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Research into art collectives -Oaxaca, Mexico-

Updated: Jan 24, 2023

After a year and a half in Oaxaca, located in southern Mexico, I returned home in September 2021. When I entered Mexico last March 12, the wave of the pandemic had not yet hit there, but less than a week later, people disappeared from the streets, and masks, hand washing, and alcohol disinfection became routine in this city as well. The hopeful expectation that the situation would calm down in six months or so was far from fulfilled, and the doors of Oaxaca's museums, universities, and other public facilities remained closed during the author's stay in Oaxaca. However, even in the midst of this pandemic disaster, the artists continued their collective activities, and I had the opportunity to see them in their tageles (workshops) and in the city. I would like to reflect on the situation in Oaxaca during the pandemic disaster and describe what I was able to see.

The Zapotec culture flourished from around 500 B.C. to 800 A.D.
The city of Oaxaca spreads out at the foot of the Monte Alban Ruins, a ritual center. There are no skyscrapers.

Oaxaca's cemeteries, usually crowded with families, were restricted due to the pandemic disaster.

From a National Historical Memory Device to an Incubator for Polyvocal Historical Consciousness

The author first visited Oaxaca in early summer 2018. I spent some time in Mexico City looking at Revolutionary-era murals depicting Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros as national historical memory devices, and then headed to Oaxaca. At the time, I only knew about Oaxaca as "a city where about 40% of the residents are indigenous people★1 and where many traditional cultures and ceremonies have been preserved by them. There were no exhibitions or art festivals being held in Oaxaca, and if I had to give a reason, it was because I usually live in Miyagi Prefecture and wanted to visit a regional city outside of the city center.

Walking around Oaxaca's historic district of Centro, which is about the same size as the center of Sendai (about 2 km square), I was first surprised by the huge prints that appeared everywhere in the city. Even though I did not understand Spanish at the time, I could see from the images that the artists were appealing for "the dignity of indigenous people," "resistance to capitalism," "rights of women and children," and so on. What was depicted there was a small plurality of voices that had not been spoken of in the capitalized history, a fragment of wild history with a popular perspective. And I sometimes thought that the sense of being conveyed through iconographic images without text was similar to that of "folk tales. The folk tales I encountered in Tohoku have been passed down from mouth to ear without text. Both are polyphonic histories of the people, flowing under the currents of national history.

Exterior wall of the "2020 Arte Contemporaneo" on Porfirio Diaz Street, photographed again in 2020.

As I was absorbed in following the prints that appeared one after another on the street, I came across a tajer. The printmaking studio, called BURRO PRESS, has a gallery space as well as a production space with a large press, where artists were making prints. I looked over and saw that they were using Japanese-made engraving knives. I had never expected to see Japanese in a city where even English is almost unheard of, so I spoke to them. After a game of messages, I got in touch with Mr. Takeda's assistant, Ms. Tsutsui Misayo, and we visited her home and studio on the same day. It should be noted here that this research was made possible thanks to Ms. Tsutsui's great efforts. I would also like to introduce Mr. Shinzaburo Takeda, a Japanese artist who can be said to have ignited the printmaking movement in Oaxaca.

Shinzaburo Takeda - "Prints" that Transcend Language Differences and Unite Diverse Ethnic Groups

Shinzaburo Takeda was born in Seto City, Aichi Prefecture in 1935 and graduated from Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in 1957 with a degree in oil painting. In the same year, he was selected for the 1st Tokyo International Print Biennale Exhibition for his "Worker," which was based on the theme of the Chikuho coal mines. In 1963, under the tutelage of Kitagawa Tamitsugu★2, he moved to Mexico. In 1978, he moved to Oaxaca, where he became an art professor at the Universidad Autonoma de Benito Juarez. He studied mural painting at the National San Carlos School of Fine Arts in Mexico City and participated in TGP (Taller de Gráfica Popular)★3.

SHINZABURO TAKEDA × Grabadolandia 2020 (Instituto Gráfico de Chicago) 
Shooting & Editing:Yoshitomo Nagasaki

As mentioned earlier, Oaxaca is home to a large indigenous population, and the majority of Takeda's students are indigenous students from the coastal and mountainous regions. Mr. Takeda taught them "woodblock prints" because the materials were inexpensive and could be reproduced.★4 He told them to "go back to your own villages, watch what is happening there, and paint" and "sell what you make every day, just as the peasants sell what they make themselves," and to "be localists" or "to be a good artist. He taught "peasant art. This encouraged them and helped them regain their dignity, as they had been historically oppressed many times, resulting in high poverty rates and a sense of inferiority. They also transcended their respective language differences and deepened their understanding of each other through their works, using "print art" as their common language of expression. Since then, approximately 400 students have studied printmaking under Mr. Takeda, and after graduation, they continue to live in their tajer in the city, continuing to produce and sell their works.

