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The Universidad de la Tierra – arriving…

The Universidad de la Tierra –   arriving…

Posted by on Dec 14, 2012 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 0 comments

Photo by Udi – Unitierra outdoor sign

We’ve been in the Universidad de la Tierra, better known as Unitierra, for a couple of hours.  It’s our first visit.  We walked 10 minutes from the homestay we are staying in to arrive there.  We waited in the front room for 30 minutes or so before Gustavo arrived for our first face-to-face conversation with him.  During these 30 minutes, we explored the books and banners on display in the front room and spoke with one of the learners at Unitierra in the front side room.

Upon entering Unitierra, there is a table with tee-shirts saying ‘Todo para Todos’ (Everything for Everyone) and a variety of books for sale, mainly in Spanish that engage with topics relevant to the principles and practices of Unitierra. I notice one book that has been published in English and wonder about the connection between Unitierra (especially Gustavo) and the Zapatistas — Beyond Resistance:  Everything (An interview with Subcomandante Marcos).

Photo taken by Udi of Unitierra front room

There is also a beautiful hand-woven banner on the wall with the Unitierra logo.  I notice a portrait of the famous revolutionary Emiliano Zapato and a Zapatista poster which reads  ya se mira el horizonte orto Mexico nace abajo y ala izquierda (You can see the horizon: another Mexico comes down and left).

We wander into the adjoining room, exploring the books housed on a large book shelf against one wall and begin talking to Edi (short for Edgardo), a current learner-collaborator (the term ‘student’ is not really used in Unitierra) who came to spend time with Unitierra after he accidentally discovered it during his Sociology course at a Oaxacan University when he had to do go out and ‘do service work’.  His ‘service’ work became much more reciprocal as he shifted to learn with and from Unitierra rather than providing some sort of ‘service’ to them.  In this room, some book titles stand out that immediately catches my eye:  Mexico Profundo: Reclaiming a Civilization; Oaxaca Rebellion; The ABCs of dry compostable toilets; Women Writing Resistance; The complete works of Ivan Illich.  I have just come across the term ‘Mexico Profundo’ a couple of days before in another (quite wonderful) book I found called The New World of Indigenous Resistance in an English bookstore in the center of Oaxaca, very near to the Santo Domingo.  I wonder how all of these different books (amongst the hundreds of others) relate to what Unitierra is as a community, who is connected to Unitierra, what Unitierra has done in the past and what is currently occurring in the present.

From both front rooms there is a clear view of the large meeting room that can fit at least 40 people comfortably.  The room is warm, with many plants, posters and the walls warmly coloured.  Trees are growing literally through the roof in the back of the room.  There is sunlight filtering through the bamboo ceiling as well.

Photo taken by Kelly – main meeting room at Unitierra

I am feeing really excited about being in Oaxaca, particularly here in the Unitierra building.  I had a similar feeling when visiting Shikshantar the first time, in Udaipur, India and meeting Manish Jain – and also when Udi and I visited Red Crow and met Narcisse Blood and Cynthia Chambers.  Before visiting Red Crow, Shikshantar and now Unitierra, I had imagined many times what these places were like.  I had read about them, watched films about them (the few that I could find online).  I had incorporated these places into talks, discussions and images used in my teaching in Bath – in several of the classes I taught.  I had also spoken about them at a major international conference all-the-while feeling a strong awkwardness about my inability to be embedded in these places and speaking about them in an abstracted sense.  Yet, I had spoken many times about these places anyway, with passion for their importance in the world.  The responses tended to be the same – a mix of enthusiasm and skepticism.  Students often were very intrigued and I heard several times comments about their imaginations being inspired.  Colleagues at the international conference I spoke at were enthusiastic to learn more, but a few also patronized these places as ‘adult literacy projects’ or a ‘guru cult’ (my personal favorite).  I’ve replied to these sorts of patronizing statements with — ‘Well okay… maybe we need to pull back and critically consider — ‘What is a university – and who says?’  ‘What should a university be for (and who should it be for) in our current world?’  ‘What other ways can we imagine and create a university – or any context of so-called higher education?’

