(featured image artwork by Delilah Benitez)
Akumal, Quintana Roo, Mexico – Sunlight bakes the streets of Akumal Pueblo, suffusing the ground in pale coral. Palm shadows decorate the sides of tents and small food carts, set up in anticipation of the evening’s festivities. It is 4 PM on Friday November 9th: the opening day of the Akumal Arts Festival (Festival de Arte de Akumal) in Akumal, Mexico. Students are clamoring through the town’s streets, heading home from school with their family, as flags flutter in the breeze with artwork created by the same students. Sharks and skulls, flowers and seaside scenes populate the small scraps of fabrics rippling through the breeze, strung with hanging lights between palm trees on the median between the town’s streets.
Dancers and performers assemble in the town’s central park to prepare for the evening’s festivities, while street artists who have gathered from around the globe in Akumal put finishing touches on their murals in the persistent heat of the Mayan Riviera afternoon. Time ticks on as guests begin assembling in the recreational park, families seating themselves in the town’s stadium, while another set of guests gather nearby. The cackling and barking of blackbirds native to Akumal fills the trees in the median adjacent to the park, rustling and cawing incessantly through the palms. “It’s like this everyday,” my new friend and Akumal resident, Harold, explains. “In the morning and in the late afternoon, here they come, they are very loud like this every day.” Harold and his friends have joined me in assembling alongside these other guests for the festival’s opening ceremony, while four-legged friends get in on the action as well, returning the birds’ greetings. Finally by 5 pm, visitors – avian, canine and human alike – were assembled at the park, awaiting the much anticipated kick-off of the inaugural Akumal Arts Festival.
Introduced in 2018, Akumal Arts Festival (Festival de Arte de Akumal) is a free art festival open to the public and accessible to visitors walking the streets of Akumal Pueblo. Taking place November 9th through 11th, with artwork lasting at these sites for the foreseeable future, over 70 international urban artists have assembled to create masterworks for both walls dotted through the town’s streets and for the iconic bridge linking the two sides of Akumal: the pueblo (town) and the playa (beach) sides. Featuring the artistic stylings of artists such as Skela, Davel, TooFlyNYC, Funqest, Iena Cruz, Kid Crayon, Ms. Yellow, Nomad Clan, and Nate Dee – among many others – Akumal Arts Festival gave visiting artists the chance to polish the existing shine of Akumal while enriching educational programming in the town with workshops, live painting and more. Guest artists visiting from the US, France, Great Britain, Japan, and Mexico – including several other countries – all descended on Akumal to enliven the town’s many streets with surprising, colorful and vibrant artworks.
The excitement throughout Akumal was palpable, as everyone from town administrators to lifeguards, diving trainers to restaurateurs alike saluted artists visiting the town. Native Akumal residents, adults and children alike, frequently waved to visiting artists, shouting greetings from their bicycles as they passed and offering food and drinks. Some zealous residents approached artists, asking them to paint the gates and walls of their own homes. For the week prior to the opening festival, and continuing throughout the weekend, artists gathered for breakfast at the cafe of festival co-founder, Jennifer Smith (Turtle Bay Bakery & Cafe) for a breakfast gratis before gathering their supplies and protection from the sun to hit the streets and skillfully apply layers of paint to their creations. Murals varying in size from ten feet to forty feet across, and ranging in height from ten feet to forty feet, began emerging across the grid of Akumal town. Artists gamely approached each project, churning out the finished piece with help from festival staff including Smith, Jake Klone (artist director & artist, Klonism) and production staff Rena Gray & Erin Ko, along with several other support staff. Artists all finished their incredible works with help from the crew, and in spite of the burning heat of the Mayan Riviera sun – oh, and the occasional tarantula!
Akumal residents were not the only ones thrilled to have artwork integrated into the heart and soul of Akumal – the artists themselves were thrilled to create site-responsive works in such a welcoming environment. With an effusive welcome from Jennifer Smith and festival co-founder Iran Beltran, Delegado Municipal de Akumal, the artists set off to work with a firm understanding of the impact they had on the town’s residents. Artists approached their artworks with care and understanding for the community, making sure their imagery reflected priorities and celebrations integral to the town’s legacy. Artist Ivan Roque, visiting Akumal from Miami, Florida, was quick to point out how he was spurred on to work by the enthusiasm the town extended to his team. “I’ve had three days to make this artwork, and people were surprised over time at how quickly it came together,” Roque shared. “People are honored to have us and appreciate the art being here, I’ve had nothing but total positivity and love from the locals of Akumal.” One reason for this warm welcome is surely the dedication that artists are putting into the local schools: from leading workshops on videography/filmmaking to portraiture and hosting live painting sessions, artists became an intrinsic part of the fabric of the community. For the duration of the festival, artists worked with small groups of Akumal students to help them realize their dreams and paint from their imagination.
Working directly with locals deeply resonated with the artists taking part in the festival, with some artists in particularly seeking to honor the Mayan heritage that existed in the community for millenia, with over innumerable generations of residents calling the Akumal area home. Artist SINNED and collaborator Ria Burns-Wilder noted of their artwork on the Akumal bridge the local ties that the subject of their art held for residents of Akumal. “We’ve been so lucky to speak with locals in Akumal including indigenous Maya residents such as Paschin – a friend we made here,” noted Burns-Wilder. “Communicating in a blend of English and Spanish, Paschin taught us that the Mayan term for this place isn’t Akumal, but “Aak-luu-mil”, or “place of turtles”. We want to honor Mayan culture by adding this name into the mural itself.”
All of this effort and creativity infused the opening festivities with a certain electricity: a presence filling the air with excitement and anticipation. Local municipal leaders, government officials, and festival producers all gave heartfelt reflections to visitors at the park this Friday night. As the sun began to set and the blackbirds cawed on, traditional Mayan dancers exuberantly performed the choreography of their ancestors as indigenous leaders burned incense on a makeshift altar honoring this important occasion. Local students performed dances with renewed vigor, propelled on by the excited shouts of the crowd and hours of practice leading up to the opening ceremony. Visitors stayed on to celebrate late into the night, by the time constellations themselves had delicately begun peeking over at Akumal to watch the ceremony for themselves. The start of Akumal Arts Festival was officially underway, and due to the hard work and exquisite mastery of these dedicated, international artists, it seems that Akumal is no longer home to turtles alone, but to these unique artworks that reinvigorate the spirit of creativity running through the heart and soul of Akumal, Mexico.