Appreciation: Francisco Toledo, a colossus of Mexican culture
He was often seen on the streets of Oaxaca city, recognizable by his disheveled gray hair and bushy beard, his white peasant blouse and leather sandals.
He cut a spectral figure, hurried, not keen to be recognized, even as passersby would exclaim: “Maestro!”
Francisco Toledo, 79, slight of frame but a colossus of Mexican culture, died Thursday, his family announced, igniting global tributes for a man whose singular depictions of animals and people — including self-portraits of his deeply etched, haunted visage — won international acclaim.
Though not a household name in the United States, he was regarded in Mexico as a national treasure.
“Art is in mourning,” Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador wrote on Twitter. “Oaxacan, great painter and extraordinary cultural promoter, authentic defender of nature [and] the customs and traditions of our people.”
The indefatigable Toledo was a protean figure who, apart from his vast artworks, was also a social activist, cultural conservationist, environmentalist, teacher and philanthropist.
He led the fight against the building of a McDonald’s franchise in the historic center of Oaxaca, his adopted home, and railed against sales of genetically engineered corn. He spearheaded protests against a planned convention center on a Oaxaca mountain and the conversion of a former Catholic convent into a luxury hotel.
In 2014, he joined a group of children in Oaxaca flying kites emblazoned with the photographs of 43 missing students, all apparently murdered by drug gangs working with Mexican authorities in the western state of Guerrero.
Toledo worked across many formats — paintings, ceramics, textiles, prints, sculpture, photography, among others, often mixing media. As “guides,” he cited some of the immortals: Rembrandt, Goya, Picasso. He relished time spent with pottery makers, weavers and other artisans in a bid to master techniques, learn something new.
“I get easily bored,” Toledo told The Times in an 2016 interview at the Institute of Graphic Arts of Oaxaca, in the city’s historic center.
It was Toledo who created the institute, which now houses thousands of prints and a library with more than 30,000 art books. The facility, a haven for young artists, academics and others, is among his numerous educational endowments in Oaxaca state.
Despite declining health in recent years, Toledo worked until well into his 70s, returning to the theme of the wave of lawlessness sweeping across his homeland.
One of his final exhibits in Mexico, in 2016, was titled “Duelo,” or “Mourning.” It consisted of 95 ceramic pieces depicting a variety of figures and objects, including dismembered body parts, shoes without owners and humanoid beings in the throes of inconsolable suffering.
Asked about the origins, Toledo spoke of a spontaneous burst of outrage and of grief.
“With everything that one hears in the news, in the newspapers, little by little this pushed me to do an exhibit on the theme of violence,” he told The Times. “And red [colors] that I had never used began to appear, colors of blood. None of this was planned.”
He saw political corruption and a lack of opportunities for Mexico’s youth as core factors driving the country’s slide toward the abyss.
“Many young people say: ‘We can’t enter into politics, but we can enter into drugs — in drugs you also can have everything that the politicians have.’”
The message of “Duelo” was one of indignation and incomprehension.
“I believe the mourning will not end,” he told Mexico’s El Universal newspaper. “It will remain there, consuming our souls.”
His work relied on images and impressions excavated from a youth spent in the Gulf state of Veracruz and in his parents’ ancestral homeland of Juchitan de Zaragoza, in the narrow isthmus of Tehuantepec, which separates the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico.
An abundance of wildlife — birds, insects, bats, toads, iguanas — populate an oeuvre steeped in his Zapotec indigenous roots, remixed in his own imaginings. Some images were erotic, while others depicted metamorphoses of creatures and humans — leading some to note the “Kafkian” side of his creations.
Carlos Monsivais, the late Mexican writer, described his friend’s style as “neither primitive or civilized,” an amalgam of themes of modernity and pre-Hispanic Mexico, said the newspaper Reforma.
Asked where the inspiration came from, Toledo raised his palms and smiled askance, indicating it was mostly a matter of exertion and repetition, even a grind, without any guarantee of satisfactory results.
“One has to work all the time, and if the inspiration arrives, then it arrives,” he told The Times. “It’s too bad one cannot just sit down and say, ‘Inspiration, here you are.’“
From humble origins — one grandfather was a cobbler, another sold goods in Juchitan’s central market — Toledo had the good fortune to have his talent recognized at a young age, leading to opportunities for study at art schools in Oaxaca and Mexico City.
Though proud of his Zapotec heritage — he underwrote the translation of books into the Zapotec language and the production of Zapotec textbooks — he said DNA tests showed he also had considerable African blood, reflecting the colonial-era slave trade in Mexico. He boasted of his “slave” pedigree.
Buoyed by early success, including an exhibit in Texas, Toledo left Mexico as a young man to study art in Paris, becoming a protégé of a pair of Mexican cultural icons, Octavio Paz, the Nobel laureate, and Rufino Tamayo, the artist and fellow Oaxacan.
Toledo lived in New York for much of the 1970s. But he said a yearning to return drove him back to Juchitan and the isthmus, where market saleswomen still hawk live iguanas, their meat served in tacos.
“I’m nostalgic,” Toledo said. “In my case, nostalgia has been good because it made me come back. I was in Paris in the ‘60s, and I could have stayed there to live, as a painter I was successful.”
Juchitan was always with him. In 2017, when a major earthquake left much of the city destroyed, he led an international aid effort that funneled tens of thousands of dollars to the stricken town, along with other donations.
He led a vibrant personal life — marrying three times and fathering five children — and had a reputation as a vagabond artist without a permanent base until settling in Oaxaca in the 1980s.
He acknowledged benefiting from “a little bit of luck,” in his climb out of rural Mexico, into a world where his creations gained cachet with the deep-pockets international art set.
“We painters in a way are privileged,” Toledo said. “We always live off the rich. And if the rich are doing well, then the painters are doing well.”
For much of 2001, Toledo lived in Southern California.
“It surprised me how much Mexico was like Los Angeles,” he recalled. “The presence of so many oaxaquenos. For example, sometimes one heard people speaking Zapoteco.”
Asked if he feared mortality, Toledo responded: “No, I have behaved well. I think I’m going to go to a good place.”
On Friday, mourners and well-wishers gathered at his Oaxaca cultural center, where a flower-bedecked shrine featured a photo of Toledo alongside an ear of corn and — in a nod to Mexico’s Day of the Dead customs — a sugar skull. Outside, musicians played traditional music as the people of Oaxaca left candles and hand-written notes.
“Maestro,” wrote one visitor, “the force of your being remains in the hearts of all who knew you.”
Special correspondents Liliana Nieto del Rio and Cecilia Sanchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.
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