Urgent posts from Oaxaca

Times Staff Writer

Mexico’s southern state of Oaxaca has two dominant character traits. It’s a hub of artistic creativity, known for the superlative caliber of its rugs, whimsical carved animals and brittle black pottery. And it’s a hotbed of political discontent, a long-oppressed region whose heavily indigenous population chafes under crushing poverty, ethnic discrimination and autocratic political rule.

Those twin facets come together in a timely exhibition of graphic design prints and stencils at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, “La Tinta Grita — The Ink Shouts: The Art of Social Resistance in Oaxaca, Mexico.” Co-curated by John Pohl, a UCLA archaeologist, and Kevin McCloskey, a professor of communication design at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, the show is the first U.S. public display of work produced by a Oaxacan artists’ collective in support of the mass social protests that rocked the region beginning in spring 2006 and continue to this day. It opens today and runs through Dec. 7.

Most if not all of the 33 works in the show were made by members of the shadowy Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca, whose manifesto states its mission as being “to raise consciousness about the social reality of the modern form of oppression that our people face.” None of the artists in the exhibition is identified by name, in keeping with ASARO’s collectivist makeup.


“They’re trying to be as anonymous as possible for several reasons,” Pohl says of the artists. “One is, they want to avoid incarceration.” The works also don’t have titles because they weren’t designed to be hung in art museums, says Pohl. “They’re designed to be plastered on walls.”

Even if you know little or nothing about the complex political events that inspired it, the art’s technical skill and emotive power is hard to miss. Some prints, such as one depicting a police helicopter shaped as a giant flying skull, and another depicting the polarizing Oaxaca state governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, as the devil, are darkly satirical. Other prints, including a stunningly textured woodblock portrait of the Mexican Revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata, are sensuous, impressionistic, even beautiful. Several works incorporate skeletal human figures and skulls inspired by the turn-of-the-century political cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada.

The prints were made the physically taxing, old-fashioned way, with wood-block carving, then either hand-burnished or printed on a press not much different from the type and vintage that Posada used. The stencils, used to trace the protesters’ propaganda imagery on the walls and public buildings of Oaxaca, were created by using a knife to cut out computer images projected on paper on a wall.

“The lighting and the shading is striking when you consider these guys are just digging the stuff out of wood,” Pohl says while perusing a sheath of prints. Barbara Sloan, director of the Fowler’s Center for the Study of Regional Dress, looking over Pohl’s shoulder, is equally impressed. “I used to do a lot of printing, so I’m mesmerized by these,” she says.

Many of the prints demonstrate the influence of Mexico’s strong visual and graphic arts traditions, from ancient Mayan and Aztec codices and Roman Catholic iconography; the murals of David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera; and graphic designs by such contemporary masters as the Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo.

“In Mexico it seems like this stuff is just continually being recycled and reused,” says Pohl, who has been conducting archaeological research in Oaxaca since the 1970s. While computers and video games lately have begun to popularize mixed systems of writing and pictures in the United States and Europe, Mexico has been honing that tradition for centuries, he says.


An escalating situation

The POLITICAL background of rallies, barricades, police raids, assassinations and vigilante attacks that gave rise to the works in the Fowler show is a multi-chapter story that’s difficult for outsiders to penetrate. In an essay for the exhibition, McCloskey writes that “it is beyond my ability to fully comprehend, let alone describe these events.”

Essentially, the conflict grew out of a massive teachers strike that began in May 2006 in the zocalo, or central plaza, of Oaxaca city, the state capital. For years, Oaxacan teachers had staged a brief (usually two- or three-week), largely symbolic annual strike in return for a small wage increase. But in 2006, the striking teachers also called for Ruiz’s resignation. Ruiz responded by dispatching thousands of police officers to break up the occupation, sparking a brutal melee.

In the weeks and months that followed, both sides dug in, violence escalated and the protest movement swelled with activists representing a variety of interests and agendas, forming a coalition called the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (widely known by its Spanish-language acronym, APPO). What began as a carefully choreographed, almost ritualistic local dispute gradually metastasized into a chaotic high-stakes showdown that also became a national and even international media spectacle.

Over time, the prints and stencils became visible all over the city. For some Oaxacans, they served as a kind of visual newspaper of the turmoil, depicting recent events and tracing the arc of the disturbances.

Among those observing that dramatic scene two summers ago was Pohl, who was tracking down archaeological sites gleaned from a pre-Columbian codex. Through a school-teacher friend he heard about the disturbances in the capital.

From his trips to Oaxaca in the 1970s, when part of the region was effectively under martial law, Pohl already was familiar with the area’s social tensions. He recalls once being confronted by an army soldier who snapped his rifle bolt as a warning. “They didn’t have any trouble about shooting me, much less any Indians, in the ‘70s,” he recalls.

Having also previously met and spoken with Oaxacan teachers, many of whom work in isolated rural villages where they lack paper, pencils and other basic teaching materials, Pohl had further insight into the strike’s social background.

“That’s what a lot of people visiting Oaxaca don’t see -- they don’t see the dedication of these 70,000 teachers up in all these mountaintop [villages],” he says. “You can’t really take one side or the other because they of course also have put some real damage into the economy of Oaxaca, which has been growing over the last 25 years.”

The Fowler hopes the exhibition will draw visitors from Los Angeles’ Oaxacan expatriate community, one of the largest in the United States. Stacey Ravel Abarbanel, the Fowler’s director of marketing and communications, says the museum is publicizing the exhibition through local Oaxacan restaurants and other businesses, and via Oaxacan community groups.

Meanwhile in Oaxaca, the protests recently have surged again, after a relative lull of several months. That’s likely in the months ahead to drive even more Oaxacans to migrate to places such as Southern California, Pohl says. “The guy trimming [your] trees this year may be one of the top wood carvers in Oaxaca.”