Switching back to my presence in these first few minutes at Unitierra, I consider all of the various things I’d like to talk with Gustavo about and I wonder what this initial conversation will be like.  I’ve been inspired by Gustavo Esteva’s ideas, his writing and his influence on friends of mine for a long time, well over a decade.  From the moment I entered into the ‘critical education’ and ‘post-development’ world that strongly critiques ideas and practices of progress, modernity and formal education – thanks to Ana Maria Duque-Artistizabal, a fellow post-graduate student I was blessed to meet at King’s College London – I saw Gustavo Esteva’s name (the first publication of his I encountered was his chapter ‘Development’ in The Development Dictionary where he critically deconstructs the term ‘development’ and outlines historically the moment the ‘idea’ came into being through Truman’s post-WWII speech identifying the majority of the world as ‘underdevelopment’ and in need of help and progress, modernity).  And 12 years later, here I am, a different decade and phase of my life – learning, travelling, visiting – finally able to embed myself in this actual place.  What has inspired me the most about Gustavo, is hearing of his commitment to practice –and the way he lives his life that is in complete accordance to his beliefs and values.

Gustavo walks in – slightly flustered – a bit later than planned.  We are all apologetic – he for being late – and us for not wanting to be in the way, especially as he is needed in so many places at the same time.  He leads us into another room and we all sit down around a large table.  There is another wall of books and wall with black/white photos of what I am guessing are indigenous people from Oaxaca.

My inability to speak Spanish (hopefully not a permanent disability!) and Gustavo’s fluency in English made English the language of choice.  Udi and I spent some time introducing ourselves – who we are, what we’ve been doing, why we are here, what we want to do whilst in Mexico… Udi did the majority of speaking on behalf of our journey(?) project(?) pilgrimage(?) — I interjected and we both struggled to find an appropriately descriptive word. Gustavo listened intensively, patiently.  And then Gustavo began to speak.  But as suddenly as he began, he stood and walked us out of the room, through another room (again with walls of books) and then through a door outside.

Photo taken by Kelly – room that leads out to the roof garden

Just outside the door, Gustavo pointed us to the bamboo-walled compostable toilet on the right of the door leading outside – and then a custom-built bicycle that pumps water up to a large water container on top of the roof.

Photo taken by Udi – dry compostable eco-toilet on the way to the roof garden at Unitierra

Photo taken by Kelly – bicycle water pump

We headed up some stairs to an urban roof garden.  There are plants on either side of the path that leads to the far end of the roof.  Along this wall of plants are vegetables, herbs, trees growing fruits, a small greenhouse and a large cactus.  I notice that on the left side, there are the ends of trees emerging from the main meeting room on the floor below.  Many of the plants are kept in up-cycled plastic containers – water bottles of various sizes, soda bottles, wooden containers.

The far end of this wonderful urban roof garden is covered with another open-roofed area and there is a table with chairs to seat at least 15 people comfortably.  There are posters along one of the walls and the opposite wall has another table that houses containers of dirt, tools, smaller plants.

Unitierra began in the late 1990s – a creative response to a 1997 Congress during which there was the first public declaration of the destructive impact of education to indigenous communities – by indigenous people themselves.  Gustavo refers to this destruction as ‘culture-icide’ (I am reminded of Wade Davis’s reference to ‘ethno-cide’ for similar reasons).  After this public declaration and with the influence of the teachings of (and Gustavo’s friendship with) Ivan Illich, Gustavo thought to create an ‘experimental’ university-type learning context – Unitierra – as a direct response to these critiques of education.  Anyone over the age of 18 was invited to join Unitierra as long as they could read and write.  The doors are currently and have always been open to anyone curious to learn within the Unitierra community.

