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Mexico City, Mexico – In the Baroque palace of Iturbide in downtown Mexico City, some of the country’s most prized artistic treasures are housed at the Fomento Cultural Citibanamex, the cultural development center owned by the banking arm of American financial giant Citigroup in Mexico.

The current exhibit, which opened in November and will run through May, tells the story of Mexico’s struggle for independence from Spain, from the first muster of troops in 1810 to the decisive secession of country of the colonial power in 1821.

Through papier-mâché skeletons and silver and clay dioramas, the exhibition, entitled “Independence through the great masters of Mexican folk art”, depicts various battles, victories and scenes from life day in the country’s long journey towards self-reliance.

This theme could not have been more prescient. Because the question of whether Fomento’s entire vast collection of Mexican masterpieces, including works by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and Leonora Carrington, will remain in Mexico has suddenly been thrown into doubt.

Indeed, on January 11, Citigroup announced that it was leaving Mexico and putting Citibanamex up for sale, including the Fomento.

Fomento’s assets include an important collection of Mexican art as well as iconic real estate such as the Iturbide Palace and other grand buildings throughout the country. News of its impending sale has sparked fierce posturing and speculation.

The work by artist José Alfonso Soteno Fernández titled Tree of Life, currently on display at Fomento Cultural Citibanamex, Iturbide Palace, Mexico City [Courtesy Ann Deslandes/Al Jazeera]

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard tweeted on January 16 that he believed the Fomento Cultural “should become national property for its preservation.” National media has been buzzing with talk of ensuring the collection will be kept intact and, importantly, in Mexico.

Some of this twisting of the hands is rhetorical demagoguery. Many works of art in the Fomento’s collection are protected by Mexican federal laws which require objects of national cultural significance to remain in the country.

At a press conference on January 13, Citibanamex director Alberto Gómez Alcalá tried to allay fears that the Fomento’s treasures could end up abroad, stressing that its assets “will be an integral and indivisible of the “divestment and sale” of Citibanamex.

His comments to reporters suggest there will be no compromise to keep the Fomento treasure together and protected.

Yet, as various potential buyers, such as Mexican billionaire Ricardo Salinas, HSBC bank, Brazilian fintech start-up Nubank, announce their interest in acquiring Citibanamex, speculation has abounded that the collection could yet to be dismantled, the works not protected by law leaving the country.

On Jan. 26, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said in his daily morning press conference that the bank should be Mexican-owned and that his Treasury Department was calculating the exact value of its assets.

The collection and its importance

The Fomento’s art collection “undoubtedly stands out” among Latin American art collections, said art historian and cultural strategist Mariana Morales. Since its founding in 1884 when Banamex was created, the collection has reflected Mexico’s nationalist spirit, with “the intention of reflecting what Mexico is” through time, Morales told Al Jazeera.

Additionally, the collection has played a pivotal role in promoting and preserving folk art in Mexico, including the works currently on display in the Independence exhibit. “They turned the category of those works that were generally considered crafts into museum pieces,” Morales said.

Paper mache soldiers on display at the Fomento Cultural Citibanamex, Palace of Iturbide, Mexico City
Paper mache soldiers on display at the Fomento Cultural Citibanamex, Palace of Iturbide, Mexico City [Courtesy Ann Deslandes/Al Jazeera]

The Fomento also houses “one of the most comprehensive collections of 19th-century art,” she said. This has contributed significantly to the research and documentation of this period of world history, thanks to “about 2,000 pictorial works ranging from the 18th to the 19th century, in a wide variety of techniques”.

For Mexico City residents Pablo Santiago Luna Torres and Leticia Rosas Aguilar, the Independence exhibit speaks to the importance of the Fomento’s collection to Mexico’s history and national identity.

The works “capture the history of Mexico, with Mexican folklore,” Rosas told Al Jazeera. “Independence is shown through skulls and skeletons, at different times and with different materials.”

“Death seems to be a taboo for some countries, but for us it’s about our life,” Luna said. “The works show this change, this time, and how it relates to independence.”

Rosas said it was “debatable” whether the Fomento’s collection should be purchased and owned by the Mexican state or by a Mexican company. “The truth is that many foreigners also … care a lot about Mexican culture.”

Regardless of who ends up buying the collection, Mariana Morales hopes that the Fomento will continue to contribute “to the development, knowledge and dissemination of art and culture in Mexico”, while supporting and promoting the works of native artists.

For her, that means keeping the collection intact, because dismantling it in any way would fundamentally alter “a historical and architectural collection that has been building for over a century,” she said.