Russian magic at Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes

Thinking of the name St. Petersburg evokes images of grand palaces, snowy streets and fuzzy wintercoats, but also of worldly museums and elegant dancers. A cultural hotspot for centuries, the city has produced a significant number of ballet ensembles, orchestras and composers.The artists of St. Petersburg undeniably match the city’s architectural grandeur. It has bred preeminent composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, while also being the home of prima ballerina Anna Pavlova, who headed the Imperial Russian Ballet, now known by the name Mariinsky Ballet after the theatre that houses it.

The Mariinsky orchestra, performing on the 1st of March, 2016, in the Palacio de Bellas Artes

While Russia may seem a little faraway, fortunately a little bit of Russian magic hit Mexico City in its early March days, as the orchestra accompanying the Mariinsky Ballet, aptly named Mariinsky Orchestra, performed for three consecutive days at the Palacio de Bellas Artes. They could not have chosen a better place to perform, as the Bellas Artes is probably the closest thing Mexico City has matching the splendour of St. Petersburg’s palaces. One of the historic center’s landmarks, it is the embodiment of the capital’s early 20th century’s Art Deco and Art Nouveau waves. The palace’s opulent exterior can mostly be characterized as Art Nouveau, while the inside is more influenced by the Art Deco style.

The marble facade of the Palacio de Bellas Artes

This difference in styles can be attributed to the construction history of the Palacio de Bellas Artes. The original design as well as the initial construction period (1910-1913) was entirely lead by Italian architect Adamo Boari, but then put to halt due to engineering complexities relating to the soft subsoil as well as problems brought about by the Mexican Revolution. The subsequent construction and interior design was continued in 1934 by Mexican architect Federico Mariscal, one of the leading architects of his time.  He favoured the Art Deco style, and made use of white Italian Carrara marble, as had done Boari for the facade of the building, which primarily contains Art Nouveau and Neoclassical influences. The extravagant facade includes sculptures of Italian sculptor Leonardo Bistolfi, an enthusiast of Symbolism, as well as sculptures relating to music and inspiration.

The view from above: front-row seats and balcony

Going to the Bellas Artes is worth it for its architectural beauty alone. It stands imposingly on a large plaza bordered by the Alameda central park, and bright colourful lights illuminate it at night. In addition to its magnificent architecture, it also boasts some of Mexico’s most fascinating murals by Mexican legends such as Rufino Tamayo and Diego Rivera. Even the elevators are splendid, as is the main entrance, with its imposing marble stairs. Most importantly however, it also functions as Mexico City’s most prominent podium for the fine and performing arts, hosting art and photo exhibitions as well as being the stage for some of today’s most prestigious international orchestra, and theatre and ballet ensembles.This prestige was indeed also exemplified by the breathtaking show delivered by the internationally acclaimed Mariinsky orchestra, who performed bits of the oeuvre of Shostakóvich and Rajmaninóv. It was a musical delight, to the point that one would have gotten goosebumps had it not been so ridiculously hot inside of the theatre. The fact that they got a seemingly endless standing ovation should say it all.

My beauty of a friend

We had been expecting to see the infamous Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, who is a living legend, and were slightly disappointed when it turned out he would only lead the orchestra on the third performance night. We were all the more (positively!) surprised when we saw the impeccable, only 28-year old Elim Chan lead the orchestra with tireless passion. Born and raised in Hong Kong, she is the first female conductor to have won the Donatella Flick LSO conducting competition. Her young age makes me wonder whether she was also the youngest winner to date, a fact I have not been able to verify. Another positive surprise was Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov, whose approach to playing piano was one of absolute symbiotic power. The interior of the theatre is also absolutely stunning, mostly due to the impacting stage curtain (for lack of a better descriptive word), which consists of a million colourful and iridescent Tiffany’s glass pieces, as well as the beautiful stained glass dome, which boasts depictions of Greek god Apollo and the nine arts muses.

The dome of the principal theatre room, depicting Apollo and his nine muses

I would like to end with a small, rather amusing sidenote: Before entering the palace, my friends and I were stopped by two young blokes who were looking to earn an extra few pesos. We politely declined, not having the spare coins we thought they were requesting but the kids were surprisingly tenacious in wanting to display their musical talents. One of the boys, they assured us, was the king of beatboxing. Hesitant at first, we ultimately agreed to the boy (named Fabian) giving us a little beatboxing show. And heck, he was amazing! We witnessed his entire musical repertoire, from rap to electronic music. If you happen to run into this kid, I recommend you stop for a minute or two and give him the coins we were unable to provide him with. I swear the kid was at least as good as this dude.

