Posted by on Dec 30, 2012 in all posts, Mexico | 0 comments

Zapatista school mural, Oventic, photo by Kelly

The relationship of art and political culture I wrote about in my previous post can be even more clearly seen in Chiapas. The city of San Cristobal de las Casas, capital of the state of Chiapas, does not have the same overt display of the art of rebellion on its walls as Oaxaca. But this outward lack of visible signs and the seeming normality of this picturesque town with indigenous craft sellers and wandering tourists covers an intense uprising and violent conflict which emerged here in 1994. Here the figure of the Indian, the indigenous person, is even more present than in the art we found on the streets of Oaxaca.

Zapatista mural, Oventic, photo by Kelly

The Exercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (EZLN) were often referred to in many of the conversations we had throughout our time in Mexico. The EZLN uprising in Chiapas in January 1st 1994, the same day as the signing of NAFTA (see Kelly´s posts on Maize for more information on NAFTA), also created an effervescence of visual imagery. Indeed the key figure in this struggle, Subcomandante Marcos, appears very aware of the power of imagery and symbolism for a political movement, using the balaclava, amongst other images and symbolic events, as a devices through which to communicate a new way of sharing power or doing politics. In this case the anonymity of the mask declares that the struggle of the indigenous Maya is also the struggle of peoples across the world. Artists and craftspeople from Chiapas and beyond have tapped into the imagery and stories of this revolutionary struggle and their work can be seen in shops and galleries across San Cristobal and on murals in the autonomous Zapatista towns in the state. Proceeds from the sales of these products, here in Mexico and abroad, often go to support Zapatista communities.

Zapatista mural, Oventic, photo by Kelly

Postcards, posters, t-shirts, wallets, bags, mugs, shot-glasses, Marcos dolls and key rings populate this visual world. This world overlaps with an older iconographic tradition of revolutionary imagery in Latin America with the ubiquitous pictures of Che Guevara and here in Mexico Emiliano Zapata, key figure in the revolution of 1910, and from whom the current day Zapatistas draw inspiration.

zapatista dolls in shop, San Cristobal, photo by Udi

zapatista postcards in shop, San Cristobal, photo by Udi

The present day revolutionary imagery of the Zapatistas also has important innovations which say something about the novelty of their politics and their visions of hope for the future they are trying to build. We already mentioned the mask as a symbol of the dispersed nature of power and leadership amongst the Zapatistas, we also see recurring images that represent the struggle of women for equality in the figures of the ‘mujeres dignas e rebeldes’ and in the other icon of  the revolution Comandante Ramona. In these images we also see the centrality of indigeneity as a key category of the struggle, as well as expressions related to the importance of land and subsistence. The images also serve as pictures of hopeful futures, we see communities living in harmony with each other and with nature. We see the importance of education, of working the land. In some of these images we also see the more subtle spiritual dimension of Mayan culture, the cycles of nature, the stars and moon.

Zapatista clinic mural, Oventic, photo by Kelly

We visited Oventic, a Zapatista autonomous community, or caracol – snail – as they are called, an hour away by car from San Cristobal. The governing principles of the caracol are meant to embody the Zapatista approach to power which is the practice of leading by obeying.  This approach to leadership means that no one person holds power.  Rather, every person (men and women in the community) learns how to exercise power, what it is to govern their village. The leadership positions frequently rotate (every couple of weeks).  Arriving at the gates of the village we were greeted by masked women who were standing guard at the gate to the main street of the community by the side of the main road the coletivo driver had dropped us off at. Two other masked men approached us and asked questions whilst filling in the mandatory form; who we were, where we were from, why we were there. They went inside one of the houses with our answers before returning a short while later, asking us to follow them.

Zapatista mural, Oventic, photo by Kelly

We were assigned a guide to show us around, a local Mayan Tzoztil, one of many Mayan groups and the most widespread in the region. Our guide was quiet (Spanish was not his first language), reserved and naturally wary considering the continuing state (military) oppression and paramilitary violence his community faces, but he beneath his mask he was friendly and provided brief answers, often just a ‘yes’ to my questions. What we, and most visitors who come here see, and what our guide appeared to have been most keen to show, are the murals which cover every building along the main street of Oventic. These have been painted by various artists over the years, many by outsiders, who have come in support of the Zapatista struggle.

Zapatista mural, Oventic, photo by Udi

The murals are beautiful. Their imagery and colors are intense and heartfelt as is the hopefulness and strength they convey, more so for their being found in this place, a community struggling against the odds and the state to be autonomous, to have their own school and clinic, their own cooperatives for their food production, their crafts and transportation. That the Zapatistas are actually practicing, with the various challenges this brings, this new way of living together in another world that they have created – makes the art we saw here, which promote these values, all the more alive. From all the murals we saw I think my favourite ones were the first one I added to this post, on the walls of a Zapatista primary school, I love the notion of an Escuela Primaria Rebelde, where from an early age children are prepared to be creative and autonomous. The image just above, outside the Oficina del Consejo Autonomo, the village assembly, is also very strong, merging the symbol of the mask with that of corn (see Kelly´s posts on Maize). But I also really enjoyed the image below, a playful use of Matisse´s work to show a group of dancing Zapatistas. This playfulness is often missed when people speak about the Zapatistas – see for instance the last few pages of the 6th Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle. Though engaged in a serious struggle that emerges in a context of 500 hundreds of years of continued oppression against Mayan communities of the region, their statements, comuniques, poetry and art, and the symbolism embodied in their repertoire of contention (see for instance their recent silent march across a number of towns in Chipas) we see a constant subversion of usual ways of understanding and doing politics.

Dancing Zapatistas mural, Oventic, photo by Kelly

So what does all this have to do with our journey into enlivened ways of learning? For me this has been about reconnecting to art as another source we can learn with or from. In Alberta we began to discover how we could learn from place, from the land and from sites which were sacred for the Blackfoot. In British Columbia we began to understand how the art of the Northwest Coast carried within it stories, cultural practice and identities that have been important in processes of cultural rejuvenation. Here in Mexico we also began to see how art reflects and carries forth the political culture in which it is made, the way that relations of power (who is oppressed, by whom and how) is expressed and how images of possible futures are constructed. This has allowed us to enliven our experience of the art we see, hear and touch and suggested ways by which these other ways of expressing (see our post on literacies too) could become incorporated into how we communicate with others.

Zapatista mural, mujeres por la dignidad, Oventic, photo by Kelly