Patti Smith apologizes as she sits down at a table within the tall, concrete walls of Kurimanzutto. The Mexico City gallery has organized several projects with the artist across the capital, including a display of photographs in the vitrines of the iconic Café La Habana, a billboard installation in the Condesa district, and a series of performances accompanied by her longtime musical partner, Lenny Kaye. The night before our meeting at the gallery, Patti had performed to an intimate audience at Café La Habana, where her glass of water had turned out to be tequila. “It was so good, so I kept drinking it,” she jokes. “And now I can’t remember anything!”
The project is titled “Café La Habana Sessions” and evokes Patti’s fascination with the café as a social space, as well as her admiration for some of Mexico’s greatest artists and writers: When she turned 16, in 1962 in New Jersey, her mother gave her a copy of _The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera,_ a biography of the celebrated early-20th-century Mexican muralist. It changed her world. The then-factory-worker (this experience inspired the song “Piss Factory”) knew she wanted to be an artist, though she didn’t exactly know what that meant.
Patti found in the characters of Rivera and his wife, the surrealist painter Frida Kahlo, an appealing dynamic: one of artistic collaboration, passion, and revolutionary spirit. “I imagined myself as Frida to Diego, both muse and maker,” she wrote in (1)_,_ her memoir that documents her romance-turned-friendship with queer photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in gritty 1970s New York.
Yet the Mexican duo didn’t exactly boast the kind of compassionate relationship many would aspire to have. The imposing Rivera, standing over six feet tall, is generally portrayed as an abusive, misogynistic womanizer. Frida had many documented affairs of her own, including with the Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky and the Costa Rican singer Chavela Vargas. Their tumultuous relationship drove the couple to a grueling divorce (still, they would remarry a year later).
“What I was most interested in,” Patti tells us, readjusting her black vest (moments later, she realized it was inside out), “was how, through the betrayals, through the anger — whatever they went through as a man and a woman, their understanding and respect for each other as artists was never shaken. And that was a good template for my relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe.”
Patti’s photographs, which were on display at Café Habana throughout the month of September (one will remain permanently in the shop’s bathroom), were taken on her many travels, including those through Mexico. Roberto Bolaño’s chair, Frida Kahlo’s corset, Diego Rivera’s bed — the black-and-white, ghostly pictures are an homage to the personalities who influenced her and the spaces they inhabited.
Patti’s images complement the café’s storied past: Founded in the early 1950s, Café la Habana is known to _Chilangos_ (residents of Mexico City) as a humble yet significant meeting point for Latin America’s artistic and literary communities. Octavio Paz and Roberto Bolaño were regulars, and an urban legend claims that in 1955 Fidel Castro and Che Guevara planned the Cuban Revolution in this very café. It’s a fitting exhibition space for Patti, whose romantic idea of _the café_ is fueled by the stories of Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle at the Café Central and of Verlaine and Rimbaud at the Parisian Café François 1er; and her own memories of Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and other beat poets across Greenwich Village’s finest establishments, like Caffe Reggio and San Remo.
“I have had pictures in museums, in palaces, in galleries,” Patti recounts. “But to have my pictures in a café is awesome.” It’s the absolute bohemian fantasy, but in the era of globalization, digital communication, and unsparing gentrification, are we still celebrating _the café,_ or rather mourning it? These days, in New York’s coffee shops, the 71-year-old rock star admits to regularly shouting at suits who sit on Skype negotiating deals: “_Don’t you have an office?_” she’d yell. “This is _my_ office! This is the office of _the_ _poets_!” But after a moment of reflection, she suggests that there’s still space for the romance: “It’s something you have to reinvent.”
At her opening performance for the series, before an audience of 3,000 at Casa Del Lago in Chapultepec Park, Patti reflected on the state of social injustice in Mexico and the world at large. She sang an a capella version of U2’s “Mothers of the Disappeared,”dedicating the cover to the mothers of the43 Mexican students who were kidnapped in the city of Iguala in 2014. “I’m well aware that everything isn’t wonderful here,” explained the singer. “I’m well aware that many children, students, people have been lost, that women and journalists are killed,” she continued. “And these things are all over the world. And wherever these things happen, I feel anger, I feel remorse, I feel sorrow. And we speak out. Sometimes I speak through a poem, through a song, through simply remembering people that are lost. We all have to do what we can.”
“I felt so ashamed,” Patti admits back at the gallery. She’s speaking of the large billboard she’s designed, which displays one of her photographs and a poem. It watches over the intersection of Sonora and Nuevo León, which has become a meeting point for the rescue brigades working to repair the capital after September’s 7.1-magnitude earthquake (this interview took place a few weeks prior). “I searched myself to try to find the right words,” says Patti, reflecting on why she — an American — should be granted this platform in the public space, when it could have been given to a Mexican poet. “Because even though I’m ashamed, I am not . He does not represent me; he is not my president. And all I can say is that I’m sorry on behalf of my country, and that we’ll continue to fight.”
The billboard, which will be on display through November 30, is a call for unity (“I believe everything we dream can come to pass through our union,” it reads in Spanish), the kind of unity we need if we want to achieve change. “For me, the real revolution will be a global one,” affirms Patti. “And I believe it is going to be the young who are going to save our world. I pin my faith on them. We must guide them, join them, and unite as people: city to city, country to country, around the world.”
_Benoît Loiseau is a writer based in London and Mexico City. His collection of short stories_ We Can’t Make You Younger _is available via_ (2)_. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at_ [email protected]_