The beatbox gang, with on the far right Fabian the beatboxing genius

All in all, the Mexican architectural beauty with a hint of Russian magic made for an for a somewhat different, but unforgettable and highly recommendable weeknight. Ah, and for those of you who wonder why the Mariinsky orchestra received a standing ovation, please check out the link at the bottom of this page. I profess to being incredibly unsavvy when it comes to all things related to tech, explaining why I did not manage embedding the youtube video into this post, haha.

The link: Prokofiev – Symphony No 5 – Gergiev


© All text and pictures by Alexandra Brandt Corstius unless mentioned otherwise


Zona Maco 2016: Art fair impressions

Last weekend I had the privilege to attend Mexico City’s number 1 art event, the Zona Maco art fair, which took place between the 3rd and 7th of February. As usual, the art platform took place in the Banamex Convention Centre, now occupying the entirety of its exhibition hall, an astounding 13,000-squared meters. Despite being a relative newbie to the Mexico and Latin American art scene, I have been able to witness the art fair’s recent development. While last year’s edition was a fun event to attend with a mishmash of good and less qualitative art, this year’s managed to more than positively surprise me. Zelika Garcia, the art fair’s director and her 4-person team, as well as the galleries, delivered a well-organized, clean-cut and visually appealing spectacle. Or could it be due to the hiring of Daniel Garza Usabiaga, chief curator of the Museo del Arte Moderno? Who knows.


The words can be spoken out loud: Zona Maco is quickly consolidating its reputation as Latin America’s prime spot for high quality contemporary art. Yes, it is a low-cost (provided nothing is bought) podium for the capital’s showy high society, but it also displays the continent’s wealth of artistic talent. While the presence of foreign galleries was notable, Mexico’s many art galleries were equally well represented, with stands of the prestigious Galeria de Arte Mexicano (GAM), Galeria OMR, Labor, Luis Adelantado, Kurimanzutto and a good number of less established but qualitative galleries. From the foreign galleries, Paul Kasmin (New York) had a few particularly eye-catching artworks, while Gagosian Gallery (also from the Big Apple) impressed with works by some of its most reputed artists.

Art by Mexican legend Diego Rivera at Galería de Arte Mexicano

Zona Maco is not a platform for the shocking, the absurd and the truly unconventional – although the 2016 edition for the first time dedicated one area (“nuevas propuestas”) to emerging artists. As any art fair, it caters to those that can afford to buy art that is in-demand. It is a place where gallery owners, art collectors, curators, artists and socialites mingle with the common art-lover. Art fair regulars such as Damien “Butterfly” Hirst and Anish Kapoor were obviously well represented, but there nonetheless were a number of interesting proposals among the 123 galleries from 25 different countries, and the overall quality had massively improved from the previous year.


Here’s a small selection of the art pieces that stood out:


1. El Excusado (the Soumaya Toilet, 2016) by Santiago Sierra and Yoshua Okon: the only truly satirical piece. Offers an introspective look at Mexico’s relationship with art, and of course, with money. Poor Carlos Slim and Fernando Romero. (Photo courtesy of E-ter Magazine)


2. Sad Smiley (2012) by Jan Peter Hammer: a neon pop-art interpretation of everything that is wrong with society with a touch of Hello Kitty. There were too many people standing in front of it for me to be able to take a better picture of the smiley, so I am afraid that you will have to do with a reflection, or you can check this out.


