those places, and it’s important to have those visual references as part of the exhibit. The objects are spectacularly well done. They are not Teotihuacan imitations of Maya style.”

Teotihuacan was founded in the first century BCE. As it expanded, and after the pyramids were built, rulers oversaw human sacrifices to the gods. Many of the dead were captured soldiers who were killed in brutal rituals of beheadings and dismemberment. Archeologists continue to find human skulls and bones in the ground that encircles the city.

Standing atop the pyramids, visitors can see a horizon of small green hilltops that are covered with trees and grass. These hills are likely a series of smaller pyramids or other Teotihuacan structures that have been overgrown with the natural environment. At its zenith in the fourth century, Teotihuacan was almost eight miles square — a city-state with 2,000 apartment compounds that was about one-sixth the size of San Francisco. The site that tourists see today is just a small portion of Teotihuacan’s expanse, but it’s still a breathtaking sight (and site), and a reminder of how much more there is to excavate. Mexican only began seriously uncovering and reconstructing Teotihuacan in the early 1960s.

“All of these structures were essentially covered in dirt and plants,” Robb says, standing atop the Pyramid of the Moon. “That mound over there is another structure that hasn’t been excavated yet, so there’s still an enormous amount of urban infrastructure of the site that we don’t know.”

Robb, a fluent Spanish speaker, is one of the world’s foremost experts on Teotihuacan’s art. And the de Young is an ideal exhibition spot because of its long history of collaboration with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, signing an agreement in 1981 that brokered the return of Teotihuacan murals that a U.S. donor had given the de Young. (The murals had been looted in the 1960s.) Robb calls the agreement, which guaranteed the murals’ conservation, a “landmark instance of patrimony practice for U.S. museums. Most repatriations are not necessarily happening due to cooperation but legal actions.”

Because of the ongoing cooperation, the National Institute of Anthropology and History worked closely with the de Young on “Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire,” which will be shown at the Los Angeles County of Museum of Art after its San Francisco run. “Teotihuacan” is an Aztec (or Nahuatl) name that has been translated as “The place where the Gods were created” or “Place of those who have the road of the Gods” or “Place where men become Gods.” The Gods on display at the de Young will stare back at visitors from behind glass, but they were originally out in the open — astride pyramids, in people’s homes, on dirt roads, and in tunnels. The people who made these objects and worshipped them didn’t think these Gods lived in the “ancient world.” Their surroundings were new to them. And for all the Teotihuacans knew, their Gods would help them — and Teotihuacan — live forever.

Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire, Sept. 30 through Feb. 11 at the de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr. $13-$28; 415-750-3600 or


Peabrain-ism and a Love Supreme

The new Leonardo Drew exhibit at the de Young. (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco)
On a recent Friday afternoon, the de Young Museum’s atrium — the one that a million art-goers pass through every year — was experiencing a radical metamorphosis. Gone was Gerhard Richter’s giant Strontium that, for a decade, had loomed over the space like an artistic Mount Sinai. In its stead was a sea of reworked detritus — newspapers, wood scraps, bent metal, rocks, you name it — that Leonardo Drew was orchestrating into place not just on the former Richter wall but the two connecting walls that are usually completely empty. Museum staff cordoned off the area while Drew put the last touches on a sculptural creation that’s Drew at his best: funky, provocative, and way open to interpretation.


Questions about race? Sure, that seems to be in Drew’s new piece. America’s political issues? That may also be embedded into the reworked flotsam and jetsam that is Drew’s latest international commission. And ideas of beauty? That’s definitely there, as are references to the de Young’s copper architectural bearings. But here’s the thing: In an interview with SF Weekly, Drew said that anyone’s interpretation of his new art is valid. That’s why he gave the work, as he usually does, a formless title (Number 197). Still, Drew strongly hints to SF Weekly that his de Young commission is designed to mimic the notes on a musical score. Not just any score, but a score that’s frenetic and soulful and alive. Something like A Love Supreme by the jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.

“You realize key notes and music and how they’re arranged — you can compose,” Drew says, waving his hands as he scans Number 197. “I compose. I could have given you something very serene. But — boom, I’m going to punch you in the face.”

