In the center of Oaxaca stands a grand but rather shabby stone building—but don’t be fooled by the drab appearance, as within its walls is a veritable treasure trove of ancient archeological artifacts collected by the famous Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo.
Tamayo was born in the city of Oaxaca in 1899, but moved to Mexico City to live with an aunt after the death of his parents. Despite being an orphan and growing up in poverty he showed a great interest in the arts, and went on to study fine art at the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plasticas.
Although Tamayo was a modernist artist he was fascinated by Mexico’s indigenous civilizations and their enduring presence in the country’s collective conscious, and he sought to portray this connection to the past in his artwork. Rather like his contemporary Diego Riviera, Tamayo used the fortune he earned from the sale of his art to obsessively collect pre-Hispanic artifacts, which served as a potent and endless source of artistic inspiration.
In the late 1970s, the enormous collection that Tamayo had assembled throughout his life began to occupy every available space of his house in Mexico City, and so it was moved to a building he had constructed in his birthplace of Oaxaca. This he opened as an ethnographic museum dedicated to the exhibition of pre-Hispanic archeology and celebrating the ancient roots of Mexican artistic expression.
Inside the museum’s galleries, displayed against richly colored backgrounds reminiscent of Tamayo’s canvases, are artifacts ranging from well-known Mesoamerican civilizations like the Mayans, Aztecs, and Olmecs, as well as those native to Oaxaca, such as the Zapotecs and Mixtec. There are also displays of fascinating ancient sculptures unearthed from the ruins of sites associated with the more obscure cultures of western and northern Mexico, such as the Capacha, Chinesca, and Purepecha.
Since the museum’s inauguration, the collection has been an important albeit often underappreciated and under-explored feature of Oaxaca. It is a must-see for any curious traveler with an interest in pre-Hispanic history, the art of Rufino Tamayo, and art history in general.