Oaxaca Now at Marwen’s Untitled Gallery

by Robin Dluzen

Oaxaca Now at Marwen

Marwen’s second floor Untitled gallery is hosting the traveling exhibition, “Oaxaca Now: Young Radical Printmakers,” which showcases the print works of the Asamblea de Artistas Revolucionarios de Oaxaca, or the ASARO, accompanied by photos by traveling artist, Hank Tusinski. ASARO originated in 2006, in the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca amongst the peaceful-turned-violent school teacher strike critiquing the local government, and particularly the state’s oppressing Governor Ulises Ruiz. The teacher’s strike spurred widespread political uprising, uniting under the moniker, Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO), including women’s groups, rural activists, communists, religious causes, and ASARO, a collective of young people who answered the call for revolutionary artists to respond to “unnatural occurrences” (those of the human world) as they would to “natural occurrences” (those of traditional art-making).*

“Oaxaca Now” is the largest exhibition of ASARO prints in the United States to date, and the woodblock prints on newsprint, cardboard and rice-paper-like grounds fill the halls of Marwen Untitled, even overflowing onto the walls of the restrooms. Printed from mostly three-ply sub-flooring woodblock plates, the prints visually recall both traditional and nontraditional art-making, indicative of the variety of the individual artists’ training in Japanese printmaking and contemporary graffiti, among other sources. The purpose of the prints originally was to commemorate, critique and inform on the streets of Oaxaca; prints and tags alike were printed, painted or wheat-pasted guerilla-style.

Professor Kevin McCloskey discussing Oaxaca Now

The prints are linked through the ASARO name (no individual authorship here), and their woodblock aesthetic. The subjects are what vary, expressed through titles like, La Tierra es de Quien la Trabaja or The Earth Belongs to Those Who Work It, referencing the area’s long history of its people supporting themselves through agriculture; No Country Without Corn, addressing the rise of US sponsored agri-businesses which make it impossible for farmers to continue to raise and sell their crops; and portraits of rural/indigenous revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata. Not all subjects in these prints are of rural inflection; others include the visage of Oaxaca-born Mexican president and human rights advocate, Benito Juárez; anti-US/ anti-capitalist content; and specific event related imagery, like Calaveras (Skulls) and Helicopters, illustrating the army’s use of chemicals dropped by helicopters on peaceful protesters in 2006.

According to co-curator Professor Kevin McCloskey, the ASARO currently cannot operate through their guerilla tactics, and that “In a sense, they have been forced above ground by the system. Today there are security cameras everywhere in central Oaxaca. ASARO can no longer put up prints or stencils at night without a swift police response.” Because of this, ASARO’s prints have found a new place to continue telling their stories: the art world. The group founded their own gallery, Espacio Zapata, and their prints have been traveling through art spaces in the US and Europe, and many are now in the hands of art collectors.

This move from the streets to the gallery walls is not in itself a radical concept. But what separates the ASARO prints from fine art graffiti or outsider art is the group’s agency; instead of the art world adopting work from outside its structures and objectifying this work for furthering art dialogues, ASARO has, out of necessity and of its own accord, transplanted itself into a realm in which their message of resistance can flow without fear of legal (or illegal) consequence. It is as if the ASARO has now occupied the art world, in the same way the APPO occupied TV and radio stations in the beginning of the resistance in 2006.

Oaxaca Now at Marwen

Now, I can almost actually hear the charges of didacticism or propaganda at play in works like this. That these notions are indications of art that is “bad” or not even art at all, however, establishes a hierarchy of importance that suppresses genuine issues in favor of western institutionalized discourse that despises real-world political specificity. And isn’t all art propaganda, trying to sell an ideology of some kind? In this case, the ASARO propagates their ideology blatantly with prints that are purposed to be story-telling devices, teaching with a candor that is practical, necessary and fascinating.

Assisting the meaning of the prints, Marwen has given ASARO a presentation that is respectful, but simple and without fanfare. This understated treatment allows for the work to be equally accessible to all viewers, as opposed to the ways in which glorified white-cube exhibitions place viewers at a distance, physically and conceptually.  The democratic context becomes threefold: First, the Marwen institution retains the philosophy of free art education for students who seek it, but who do not otherwise have the means to attain it. Secondly, the school has created a presentation in which young art students and art world veterans alike can approach the work on display with authority and agency. Thirdly and lastly, with printmaking, an art form that is capable of rapidly reproducible, un-precious objects, the young artists engage in the struggle against unjust, hierarchical structures. ASARO’s entrance into the art world acknowledges an exit from their original purpose and a loss of a kind of immediacy, but the young printmakers also enrich the art world with their purpose, aesthetic execution, and conviction.

*According to Professor Kevin McCloskey’s curator’s talk, 9 April 2010.

“Oaxaca Now: Young Radical Printmakers,” curated by Professor Kevin McCloskey and Arielle Bielak, is on display April 9 – May 17, 2010 at Marwen Untitled, 833 North Orleans Street, Chicago. http://www.marwen.org. All proceeds from the exhibition support the ASARO artists and Marwen’s visual arts programming.