Gustavo explains that the ‘campus’ of Unitierra has become nomadic –like a spreading web.  Although this is the main building for Unitierra, it is no longer the centre of the University, of Unitierra. There is greater emphasis on creating and enacting work with communities (primarily indigenous communities) outside of the centre of Oaxaca city.  The campus of Unitierra was originally all in this location – learners came here to stay, to organize what they wanted to learn and how they wanted to learn before going to stay and learn as apprentices with different mentors as people and/or organizations in different parts of Mexico (although primarily Oaxaca).  The learning process within the walls of Unitierra involved time spent reading (texts of their choice), discussing but also reflecting on their experiences as apprentices until they felt satisfied with their learning.  Some learners would change their focus area after exploring more of what they felt they were most interested in.  The key issue, Gustavo explained is that they were doing what they love.  Gustavo’s eyes brightened and he explained that love is the most important thing — love as a term is purposefully left out of typical academic contexts.  This nurturing learning environment is devoid of any formal examinations or structural formalities on attendance or following through on any reading lists, etc.  As Unitierra sees it, to nurture learning is to be free, to be autonomous – but within a context that is hospitable and nurturing toward all those involved.  The conceptualizations and practices of autonomy alongside the practices and concepts of friendship and hospitality make up the pulsing heart of Unitierra within all of its creative and critical seminars, workshops and activities.

Photo still from our video recorded interview with Gustavo Esteva

Funding has been a constant issue however, and in the early days of Unitierra when learners came to Oaxaca city to learn, discuss and create, many were unable to sustain their day-to-day living.  There are no fees for learning at and being a part of the community at Unitierra. This pushed Unitierra to focus more externally, particularly with so much emphasis being on communities outside of Oaxaca city.

On this roof garden, Unitierra holds urban agricultural workshops (we are attending one on tree grafting) on a range of practices to do with food – cultivating, propagating, cooking…  Unitierra is also working with many communities outside of Oaxaca city on issues pertaining to food, water, sanitation and construction (architecture).  All of these workshops engage with learning how to make, cultivate, shape, design… in other words, how to do things (practice).  The theoretical conversations occur routinely once per week (usually Wednesdays) although there are often other seminars on other days as well.  And, importantly, there are always further discussions that critically reflect on how these theories can be put into practice.

Photo by Kelly – taken of a board showing different activities that Unitierra is currently involved in

Gustavo explained that the key priority for Unitierra is to resurrect knowledges that have been suppressed through colonialism (‘culture-icide’) processes and to create new forms of knowledge that are focused on creating autonomy (much more on autonomy in future posts…).  Unitierra is linking with people that have technical expertise – but this expertise is about being self and community-reliant, up-cycling used materials and natural resources, capturing and storing water, managing sanitation.  Food is an easy way to connect and there is ‘profundo’ knowledge with food that communities are sharing with Unitierra as well.  Thus, there is reciprocity in learning and exchanging – fiesta and eating.

Our initial conversation with Gustavo during this first visit was fragmented, interruptions from other meetings and shortened time.  However, Gustavo generously presented us with a variety of events, activities and seminars that are occurring over the next 10 days.  The first of which would be later that day – an open seminar to discuss the 19th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, the adjacent state to Oaxaca – What is Zapatismo today?

Photo by Kelly – of the seminar on Zapatismo advertized in Unitierra

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the art of rebellion, part 1 – Oaxaca

the art of rebellion, part 1 – Oaxaca

Posted by on Dec 13, 2012 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 0 comments

gm corn wall stencil, downtown Oaxaca, photo by Udi

From our very first day walking around we noticed there was something distinctly rebellious and innovative in the political culture in the state and city of Oaxaca. There seemed to be an energy present – in the air… on the political posters and painted on the walls… Also, since quashing the rebellion in 2007, which Kelly wrote a bit about in the previous post, the Mexican state has a constant and menacing military police presence patrolling the city, its officers always in black uniform and bullet-proof jackets and sometimes also in black ski masks, circulating through the city streets in pick-up trucks with mounted machine-guns.

Oaxaca Rebelde, t-shirts, photo by Udi

The city is home to a diverse plurality of experiments in living, organizing and creating that have been going on for at least for the last decade. Indigenous identity, forms of organizing, learning and relating to each other and nature are important in these Oaxacan experiments in living and resisting. Indigenous ways of knowing and key concepts and practices such as ‘comunalidad’ and ‘interculturalidad’ (which we write about elsewhere) have become important in this changing political culture, slowly finding their way into schools and universities across the region, pushed for by indigenous activists and intellectuals.