2006 -Massive Strike/Experiences of Struggle and Autonomy

In addition, the work of carving a plate surface with a chisel is also to carve and cut with a sword. "Woodblock prints may have been an opportunity for indigenous students, who usually don't talk much silently, to experience" fighting ", says Takeda. 2006 is an unforgettable year for people living in Oaxaca. On June 14, that year, a national education and labor union of teachers gathered to appeal for wage increases and an improvement in the educational environment, and launched a large-scale strike in the central square of Centro. There were incidents in which the Oaxaca government used small weapons such as tear gas and firearms to forcibly eliminate the teachers, and an American journalist who was reporting the situation was killed. Indignant at the state government's violence, the people held the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO), which consists of 356 groups including local governments, trade unions, peasant groups, indigenous groups, and NGOs. Formed and called for the immediate resignation of the Governor. They ran barricades on the road leading to the city, occupying state government buildings, radio and television stations, and evacuating government officials.The collective ASARO(Asamblea de Artistas Revolucionarios de Oaxaca), which consists of Mr. Takeda's students, was formed after participating in the large-scale protest movement. ASARO jointly created many prints, which are reproducible media, and put them on public spaces with the aim of "dialogue with the people through art and transforming society." ★5 At the request of the people who participated in the demonstration, he also produced flags and posters to support the movement.

ASASARO's activities were also featured in various national and international media. Some of the materials can be viewed at Espacio Zapata

Prints made by Takeda's students, including members of ASARO, were printed on cloth in 2006.
At Takeda's home

They have since established Espacio Zapata in the Centro district, where they conduct daily workshops, printmaking, exhibitions, and sales of artwork for children and women in Oaxaca's rural communities who lack educational opportunities, while also engaging in social activism. He has been an active participant. Starting with Espacio Zapata, approximately 30 tajeros have been created in the Centro area alone.

Mapping of the main tajeros of Oaxaca Centro

Mario Guzman, a key figure in the early days of ASARO, has since created a number of collectives and is currently working with people of all ages and backgrounds, from early teens to mid-50s, to establish Subterráneos. Despite the coronary disaster, the group has been taking measures to prevent infection, while offering a variety of classes such as drawing, mural painting, and printmaking free of charge, and it seems to be an alternative outdoor art school that has replaced a long-closed school. The way they continued to express their solidarity and commitment not only to local issues, but also to global political and social issues left a deep impression on me.

Printmaking at the Collective. They are printed on paper called papel cina and pasted all over the city.
Mario Guzman is on the right.

Sometimes several people carve a single print, including a young member in his twenties who was only six years old at the time of the massive strike in 2006.
He remembers the prints that were plastered all over the city, and says he later became involved in the collective.

These women say they painted for the first time in Taller.
They painted on a huge canvas as a lesson in mural painting.
An exhibition was later held in the courtyard.

EL CAMINO MUESTRA/The road shows
Shooting & Editing:Yoshitomo Nagasaki

César Chávez, an early member of ASARO who still manages Espacio Zapata, has a workshop called Taller Gráfica Siqueiros, named after Siqueiros, a painter who continued to make artwork despite his incarceration. He has been negotiating with the prisoners, who were strictly prohibited from bringing in knives, and has been conducting printmaking workshops on an ongoing basis. Many inmates continue to actively create prints, saying, "This is the only place where I can face myself and express my inner self in a prison where simple work is common. ASARO members and Mr. Takeda are also invited to this tajer as instructors.

Taller Gráfica Siqueiros, a printmaking studio set up inside a prison.
[Photo courtesy of Taller Gráfica Siqueiros.]

Cesar Chavez is in the center of the photo.
He visits prisons around Oaxaca three times a week to conduct workshops.
[Photo courtesy of Taller Gráfica Siqueiros.]

From these series of activities, it seems that they do not place so much importance on presentations at museums, but rather on "embedding expression in the city so that everyone can appreciate it," "allowing everyone to learn expression in Talladega," and "having it work within society. That is why you are bound to see them when you go out on the street, and there are always new projects happening. There is a casual atmosphere of "you can start right away tomorrow," and the artists are more like mediators connecting people and society than subjects.

