Saturday, January 23, 2010

The story: my "disappeared" paintings in Mexico

La Ilusion

Five Years ago I was invited to exhibit my work in a prestigeous art museum in Queretaro, Mexico: Museo Regional de Queretaro. I was thrilled to be exhibiting not only in a museum for the first time, but in Mexico-a country I have always loved since I was little and took many vacations there with my father.
I was ecstatic!

I felt honored and thought of this land I have grown so very fond of, especially after my father's death: he LOVED Mexico too!

The exhibit was organized by SOMAAP Queretaro, and organization similar to the USA's NEA. The exhibit was also auspiced by the University of Queretaro, where I (along with four other Washington DC based artists) were scheduled to lecture about our work, and about our experience working as a Latin American visual artists in the USA.

this is the one piece I miss the is about the first time that my son left for an overnight visit with 'the ex'

I shipped my 7 pieces to Queretaro on February 22, 2005, and I was notified that my paintings arrived in Toluca on March 1st. I dearly love all my work...but artists always have favorites...and these were some of mine. I was glad to know they had "landed" where they were intended to go.

However, as soon as I arrived in Mexico a few days later, I was informed by the SOMAAP organizer in charge of the exhibit that customs was refusing to release my work to the Museum for reasons which I was not privy to. I was not able to get in touch with customs.

I felt so helpless.

The organizers advised me that they would handle the case and help me retrieve my work- I was warned that getting involved with the authorities as a foreigner was not a good idea... though I felt compelled to "do something"....
I knew not what, and the organizers, SOMAAP asked me for the "factura" (Fed Ex receipt), which I handed over; I was assured they would take care of the "problem".

La mentira

Soon there after, I was informed that Customs was demanding money which it should not be asking for as the pieces were intended for a museum rather than a gallery exhibit (for a museum exhibit they would not be for sale, in a gallery setting they would-so it makes a difference tax-wise).
The only 'real' infraction they were reporting was that I had misrepresented my shipment by labeling it '5 pieces' instead of 7 (my mistake: as one is a triptych). I was told to stay calm, that the situation would be resolved in time for the Museum's opening night.
I was a bit nervous, but I had faith.

La mordida. 

Customs never allowed the pieces to be released for the exhibit
. At opening night this most beautiful museum--my paintings were projected on the wall (via my website) and I stood there and spoke about them with longing. Everyone applauded as they heard about their "imprisonment" in Toluca. I felt encouraged that they may be released before the exhibit ended-I had so much support from both the Museum, University, and SOMAAP.

Time was running out, and SOMAAP and its representatives (including a "customs agency" hired by SOMAAP to 'take care of the problem': Prida Bravo)- advised that the pieces be shipped back to the USA as customs was not releasing them in Mexico.

This was a difficult thing to know: they would never see the light in Mexico..but I was ready to have them home.

Problem: Customs officials informed us that if I wanted the work to be shipped back to the USA- they were going to fine me and charge me 'storage fees' in the excess of $1,000.-

Unbelievable! They did not allow the work to be released, held it while we tried to find a solution, then when we ask it be sent back..they decide to fine me! It made no sense to me..and as an idealist, I was saddened yet believed that things would/could work out!

La locura
I was never given an explanation as to why my pieces had been detained in the first place .... at first, I refused to pay. I was indignant at the injustice; however, after a few days I relented and inquired about how much I owed exactly so that I could pay ("storage fees" were increasing by the minute I had been informed).

They responded (via Prida Bravo-the private 'customs go between')that a credit card would not be acceptable. They wanted my checking account number, including routing number...then and only after I gave them the information, they would give me the total amount due and they would withdraw the money from my account at their convenience (!).


Instead, the following weekend I flew to Mexico to meet with members of SOMAAP who agreed to help me only if I joined the organization as a member: I had to swear to never share this fiasco with anyone. I remember walking out of their office and feeling like this was all a mysterious "mafia' like setting. I was in their office, they took photos, they were stern and serious and had lawyers present. I remember the relief I felt when stepping out of the building and encountering the typical stand of 'fresh mangoes' in a bag stand. I ate heartily and vowed to not allow this to break my love for Mexico. Things, were 'moving along' in a very strange way.

In the meeting with SOMAAP, I was told that I should be prepared to fly back to Mexico to pay at any moment. Since I was not free to travel (I was a single mom at the time), I wrote a blank check to my Mexican friend (now my husband), and left it with him.
Prida Bravo (the customs agency) soon stopped responding to my e-mails, and SOMAAP had an attorney contact me who soon withdrew when he realized SOMAAP themselves were responsible for the loss of my art.
Bcak in the USA.. I continued to try to resolve the matter without involving the USA...I wanted to be a 'good guest' to this country I love so much. Thus, I contacted the Mexican consulate here in Washington DC, and after a few phone calls, I was invited to the Cultural Institute for a meeting with the conusl. I was then told that I would put SOMAAP's financial support in jeopardy if they were to get involved; they would not be party to it.

I understood then: I was on my own.

SOMAAP informally contacted me to advise me to 'drop my efforts' to locate my work. And, in July, a SOMAAP representative informed me that my pieces had been declared as abandoned on May 10th.
I was devastated.

I was told, that my paintings were going to be destroyed, or auctioned of.

The destruction of artwork in and of itself, goes against Mexican law, which protects artwork -- nobody is allowed to destroy artwork: there are laws "Rights of Patrimony", and the "Ley de Seguimiento' (where the artist has a right to know where the piece is, who has it, etc) but none of that seemed to matter in my case.


Although I began my effort to rescue my work in Mexico and with Mexican authorities as I never wanted to seem like the 'bad gringa' (bringing in the USA to help)... once I heard they had been declared "abandoned", I began to move stateside.

I believe the media ar a huge power in our society, so... I contacted The Washington Post. They were interested in the story *but* they suggested I fly down to Mexico and confront customs in person. I was not able to acquiesce to the request, as I would be unable to leave for an extended period of time due to my duties as a mommy...and my work.
A year had passed. I contacted the State Department. It was amazing how quickly (within hours) I had a response from them. Soon, the State Department had enlisted the help of the American Embassy in Mexico city.
I was relieved. It felt as though finally, my paintings would arrive at my door again.

Alas, I was wrong. The Mexican government-customs in Toluca-claimed they had never seen, heard, nor had my paintings. Aaargh! I could not believe it! I was helpless. It was hopeless.

I was told there was nothing more to be done. I cried.And cried.
I have missed my paintings all of these years, there were some very sentimental pieces included in the lot. Some that I never meant to sell, this is why I sent them to a museum rather than a gallery exhibit.
I often tried to envision the huge wooden box leaning on our front deck...paintings intact.

El principio del Final: Revelation

Five days ago, I received an email.
It said:

"Claudia Olivos,
I wanted to inform you that I purchased your 7 paintings which were sold at a government auction-customs in Toluca".

Yes. The government lied.
They probably wanted a big "mordida"...then different people and organizations and who knows who and why others got involved who did not want to get involved....and finally-time passed, they decided to sell them.

I was shocked when I read the email. I am sad that a couple of those pieces-which I never meant to sell...I will never have again. (of course: I cried).
I am sad that people lie.

But, I am SO happy that the pieces are in good hands. For that, my tears are of joy.
I am so thankful that they are in the hands of someone who was nice enough to contact me and let me know of their new home.
He has even let me know he plans to have them exhibited at local museums in Mexico.

These paintings have a history, and they have stories to tell....
 so this is just the beginning for the rest of their lives.