During our time in Oaxaca we encountered different kinds of social, political, artistic and ecological experimentations taking place across the city. We were very lucky to spend time with one experiment that is equally social, ecological, artistic and political in its creative and critical ways of being.  This ‘experiment’ is the Universidad de la Tierra, or Unitierra as it is more commonly called.  Unitierra has been, since its beginning in the 1990s, an important hub in this fermentation of new forms of living in and around the city.  We will be posting about our various experiences, encounters and learning(s) as related to Unitierra.

What I wanted to describe here is the most expressive sense we had of this culture of rebellion, both here in Oaxaca as well as in Chiapas where we also spent some time.

zapata mural, oaxaca, photo by Udi

The walls of Oaxaca are covered in murals, graffiti, stencil and political posters. The city is also home to a number of artists’ collectives and creative spaces that produce this rich collection of images. Kelly and I both felt how these images speak about present concerns, key ideas and hopes of this surrounding political environment: the corporate take-over of land and resources and the imposition of genetically modified corn; continuing state oppression and abuse of people’s rights; indigeneity; communities attempting to live differently in balance with each other and with nature.

Twins graffiti, Oaxaca, Photo by Udi

Early one morning we walked around the downtown area and found what became our favorite stenciled piece painted on the wall in a small street, next to a collective art space, a few minutes from the bus station. The simple but elegant image shows a woman pointing a shotgun at a group of figures dressed in radiation or contamination suits who appear to be either planting a new species or stealing her planted corn. The woman is wearing a local indigenous headscarf and shirt whilst the other figures represent external ‘alien’ forces allied to corporations who are pressuring the state and local farmers to adopt genetically modified corn (see a separate post on this). This work (the first image at the top of the page) though simple in appearance shows an important topic touching on many campesino (peasant) and indigenous communities across the country and provides an imagery of resistance that inverts the normal power relations.

Graffiti Artist’s Poster for event, Oaxaca, photo by Udi

This art of political murals stretches back almost one hundred years in Mexico. Dating from the period after the Mexican revolution of 1910, which overthrew the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz and was started and propelled by peasants, indigenous and generally people displaced the land. Mexican anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, who coined the term Mexico profundo to refer to the Meso-American culture that continues to deeply influence Mexican national culture, has been a hugely influential figure around debates concerning the past and recent conditions of the country’s indigenous populations.

siqueiros ‘the revolution gives back culture’ 1958, Modern Art Museum, Mexico City, photo by Udi

The notion of Mexico profundo (or ‘deep’ Mexico) is in sharp contrast to the distinction Batalla makes with the ‘imaginary’ Mexico, or the Mexico that has tried to imagine its way into a domineering existence and has largely failed because of the continuing strength of the millions of people who comprise deep (profundo) Mexico.

His name has also been recurring in the conversations we have had with a number of people in Mexico. Batalla, wrote the following about the prevalence of such murals in the post-revolution period:

Hundreds of square metres of murals adorn every type of public building in many cities of the republic. Murals are in seats of government and public offices, in markets and hospitals, in schools and libraries, in factories and workplaces. In these murals, the image of the Indian is practically indispensable. Rarely is there missing some allegory about the precolonial world that frequently lays the foundation for or presides over the scenes of the world today or tomorrow.

Mural-Diego-Rivera- photo by Mirairi Erdoza – from http://fr.fotopedia.com/items/anboto-2umoIxo9DBo

In the first half of the twentieth century the most internationally famous generation of Mexican artists (Frida Kahlo, Diego Riveira, Gabriel Orozco and Siqueiros) were also deeply immersed in the politics of the time and in the post-revolution period of constructing a national identity. The latter three were themselves involved in largescale mural projects which was supported by the Mexican state in its nationalist aspirations. As Batalla argues, this search for identity often went back to Mexico’s indigenous roots using aspects from it that were easily appreciated:

the bucolic life of the campesino, popular handicrafts and folklore. In music, dance, literature, and the plastic arts, the theme of the Indian provided the basic elements for shaping a vast nationalistic current under government patronage.