3. Tuning (2015) by Iván Navarro: six drums, a few mirrors, electricity and LED light. What more do you want?

When discussing Zona Maco, it is hard not to mention the parties. They are at the heart of the event, and this year was no exception. Zona Maco exceeded itself, hosting parties at places such as the once underground club M.N. Roy (named after the legendary Narendra N. Bhattacharya, founder of the Mexican Communist movement), and the recently opened bar of the capital’s fabulous Four Seasons Hotel, Fifty Mills. They were good parties, a little funky and with the right amount of artsy glitter and cool. That the party hosted at M.N. Roy was hosted by Perrier and not one of the art galleries should be momentarily forgone because, well…


An amusing anecdote might be that while I was happily dancing away to those aforementioned funky tunes, I found myself next to a very well-dressed man wearing a… turban! Considering the utter lack of turban-wearing people in Mexico, his presence clearly caught my eye. Three days later, the same turban-wearing man, who I then found out was a kind of famous actor/style icon/designer, become an overnight news sensation when he was denied access to an Aeromexico flight. Turns out the man had several cameos in Wes Anderson movies, and had once starred in a GAP ad. And now he had found his vocation in defending the rights of the world’s plentiful Sikhs who suffer from racism. An undoubtedly worthwhile cause, but I could not help but notice the irony. Zona Maco, having been bred and born in Mexico City, carries that very same element of surrealism the capital also exudes.

Ice-cream interview

And now to the one question that hinges on everyone’s lips: Should one attend the next edition of Zona Maco? My answer to that is a definite yes, whichever the reason. Should that be the only art-event one attends throughout the year, and in particular, during that week? Of course not. The art fair, as fancy and aesthetically pleasing as it may be, only represents one side of the coin. Latin America, and Mexico in particular, have much more to offer in terms of groundbreaking work, and small, alternative artist collectives abound in the city. But Zona Maco has definitely helped setting Mexico City on the art world map, and the impetus it provides to art in general, be it voluntarily or involuntarily, is hard to neglect.

Galería LABOR

© All text and pictures by Alexandra Brandt Corstius unless mentioned otherwise


A Sunday stroll through Santa María la Ribeira

With over two thousand colonias (the Mexican name for neighbourhood), divided up in 16 boroughs, it should come as no surprise that I haven’t been able to visit each and every one of them. A life lived here I believe even does not suffice in order to see it all. The other side of the coin however is that it gives me the perfect excuse to let my inner nomad out, drag some well-meaning friends along and go explore the lesser well-known corners of the city. Because, let’s be honest, Roma-Condesa feels a little small after a while.

Interior of the juice store

It is in that spirit that I gathered two of my girlfriends and convinced them of the idea to go visit Santa María la Ribeira, a so-called barrio mágico, or magic neighbourhood in English. You guessed it, the concept is the same as that of the pueblos mágicos, but this time adapted to the needs of the Big City. To be fair, each neighbourhood has its very own personality, history and aesthetic (although the latter sometimes is markedly absent), and hence, the nicer ones are in my opinion entirely deserving of their title. Why – despite their title – some of them are still as run-down, for now remains an unsolved mystery.

An ofrenda on a blue house’s window

Santa María la Ribeira is everything I love about Mexico City – minus the lively bars, that is. But the vibe, the energy, the colours… they are all there, as bright and strong as ever. The neighbourhood is located only 10 km away from Roma-Condesa, which, when I realized it while looking at the map, made me feel a little self-conscious for not having visited earlier. Although to be frank, I do not know of a lot of people who have. I tend to not be very concerned about safety issues, and was swiftly (and rightly so) put into my place by our cab driver, who was quick to point out that this is not a safe area. His advice: “Just act normal and nothing will happen to you!”. Umm.. okay then. Whatever that means. The following day I read that it has one of the highest crime rates of the city.

A side street of Santa María de Ribeira

The barrio has a rich history, and extensive list of notable individuals have inhabited it at some point in time – for instance, Chucho el Roto, the Mexican Robin Hood, and Don Facundo, a rat-trainer turned artist. Originally located outside of what once were the city’s borders, the area was developed as to serve the capital’s affluent class. Now mostly catering to the less wealthy, the streets display an idiosyncratic mix of architecture. The most appealing buildings are late 19th-early 20th century mansions built for the aforementioned wealthy. Those have now been complemented by what once must have once been considered modern apartment buildings, as well as social housing developments. The influx of lower-class residents has had the unfortunate consequence that many of the buildings with historical value have been abandoned and are now falling into utter disrepair.

Interesting stairway formation in an apartment building

While this may seem strange to a foreigner – Not caring for one’s architecture, really? – it is all too common here. It is also part of the charm. What may seem as entirely contradicting, in fact effectively captures the peculiar essence of Mexico City. New mixes with old, beautiful with ugly, lively colours with grey tones. They all happily coexist in what sometimes can confuse the European mind, so accustomed to neat streets and planned urban landscapes. An area such as Santa María de Ribeira perfectly showcases the changes that have swept through the city, in all its decrepit glory.

