Last year in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt and Moldova, protest organizers took advantage of Twitter to get the word out. But in 2006 in Oaxaca, Mexico, when a teachers’ strike grew into a massive anti-government uprising, protesters relied on woodblock prints to disseminate their message.
“Woodblock prints would still be the medium of choice in Oaxaca today,” says Kevin McCloskey, professor of communication design, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. ASARO: Art and Activism in Oaxaca, Mexico: Protest prints from a collective of Mexican artists, is on view through March 8 at the Bernstein Gallery, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University.
In summer 2007, McCloskey traveled to Oaxaca (pronounced Wuh-HA-kuh) on an NEH fellowship, “Oaxaca at the Crossroads.” The environment he encountered wasn’t welcoming. There were bright green signs in the market that said, “Tourists, if you really love your family, go home,” McCloskey recounts. “There was an anti-American, pro-Mexican sentiment among the protesters.”
An alternative form of government had assumed power, and ASARO (Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca) artists supported it. They work with rough, three-ply wood subflooring found at construction sites, a relatively new building material to Mexico. This rough style of woodblock print has influenced DIY artists all over the world, says McCloskey. The prints at the Bernstein Gallery are two-by-three-feet, and up close you can see the cuts and marks in the wood. “This mark making gives it a power,” says McCloskey, who observed these talented young artists had formal art training. He discovered the ASARO artists had studied with 75-year-old Shinzaburo Takeda, a Japanese master printmaker who studied art in Tokyo and Mexico City.
Woodblock printing originated in China, but was taken to a new level in Japan by Hokusai, Hiroshige and others. Takeda imported the first Japanese woodblock tools to Oaxaca, teaching printmaking at the University of Oaxaca. The ASARO artists Takeda taught in turn taught other Mexican artists.
Takeda is devoted to nurturing students from Mexico’s campesinos, or landless peasants. “He told them the way to respond to the political situation was by making art,” says McCloskey.
Takeda believes there are three reasons why woodblock prints hold so much appeal, according to McCloskey: there is physical and spiritual energy that goes into carving them; there is mystery in that the image is printed in reverse of how it looks when carved; and it can be reproduced over and over again.
The violence in Oaxaca had begun in 2006 when police opened fire on striking teachers. Protesters joined with marginalized groups and the poor for the ouster of the corrupt and repressive governor, and chaos ensued.
“For months the city was ringed with barricades of gutted buses and burned vehicles,” McCloskey writes in exhibition materials. “News photos showed colonial buildings in flames, bloodied journalists, and helicopters using water cannons to disperse protesters.”
According to The New York Times, the city had drifted into anarchy.
McCloskey talks of casserolas – women banging on frying pans to warn of police entering a neighborhood. “Women took over the radio stations. They had cell phones too. Twitter is great at getting masses of people together, but not everyone in Oaxaca speaks Spanish. Zapotec and other indigenous languages make up 25 percent of what is spoken. So visual imagery becomes that much more important.”
In addition to woodblock prints, ASARO artists also create “street interventions” in graffiti and stencils.
Part of ASARO’s impact was in reclaiming the city walls. They wheat pasted the posters to cathedrals, government palaces and colonial architecture. Sometimes they used stencils to print on the walls.
But by the following morning, the prints would have been painted over by the government.
ASARO artists did not want to sign their work. When McCloskey found a work he liked very much and wanted to purchase, the artist rebuked him. “They wanted to be anonymous, and they didn’t want to get arrested,” he recounts. But by the time McCloskey returned in 2009, things had changed and the same artist agreed to sign the work. In the beginning it was about expression, but now the artists were willing to sell their work.
McCloskey is an artist himself – he once sold his work on the streets of San Francisco. With a bachelor’s of fine arts from Thomas Edison College in 1985 and a master’s of fine arts from the School of Visual Arts in 1986, he does illustrations for newspapers and children’s books, often woodblock prints.
The ASARO artists were also originally emphatic about not putting their work on T-shirts. “We’re not about T-shirts,” they told McCloskey. Now, they do key chains, T-shirts, computer art.
Oaxaca was, and is, a popular tourist destination, with its art and café culture, vibrant and inventive cuisine and what a recent New York Times travel article termed “mescal-fueled night life,” but the 2006 violence put a damper on tourism.
Now that a new government is in place, ASARO has a different role and a dedicated gallery space that is promoted by the government tourist office. The subjects the artists are now reacting to are genetically modified corn, violence against women and migration issues. Today, ASARO prints are prized in galleries and collections worldwide.
McCloskey originally purchased 20 prints to exhibit at Kutztown, then traveled the exhibit to Patterson, Los Angeles, and Durham, N.C. The prints being shown at the Bernstein Gallery were purchased by Princeton University Library. Julie Mellby, curator of the Graphic Arts Collection at Princeton University Library, brought these works to the attention of Bernstein Gallery Curator Kate Somers.
“Like some Outsider Art, there is a graphic power about some of these prints that is stunningly immediate and raw,” says Somers. “But I also love that ASARO artists are part of a long tradition in Mexico of using the arts as a vehicle for political activism.”
The very first press in the New World was established in Mexico City in 1539. Just 20 years after Cortes conquered the Aztecs, the press, built on ruins of the Aztec civilization, was used to print books about the Catholic faith in order to convert indigenous people.
Jose Guadalupe Posada is considered the father of modern Mexican printmaking. He is known for his Calaveras – images of whimsical skeletons – often seen in Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festivals. Posada created hundreds of images to accompany the lyrics of corridos (Mexican ballads).
By the Modern Mexican era, printmakers were taking a renewed interest in their culture before the Spanish invasion. As a form of public art, prints helped to disseminate political, social and artistic ideas.
As the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) redressed land inequities — redistributing land to peasants and farmers — and sought to achieve full literacy and racial equality, the art world evolved to find a new appreciation for the art and culture of the native people.
Diego Rivera, best known for his murals, claimed Indian blood. He also belonged to a group of printmakers who expressed their political beliefs in woodcuts, engravings and lithographs. Just as murals were intended to address the masses, prints, too, could be distributed inexpensively and reach a wide audience.
Artists, as well as collectors, dealers and curators, came to Mexico City from all over the world to see the Mexican murals, and it became a haven for intellectuals and the avant-garde.
The Taller de Grafica Popular, established in 1937, was a collaborative workshop set up to benefit by its works the progressive and democratic interests of the Mexican people, especially in the fight against fascist reaction.
McCloskey, who grew up in Elizabeth and in Asbury Park, where his parents owned Lake Park Hotel, returns to Oaxaca twice every year, studying Spanish, visiting artists and helping them print with a hand-cranked press.
ASARO: Art and Activisim in Oaxaca, Mexico, is on view at the Bernstein Gallery, Robertson Hall, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, through March 8.
This story originally appeared in U.S. 1 Newspaper.