Oppressive poverty and appalling social conditions in Oaxaca, Mexico gave birth to a group of revolutionary artists known as ASARO. Their struggle and the powerful artwork, which gives expression to their rage while providing a source of badly needed funds, were the subject of our December ’07 cover story, The Art of Revolution: Social Resistance in Oaxaca, Mexico. In our March issue, CS2 ran a brief follow-up article; Update on ASARO Prints; Revolutionary Art of Oaxaca, Mexico.Kutztown University Professor Kevin McCloskey recently traveled to Oaxaca once again on a mission to purchase additional prints for an upcoming exhibit in UCLA’s Fowler Museum. His absorbing account of that journey follows.
An Update on ASARO
(The Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca)
There are wonderful galleries and museums in Oaxaca, but some of the most remarkable art can be found in the streets. In July, 2007, I found ASARO’s woodblock prints in the street near the cathedral. The young artists were sitting on the curb. Some looked to be fifteen years old. Broom handles and chunks of stone rested on the artwork to keep it from blowing away. Kneeling to look closer, I was stunned by the raw power of the images: revolutionary heroes, marching skeletons, farm-workers, open coffins, screaming widows. Black ink on white or rag blue-gray paper. It was as if the ink was shouting.
I asked in my intermediate Spanish: How much? 100 pesos. Just under ten U.S. dollars a print. Then I asked how much longer they would be there. Hasta cosas cambian, Until things change.
When the ASARO prints were exhibited at Kutztown University, Pat Brown’s article in Commonsense2 generated a lot of positive response and remains one of the most read articles on this site. I quickly learned I was not alone in my admiration of ASARO. Lester Dore, a printmaker and anti-war activist who curated an ASARO exhibition in Madison, Wisconsin got in touch. His site at http://www.wanderoo.net/oaxacaresiste/ provides links to the new ASARO MySpace page. Calixto Robles curated a show in Front Gallery in Oakland, CA. http://www.frontgalleryoakland.com/Calixto/calixto_statement1.html
I sent the CommonSense2 link to other professors I met during my 2007 fellowship. One of the first replies came from Laurie Moody of Passaic County Community College, Paterson, NJ. We hung the ASARO exhibition there, and it was well received by the students and faculty. There are other exhibitions in the works.
When John Pohl of UCLA, got the link, he emailed right back, “How about an exhibition here?” Here being the Fowler Museum, where he holds the title Curator of the Arts of the Americas. The New York Times calls the Fowler “A standard-setter among ethnology-based art institutions.” Pohl is an art historian and renowned authority on pre-Hispanic Oaxaca. He asked me to be co-curator of the upcoming UCLA exhibition.
The logistics of sending the framed Kutztown University ASARO collection to LA seemed daunting. Evan Summer, KU’s printmaking prof, suggested a simple solution. Get a new portfolio of prints for the Fowler. ASARO would surely like another sale. John Pohl came up with another brilliant idea of gluing the prints right onto the gallery walls. He would only do it, though, if I could get a duplicate set which could be kept in the Fowler archives. John learned that the Center for Political Graphics in LA had a selection of rare ASARO stencil works printed on paper, they would be willing to lend to the Fowler. The exhibition was shaping up nicely. I emailed ASARO; things fell into place.
So in June 2008, I returned to Oaxaca with $880 of UCLA’s money earmarked for prints. This time I brought my family. Patricia and our two grown kids, Zoe and Daniel would take Spanish classes while I hung out with ASARO. The Amigos del Sol language school arranged a home-stay with a Oaxacan family. Our afternoon flight from Mexico City got canceled so we arrived at our home very late, near midnight. The man of the house, Don Luis, told us which streets to avoid walking after dark, which according to him was any street but Independencia.
The next day, while my family was taking Spanish classes I went looking for ASARO in the town square, or zocalo. The zocalo looked like a refugee camp. There were 200 or more striking school teachers camping out, and they were not happy campers. It had been raining on and off. A lucky handful of the protesters had pup tents, but most settled for beds of corrugated cardboard beneath low-hanging blue plastic tarps. I saw four portable toilets near the cathedral, not nearly enough for the crowd. Despite recent travel articles in the US papers proclaiming Oaxaca is bouncing back as a trendy destination, I saw few tourists. Weary vendors at the edge of the encampment were selling roast corn and tlayudas, giant stuffed tortillas, to the protesters. The pirate CD vendors weren’t getting much traffic despite their blaring speakers. The vendors all had orange signs proclaiming their loyalty to FALP, Frente Amplio de Lucha Popular. Loosely translated, the Broad Coalition of the People’s Struggle.
When I didn’t find ASARO I headed for the Socialist Movement Bookstore that sold their work last summer. The shop was empty, a For Rent sign taped to the window. I had emailed ASARO a list of requested prints; they replied with a promise they would be ready and waiting. Now I was getting a bit worried.