The colonia’s famed Kiosko Morisco

The building the area may be best known for is its Kiosko Morisco, a colourful iron-and-steel structure reminiscent of moorish architecture, which graces the colonia’s central park. It was built in 1902 by the Mexican engineer José Ramón Ibarrola to be sent to an international exhibition in St. Louis, Missouri. Recently renovated, the kiosk is absolutely beautiful and well worth a visit. Since on weekends it becomes rather busy, I’d recommend visiting during the week (if you have that luxury, that is!). Other notable landmarks include the Museo Universitario del Chopo, which should be visited not for the art exhibitions it houses but much rather for its Jugendstil architecture, which has earned the building the nickname Chrystal Palace, after the famed London one.

The eyes of Santa María la Ribeira

Other reasons to go visit: dirtcheap juices (no sane person would be able to say no to a freshly pressed beetroot, orange, mandarine and grapefruit juice at that price, I assure you!), intriguing old mansions up for sale, a small market for local women to sell their artesanías, a Russian restaurant (Kolobok, on Díaz Mirón No. 87), and its colourful street art. In essence, it is one of those places with soul in which one can aimlessly wander the streets and be sure to find a treasure at every corner.

The inside of a 19th century mansion, now falling apart and – you guessed it – up for sale

© All text and pictures by Alexandra Brandt Corstius


365 days of living in the wondrous, surreal, and overwhelming DF

“Today marks exactly 365 days of me living in Mexico City.”

16-11-2014. 1 year already? Yes, 1 year! This occurred to me while chatting with my French roommate and sorting out photographs I had taken during the long weekend. What better day to post my first blogpost?

Since I have been busy experiencing the city so I actually have something to write about, I, well, haven’t exactly have the time to sit down and write a tremendously inspired and interesting post. Not YET. Yes. Really. The time will come where I will sit down with a hangover-curing or otherwise energizing and cleansing smoothie from Ojo de Agua in the shadow of a violet Jacaranda tree and start typing down all the wonderful stories I have experienced here, believe it or not.

For now, I will share my personal (love)story with Mexico’s capital. After much encouragement from my friends and fellow Mexico City expats (or let’s be honest, mostly wannabe expats that get paid in the steadily devaluating Mexican currency, the peso), and a short stint on The Guardian Cities Witness section, I feel like the time is rife to share my writing and photos with the world. I hope you enjoy it.

A figure of La Catrina, symbol of the Day of the Dead

Dear Mexico City,

It was not love at first sight. The first time I laid eyes on you, all I noticed were your filthy streets, overwhelming smells and screaming sounds. I felt small. To me, you looked like a monster that at any given moment could engulf me into your big chaotic self. Forever lost, I thought. I craved the old, narrow streets of Europe. You felt like a mismatch of different cultures, tastes and values. No, I did not like you. You were not pretty, you were not easy to fall in love with. But you were strong. Your vastness fascinated me.

Unbeknownst to myself, I started noticing your beauty. The ancient crooked market lady with the braids, the little boys kicking balls in the neighbouring street. The freshly pressed, incredibly inexpensive orange juice I began to drink on an almost daily basis. The salty and spicy beers, and the ever-present tacos al pastor at wee hours of the morning or dim evening lights. I grew used to the many intrusive sounds. Even started to sing along to them. And while I sometimes still think about throwing tomatoes, somehow it never happens.

Your wings harbor many feasts, secret and otherwise. Your streets are innumerable, your beauty spread out. You very much are a city that forces its people to be patient. But somehow, your restlesness makes me feel at peace. Where once I felt small, now I feel free. Your constant motion translates to us, makes us all more adaptable. And your culture is rich, oil and paint and glass and stone come together to form the colourful art that graces your streets, your homes and your soul.

You do not fear the dark, you celebrate it. You pride yourself in traditions, in honouring the past. But sometimes you scream, as the burden you carry becomes too heavy. Souls dissapear in the mass you house. Mothers cry and children pray. There are minutes of silence held. Yes, you are a city of contrasts.

But mostly you smile. You laugh. And every single day, I love you a little bit more.

© All text and pictures by Alexandra Brandt Corstius