Francisco Toledo -Cultural Activist Sows Seeds in the City

As of 2020, Mexico's population will be about 126.01 million, and Japan's population will be about 127.13 million★6, which is a good approximation, but the pandemic has left Mexico with 3,749,860 infected and 284,008 dead (as of October 17, 2021), and the harsh situation continues. However, even in the midst of such a calamity, there was strangely no sense of suffocation, and there was an atmosphere in the city of people working together to overcome this difficulty.

Left: Temporary hand-washing station in front of the market. Artists created them and installed them in all markets in the Centro district.
Right: Trees in the plaza are tied with ribbons in memory of the dead from Covid-19.

Left: People disappeared from the city during the lockdown, but water and feeding for stray dogs continued to be provided by local residents.
Right: Poster honoring essential worker health care providers, "No Kings, but Heroes" By LINE MARKER, former member of ASARO

Of course, such a city atmosphere cannot be fostered overnight. Oaxaca's spiritual health in the midst of calamity is due in large part to the contribution of Francisco Toledo (1940-2019), an artist from Huchitan in southeastern Oaxaca. A cultural activist, he invested his own money to establish museums, tajeros, libraries, and other facilities in Oaxaca★7, and he worked hard to provide opportunities for artists to experience various forms of expression and to create and present their own work. He also created a market in the center of the city to support the livelihood of farmers and other primary industry workers, and actively campaigned against the genetic modification of corn, Mexico's staple food, and for the protection of native species. When a McDonald's restaurant attempted to open in the Zocalo (central square), he staged a unique campaign against it by distributing tamales (a traditional Mexican dish made by kneading corn flour with lard, wrapping it in a skin, and steaming it) throughout the city. He has also been active in fostering indigenous artists, establishing literary prizes in Zapotec, Mistico, and other indigenous languages, and producing picture books in those languages.

When Mr. Oaxaca passed away suddenly in 2019, the city of Oaxaca was in mourning, and we hear that the entire city was in mourning. Before his death, he left a note saying, "Please don't name a street after me," so although he was never named, many artists who loved him have painted his image on the streets. Unlike national monuments, they exist alongside people's lives and with their stories. Not only Mr. Toledo, but countless other dead people in the city are also felt to be close by. What they did during their lives is told by people all over the city, and it is as if the dead have been brought back to this world again and again.

Stencil in memory of Mr. Toledo: "God never dies". Mr. Toledo was dressed in a Mohawk as if to express his rebellious spirit.

Mexico -the only place that will not give up its disaster utopia

In her book "Disaster Utopia: Why Special Communities Rise Up When They Do" , author Rebecca Solnit cites Mexico's subsequent transition after the devastating earthquake of 1985 as an example of how disaster utopia has persisted. The report states.

In the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, citizens discovered, and did not let go of, each other, their strength, and their ability to do without a government that seemed omnipotent and omnipresent in every corner. It remade the country. The utopia of social participation and tight-knit communities endured long after the disaster and was more robust than anywhere else in the continental United States. Disaster utopias themselves are seldom more than idealistic or flimsy models that make us look for possibilities. Once Mexicans got a taste of utopia, however, they took active steps to make it a larger part of their daily lives." (Ibid., p. 182)

The fact that they have not let go of the utopia that they created, using the previous calamity as a major turning point, is more vividly realized in this pandemic disaster. However, the perpetuation of utopia requires effort. The people of the region have continued their struggle to connect their disaster utopia to their daily lives. During the author's stay, not only pandemics but also torrential rain disasters and earthquakes occurred, various labor strikes were routine, and major roads were blocked. Traffic accidents, water outages, and power outages occurred frequently. However, no one was irritated by these events and unilaterally lashed out in frustration. Everyone had the skills to fix and start up minor problems on their own, and there was even an atmosphere of "it's our turn next time," as they stood aside. Even in the midst of constant instability, they were mentally sound and comfortable. They never forgot to put into words what was beautiful in this world, or to work on each other. Knowing that social change takes time, they have developed a way of working in practice that is long-lasting and sometimes enjoyable.

Calavera (skeleton) of a restaurant calling for takeout

Live in solidarity with labor issues at the Museo de Arte Contemporanea de Oaxaca.
The event took place in front of the museum.

Solidarity demonstration for Palestine and Colombia on the promenade in front of Santo Domingo Church

The mural was put up by T.A.C. in advance of the demonstration.

Thinking in the Vortex -Having a "Margin", Throwing Yourself into the Vortex

One day, I overheard one Zapotec artist with whom I was close practicing his Japanese.

What are you doing now?" I'm not doing anything."