At an internet shop under a Chinese restaurant I emailed ASARO. I checked my email later. They got back to me with a cell number. I asked my daughter Zoe to call as her Spanish is better than mine. Things can be difficult without a phone, but Mexicans are resourceful. We went to a phone shop on Independencia. I handed the cell number to the guy in charge. He dialed and pointed Zoe to the wooden phone booth marked number 3. The phone rang and she was speaking to “M”, one of the leaders of ASARO. He insisted she talk fast, not for security reasons, but because he had to pay by the minute. M asked if I remembered where ASARO’s studio was. He said he would meet us at 7pm.
Revolutionary collectives don’t accept checks or credit cards, so I needed pesos. The Scotia Bank ATM near the zocalo was covered in broken glass, someone apparently used a brick to make a withdrawal. I found another ATM a half-mile away. The machine would not let me cash more that $300 US in one transaction. So in several stages I withdrew 8,800 pesos, mostly in small bills. My wallet was well over an inch thick. I was glad Zoe and Dan joined me on my trip to the underground studio. Pat stayed at the house, and I wrote down the address and cell phone number. We had to walk within a block of the zocalo, and I was carrying more paper money in my pocket than some poor Mexicans see in a year.
We got to the studio and found it locked. I shouted through the iron gate. Three young guys came up the street whistling to us, shouting “Ola!” One had his hair in a spiked Mohawk. They introduced themselves, told me they were ASARO, but I never met any of them before. They had keys and led us into the courtyard.
The studio door was covered with stickers. The stencil room was a mess. In the next room the printing press was spotless. They told us M was on his way. More young men came in. There were at least 12. None spoke English; everyone was friendly. Zoe is a printmaker and does street art herself. She found plenty to talk about. At one point she was telling them about meeting the British artist, Banksy. The ASARO crew was clearly more familiar with Banksy’s work than I am. Dan, who speaks very little Spanish, was enjoying the visual art on the walls.
Finally M arrived. M is a bit older than the rest and more patient with my poor Spanish. He is one of the founding core that studied printmaking at Benito Juarez University. He told me ASARO was in the zocalo every day. If I missed him it was because they run for cover from the rain. He showed us the prints. Some were new. They have done over 60 prints in the past 2 years. We saw a series of 20 large-scale paintings, a new series about Oaxaca’s Disappeared. We got to look through the stencil collection. Artwork done by a collective naturally varies in technical quality, but the range of work and energy of ASARO’s accomplishment is stunning.
Even though I had emailed pictures of the prints we wanted for UCLA, there were some glitches. For example, one print should have printed in two colors, red and black. Since their computer printed my attachment in black and white they printed it printed in black and white.M told me they would reprint the troublesome prints and everything would be ready in 2 or 3 more days. Even as he spoke the printers were inking up the wooden plates.
Not wanting to walk across town again with bulging pockets, I made the strategic decision to pay in advance. I counted out 8 stacks of 1000 pesos each on the stainless steel bed of the press. The finance minister recounted the stacks, and when he reached 8000 someone yelled, “Fiesta!” All eyes were on us as we left.
I turned and spoke my muddy Spanish. This is what I think I said, “Artists of ASARO, I do not speak Spanish well, but I must try to thank you. I think your prints are important, I think your work has great power. I believe someday it will be in the art history books.”
“La Tinta Grita/The Ink Shouts: The Art of Social Resistance in Oaxaca, Mexico.” At the Fowler Museum, UCLA, July 20-Dec.7, 2008.
To Read More about Oaxaca:
It is tough to keep abreast of what is happening in Oaxaca. There are more Oaxaca stories on aljazeera.net than on the nytimes.com. The U.S. media’s Mexico stories focus on drugs and immigration issues. These are important issues, but a lot of other stories get lost in the shuffle. A good first stop would be the Oaxaca-based web portal, Planeta.com. Ron Mader has a draft essay online about media coverage of Oaxaca. http://www.planeta.com/ecotravel/mexico/oaxaca/oaxacanews.html
Mader writes that many Oaxacan residents decry the “parachute journalists” who dropped into the city for a day or two.
The Virginia Quarterly Review has Matthew Power’s fine essay about Brad Will, the one American casualty of Oaxaca’s turmoil. http://www.vqronline.org/articles/2007/summer/power-one-more-martyr/ There are however, remarkable new stories worth searching for. Last year there was a rash of unsolved murders of musicians in Oaxaca and throughout Mexico. Local newspaper reporters have been shot. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Mexico among the most dangerous countries for reporters in Latin America. Even the truck drivers delivering the Oaxacan newspapers have been gunned down. http://www.cpj.org/news/2007/americas/mexico09oct07na.html
In 2008, two young indigenous woman, Teresa Bautista and Felicitas Martínez, started a Trigue language radio station. They were shot dead in a roadside ambush in the mountains of Oaxaca on April 7. http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/3740/death_squads_in_oaxaca/
There is one first-rate web journalist on the ground in Oaxaca, Nancy Davies. She wrote the book, The People Decide, Oaxaca’s Popular Assembly. Her latest report from Oaxaca is at Narco News Bulletin. http://www.narconews.com/Issue53/article3113.html