Ai Weiwei’s zodiac sculptures head to Mexico

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Touring installation draws parallels between pillage of China and Mexico

The Zodiac Heads on view at the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC

While the Chinese government attempts to erase Ai Weiwei’s influence on contemporary art history, purging any traces of his name this week from an exhibition in Shanghai, the international art world continues to embraces the activist artist with open arms. Mexico City promises to be the next stop on the travels of one of his better known works, with plans underway for the artist’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, 2010, to be exhibited beginning in June at the Museo Nacional de Antropología (MNA) in the Mexican capital.

Besides introducing the work of Ai Weiwei to a Mexican public, the display of the 12 animal heads representing the traditional Chinese zodiac, which have been shown in Europe, North America and Asia in the name of free expression, is expected to explore the shared experience of the pillaging of cultural objects from Mexico and China. Showing the heads at the MNA, rather than at a contemporary art museum, points to the shared history of cultural looting, said representatives of Ai Weiwei.

The heads are replicas of sculptures designed in the 18th century by two European Jesuits that were part of an outdoor water clock in the European-style gardens of the Yuanming Yuan palaces outside Beijing. Those gardens were ransacked by French and British troops in the Second Opium War of 1860. At least seven heads were taken back to Europe, where some appeared in recent years at auction. Five have been repatriated to China. The ownership of two is in dispute.

The dates of that pillaging in China overlap with the Second Empire of Mexico, a European campaign to re-conquer that country. The assertion of French and Spanish authority over Mexico ended with the execution of the Austrian-born Emperor Maximilian in 1867, depicted in several paintings by Edouard Manet. The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna still holds objects seized from Mexico during that time.

More recently the MNA has been at the centre of Mexican efforts to track and repatriate archaeological objects taken from the country. Much of that looted material turns up in the art trade, much of it in the US, and some repatriated objects have been placed on view at the MNA. In 2012, the US Department of Homeland Security returned more than 4,000 illegally exported objects to Mexico, recovered following investigations throughout the US.

The exhibition marks the 50th anniversary of the museum, which is devoted to the cultures of peoples who lived in Mexico before the European Conquest of the 16th century. The MNA, designed by the architects Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, Jorge Campuzano and Rafael Mijares, is the most visited museum in Mexico.

Ai Weiwei, who is applying for the reissue of his passport from the Chinese government, so far without success, is not expected to travel to Mexico to see the installation.

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