For Batalla museums also played a key role in this process of ‘exalting the Indian roots of Mexico’ something clearly seen in one of the Mexico City’s most famous attraction, the Museo Nacional de Antropologia (National Museum of Anthropology) in Chapultpec Park, a wealthier part of the city. We spent many hours in the museum but managed to see only a small fraction of it, exhausted by the overwhelming number, diversity and amazing quality of the objects displayed.

Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico City, photo by Udi

The museum is divided into Mexico’s various geographic regions each with a number of ethnic groups. Each section has two floors the lower ground showing the treasures of the ‘past civilizations’ whereas the top floors demonstrate the present life of these ethnic groups. We happened to go on a Sunday, I think, a day when museums are free for Mexicans and the sheer numbers of people, especially parents and their children was simultaneously overwhelming and heartening. Many children also seemed to be doing some kind of homework, going from room to room with notebooks and writing things down. The rooms upstairs, on the ‘living’ second floor, in contrast, were deadly quiet and the exhibits of the living cultures were anything but enlivened. This contrast of the exalted past as a part in shaping Mexican national identity and the lack of attention to the present conditions of indigenous people is a key theme in Batalla’s work:

The Indian presence as depicted in murals, museums, sculptures, and archaeological sites, all open to the public, is treated essentially as a dead world. It is a unique world, extraordinary in many of its achievements, but still a dead world. Official discourse, translated in the language of the plastic arts or of museography, exalts that dead world as the seed of origin that gave rise to today’s Mexico. It is the glorious past of which we should feel proud, which assures us of a lofty historical destiny as a nation, even though the logic of that assertion is not entirely clear. The living Indian and all that is Indian are relegated to the second floor, when they are not ignored or denied. As in the National Museum of Anthropology, the contemporary Indian occupies a segregated space, disconnected from the glorious past as well as from the present, which does not belong to him: an expendable space. Through an adroit ideological alchemy, that past became our past, a simple reference to what existed as a kind of premonition of what Mexico is today and will be in the future. It has no real connection with our contemporary reality and our collective future.

The art objects and visual expressions we have seen in Mexico from the inexhaustible museum of anthropology, the temples, the work of twentieth century artists like Kahlo, Riveiro and Siqueiros, the murals and street art in Oaxaca and Chiapas, have made me reflect more on these connections between art, politics and the construction of identity. Our brief but deep immersion into the art of the Northwest Coast of Canada taught us much about the languages and grammar speaking through these forms, the deep relationship to place, stories carved into living beings sacred to these communities and the importance in their role to preserve cultural practices and identities (see posts on Freda Diesing School). How did this experience of art here in Mexico relate to that in Canada? What is the place that this art emerges from, what language and forms and stories does it draw from? How does it preserve cultural practices and imagine new futures and identities?

Votiv Painting from Freda Kalho’s collection, Freda Kahlo house, Mexico City, Photo by Udi

Kahlo, Riveira, Siqueiros and many other artists of this generation were involved in a broader post-Mexican revolution period of crafting a new national identity, as Batalla explained. As artists they were creating a new imaginary for the country by drawing on various local and avant-garde pictorial traditions, such as votiv paintings and surrealism in the case of Kahlo or mural painting and social realism for Riveira. These were artists who were also deeply engaged in the broader political and ideological struggles of their day, both Kahlo and Riveira as well as concerned with questions of national identity were also committed communists.

Photo taken by Udi of the space between the Templo Mayor and the Mexico City Cathedral

With these thoughts in mind the images we saw on the walls of Oaxaca and in the city’s art collectives started to make more sense. These images were also connected to place, stories and cultural practice: protest culture, an iconography of rebellion and struggle against the state, the support of indigenous culture. These were attempts at crafting a new imaginary of solidarity and struggle against various forms of oppression using the language of stencils, graffiti, political posters and so on. The wonderful book Teaching Rebellion, which is a compilation of personal testimonies of those present in the teachers’ rebellion in Oaxaca also has something to say about this visual expression of this political culture. In the editors’ introduction they describe how graffiti artists played a crucial role in challenging the government dominated media by appropriating other spaces of communication across the walls of the city:

These artists used their creativity and imagination to visually represent the marginalized, exploited and oppressed, as well as to promote anti-capitalist counter culture in Oaxaca.