When they say "I haven't been doing anything," the nuance is slightly different from that of leisure or laziness. Through my daily life with them, I have come to understand that "I'm not doing anything" means "I'm always ready to respond" (margin). There are very few people here who are busy only with themselves. Each of them has a "margin" in which they can respond to something. This "margin" is the "time" to work altruistically, the "space" that is open to others, and the "skills" that can be offered to the place.

Until about six months after arriving in Mexico, I felt uneasy about the pandemic that showed no sign of ending, and I felt frustrated when I stood in front of the doors of museums and libraries that would not open. However, once I walked around the city, I found that the huge prints appearing in every street were constantly being updated, and the doors of the Tajer were always open and welcoming. The artists were so active, and so many things were happening every day, that I felt it was a shame that this series of activities had not been archived and documented with photos and videos. However, as I ran alongside them in their activities, I realized that "throwing oneself" into the activities was a more tangible way to pass on the artifacts than "keeping an archive of them. Inheritance through practice is more important than preserving archives. Since the practice involves committing oneself to the task at hand, it is more like inheriting the original in its original form, which is subject to change and renewal according to the people and places where they gather. And as the movement is experienced, it is inscribed not on "things" but on "people. The landscape that lies ahead is an autonomous, tolerant, and culturally and artistically active state such as Oaxaca.

"Welcome to Oaxaca." Ignacio Allende Street

"Freedom to our rights. Stop Capitalism and Patriarchy" by ARMARTE, a women's printmaking collective.
ARMARTE was formed by women who participated in Mario's class

If this is the case, it would surely be better for us to take what we have experienced in Mexico with us and put it into practice in our daily lives, rather than to be content with documenting our experiences after returning home.

As 10 years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake, a 400-km-long sea dike and numerous memorial facilities have been built along the Tohoku coast. Even though reconstruction and rehabilitation projects have fully completed the construction, the social, political, cultural, and artistic conditions of the people living there have not changed for the better. In fact, more people in Japan have taken their own lives in fear of the future than have died as a result of contracting corona.★8 Do we really want life to return to normal after the pandemic is over? In this stretched and suspended time, I would like to ask the question once again. Because we have already entered the era of the Anthropocene, an era that has had a tremendous impact on the global environment and in which calamity has become the norm. However, I do not want to emphasize the harshness of the situation. The joy and sense of life experienced by those who have devoted themselves to changing their society, even if only a little, for the better is evident in their full faces and in the resilient and tolerant atmosphere of the city of Oaxaca.

★1──It is said that there are about 70 indigenous peoples in Mexico. In Oaxaca, 19 ethnic groups such as the Zapotec, Mistico, Mazateco, Mihe, and Costachica live and form their own communities. ★2──Painter (1894-1989) from Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan, moved to the U.S. in 1913 and joined the Art Students League in New York in 1914, where he studied under John Sloan. After traveling to Cuba, he moved to Mexico in 1923, where he graduated from the San Carlos School of Fine Arts and became friends with Orozco, Rivera, Siqueiros, and other painters who promoted the Mexican mural movement. After returning to Japan in 1936, he developed the Creative Art Education Movement in Japan. ★3──A government-run facility that produced printed materials for the masses, prints, and provided education and training (see Kaoru Kato's "The Mexican Mural Movement: Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros" [Gendai Tosho, 2003]). ★4──Looking back at the history of Mexico, print art has appeared many times on the stage of history as a medium for social criticism and political satire, but in the late 1970s, when Mr. Takeda was teaching in Oaxaca, print art classes were not actively being offered. ★5──Eiji Yamakoshi, Mexican Revolution in the 21st Century: Oaxaca Street Artists Tsumugu Narrative Song (Shunposha, 2020). With limited resources on the Oaxaca art scene, I was greatly helped by Yamakoshi's previous research. ★6──Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, "Population, Demographics, and Number of Households Based on Basic Resident Registers., National Institute of Statistics and Geographic Information of Mexico INEGI ★7──Francisco Toledo founded the cultural institution Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca, Casa(Centro de las Artes de San Agustin), Library and tajer also attached IAGO(Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca),アルバレス・ブラボ写真センター(Centro Fotográfico Manuel Álvarez Bravo) ★8──"Suicides last year up for first time in 11 years, possibly due to Corona, serious for women - MHLW preliminary figures" (Jiji Press, Jan. 22, 2021)., Suicide among women and young people is rapidly increasing due to the new coronary disease. Lifelink's Shimizu explains: 'Suicide is a problem for society, not individuals'" (Nippon Foundation Journal, March 19, 2021)

Grant : Sendai Cultural Foundation


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