Based in Brooklyn, Drew often shows work at San Francisco’s Anthony Meier Fine Arts gallery, but his de Young exhibit is his largest S.F. venue to date, so more people will discover art that seems like it emerged organically from the environment and the streets — as if Drew picked up items he found on the beach and in parklands and dumps, and tweaked them ever so.

Not so. Like a scientist in the lab, Drew spends months cultivating objects in his studio — cutting, scraping, plastering, painting, and affixing until he finds the right combinations. He’ll reuse his former sculptures.

 “I can point to things and say, ‘That was a piece I had.’ I can even show you images of what these things were before,” Drew says. “You keep adding layers. Accumulated dust on the piece is an additive. People are like, ‘I can blow that off.’ And I say, ‘Don’t do that!’ This is like the layering of history — like the Grand Canyon.”

In the week before the opening of Number 197, the de Young set up a live camera to let website visitors peer in on Drew’s progress. Drew says he didn’t know about the art voyeurism until three days into the installation. Not that he would have behaved differently. Drew is one of the art world’s most gregarious figures — “I’m a people person!” — with an easy laugh that makes strangers feel completely at ease.

In his mid-50s, he can look back at his life — including his mostly fatherless upbringing in a housing project in Bridgeport, Conn., where he lived across from a landfill; his graduation from the Cooper Union with a BA in fine arts; and a career of important commissions and exhibits, including at the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden — and say that he’s found an international fan base that appreciates the background and the intensity he brings to his work.

“When I was at the Hirshshorn, there was a security guard there who was running off and telling everyone what my piece meant,” Drew says. “I asked him, ‘Where did you get all that information?’ And he said, ‘From the artist!’ And I kept asking him questions. And he said, ‘You’re the artist, huh?’ I had a friend with me, and he told me, ‘You have to stop him because he’s going all over the place.’ And I said, ‘We’re learning stuff now. Just let him run.’ And I ended up coming out of there saying (about the guard’s ideas), ‘I hadn’t thought of that.’ ”

At the de Young, Drew met with a group of docents who wanted to know everything about Number 197 so they could convey it to visitors. “They wanted to know how I was seeing the work,” Drew says, “and I said, ‘Let’s stop that shit right now. What you want to do is tell me what you’re seeing.’ And it was all over the place — and it was poetic and beautiful.”

Drew has previously referred to the Bridgeport landfill from his childhood as being akin to “God’s mouth” for its wide spectrum of objects and discarded items. More recently, Drew has spent weeks in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen working with porcelain, a material he had never really focused on. Artisans have been working with porcelain in Jingdezhen for a more than a millennium, and Drew’s first experiments there failed and shattered. He stuck with it, helped by an interpreter who was present from morning to night.

“You can never run from yourself — it’s there,” Drew says. “You start out with this base, and then — boom — it branches off into a number of directions. If an artist is open to digest new things, the possibilities are endless, as big as your imagination. If you have this little pea-brain, you stay in ‘peabrain-ism.’ ”

A week after Drew spoke with SF Weekly, the de Young’s atrium barriers were gone, the exhibit officially opened, and people were milling around Number 197, taking pictures with their cameras. Drew was gone, but his work was making a statement for him — even though he almost quit the project. He says the de Young’s administrators decided they didn’t want him using all three of the atrium’s walls after all. At one point, Drew says he told them they should return Richter’s Strontium to the atrium.

“There was a time,” Drew reveals, “when I had to 86 the show because they had approached me about doing the space, and then said, ‘You’re going to focus on this wall.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to do anything like that. Let’s cancel the show. I quit.’ It’s a perfect three-point perspective. I said, ‘If you’re a museum, act like a museum. These walls are for hanging stuff. You’ll fix them later.’ And they said, ‘Oh, no — there will be holes in the walls.’ I said, ‘That’s what museums do. You’re supposed to get holes in your walls. And then you fix them.’ ”

Drew’s laugh filled the atrium as he spoke, just like his art did — cascading here and there in every direction. It was a beautiful thing to witness, and it was in keeping with Drew’s demanding approach, which he applies to himself.

“Institutions should be challenged,” he says. “And artists should be challenged. Every time.”

“Leonardo Drew: Number 197,” through Oct. 19 at the de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive. Free; 415-750-3600 or