Art historian Alena Robin is like a detective. She looks for clues, finds the evidence, and on the last day of her sabbatical in Guadalajara in 2015, she made her case – tracking down the two-piece, five by three metre masterpiece by Mexican painter Antonio Enríquez. In November this year, the restored monumental painting was returned “to the people of Guadalajara”, unveiled where it was found at the Museo Regional de Guadalajara on the 104th anniversary of the museum’s founding.
Growing up in a Catholic French-Canadian family, Robin’s primary interest in religious art from colonial Mexico – and the time she spends in churches studying it – still amuses her father, given her complaining about attending mass as a teenager.
Her passion was sparked during her undergraduate years in a humanistic studies program at McGill. A course in Baroque European art exposed her to an exuberant painting of the allegory of the Eucharist by Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. It had a powerful effect, as did the poetry and life of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a 17th-century nun she discovered through a Latin American literature course.
“It was a revelation for me. There was no internet then. I had to do some digging. I naively asked my professor if there was Baroque art in Mexico,” Robin said. “Her response was to send me abroad for a year to study at UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México). It was love at first sight. The dynamism of the university, the professors and churches everywhere. I knew this was it. This was the path for me.”
Robin returned to UNAM to earn her master’s and PhD, forging relationships with fellow art historians, curators and artists, whom she still collaborates with today as one of Canada’s few Latin American art scholars.
Was finding the painting a highlight of your career?
Yes. I’m still amazed. I found the painting in storage and if it were not for me, it would still be there. But if it was only me, that painting would have stayed there because I didn’t have the contacts and the power to make things happen. But the people I have built relationships with and collaborated with over many years did.
How does finding the painting help advance your research?
It provides wonderful material for a book I am writing on Antonio Enríquez. Public exposure to the work and the story behind the painting opens the door to finding more information on Enríquez’s life and also new paintings. For example, my co-collaborator and curator of painting at the museum, Adriana (Cruz Lara Silva), texted me last week to let me know an archivist who works in genealogy came to the museum to share information he found out about Enríquez. I’m sure as I continue to study his work, private collectors and churches in small villages will appear (with more of his paintings). I know there must be more of his work out there. It just remains unknown.
What’s next for you?
Raising awareness about Latin American colonial art in Mexico is my passion, along with unknown collections. And while I have this example of a painting forgotten in the storage room in Guadalajara, we also have Latin American collections here in Canada that are not well known. This is another project I’m pursuing, along with a course I’m teaching next semester, on Latin American art in Canada. Ideally, yes, we can travel to Latin America and see art in museums, churches and at historical sites, but we can do that in Toronto too.
This story is part of our Endnotes 2022 series which showcases the people behind some of the year’s most compelling Western stories.