The movement showed its capacity not only to organize political acts, but to create artistic and culture events to recover a history of Oaxaca unmediated by the sheen of tourism.

multinacionales stencil, oaxaca, photo by Udi

The walls of the street and the artists’ collectives then provided other images and imaginaries.

‘the greatest triumph’ graffiti, oaxaca – photo by Udi

In some of this art the Indian which in Batalla’s argument had only served to represent a fossil of past glory and as such an innocuous ingredient contributing to national identity surfaces as a living subject, as someone talking back or resisting the current situation. Such is strength of resistance in the indigenous woman from Mexico profundo pointing a gun at the genetically modified corn pushers furthering their imposition of an alien cosomivision.

Indigenous woman with gun stencil, Oaxaca, photo by Udi

These street artists then exemplified something we came to learn more deeply during our time in Oaxaca, the importance of autonomy in the face of various state or corporate institutions that we have grown dependent and as such subservient to regarding our education, health, food, communication and even sanitation (more on this soon). In their case the walls of the city were a means of taking back the spaces for communication and visual expression.

Printers Collective, Oaxaca, photo by Udi

solidaridad zapatista poster in graffiti artist’s studio, oaxaca – photo by Udi

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Viva Mexico! Viva Oaxaca! Tapestries of geographies, histories and politics

Viva Mexico!  Viva Oaxaca!  Tapestries of geographies, histories and politics

Posted by on Dec 12, 2012 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 2 comments

Photo taken by Udi at the Museo Nacional Antropologia (National Anthropology Museum) in Mexico City of a map of Mexico Profundo (continuing existence of deep, original Mexico that continues to shape Mexican national culture and identity)

We arrive at one of the bus stations in the megacity of Mexico City to purchase a ticket bound for Oaxaca.  It is mid-day and we have chosen to travel during the afternoon on the 6-hour journey to Oaxaca to enable a good viewing of the changing landscape.  The bus system in Mexico is impressive.

Photo taken by Kelly – our bus to Oaxaca from the Mexico City bus station

The bus stations are clean and it is enjoyable to sit in the waiting area until the bus leaves.  We climb onto the bus at 1pm and find our seats which are comfortable and roomy.  We sit back, waiting for the bus to leave, excited about the long journey and our impending arrival to Oaxaca city.

We’ve been in Mexico 5 days already.  The first couple of days we explored different museums in Mexico City – the Frida Kahlo Museum, the Trotsky Museum, the Anthropological Museum (see Udi’s post on ‘Politics and Art’). We also spent time with Carlos Flores and Rachel Sieder, the lovely couple we stayed with in the city, in the fabulous Coyoacan region of the city.  Udi has known Carlos for a decade, meeting him at Goldsmiths College where Udi was studying and Carlos was teaching.  Carlos is a visual anthropologist and filmmaker from Guatemala who has focused on a broad range of issues pertaining to Guatemala and beyond.  Rachel is a scholar in Latin American studies and has focused on issues pertaining to human rights and law.  Currently, Carlos and Rachel, are working on indigenous justice systems in the highlands of Guatemala (the region that was most affected by the war in the 1980s).  They have written books and have made films about how particular issues are engaged with and resolved within these Mayan regions – and how this relates to the Guatemalan state.  Rachel also focuses on domestic violence, being a woman she has better access to the women in these communities.  This coming January they will be spending time again in the Guatemalan highlands to show their film and receive feedback from the people within these communities.  We both had a wonderful time with them, seeing some of Mexico City and learning quite a lot about indigenous histories in Mexico and Guatemala.

It takes nearly an hour to leave the boundaries of Mexico City.  Although Mexico City is one of the biggest cities in the world, it feels smaller than it is.  Similar to London, the layout of Mexico City is like a series of smaller towns.  Mexico City currently boasts a population of over 8 million in the city, although the larger metropolitan area is believed to be at least 22 million with estimations closer to 30 million. This makes the city the biggest in the world, a title it has held since before the time of the Conquistadores.

Photo taken by Udi at the Museo Nacional Antropologia of a drawing of the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan as it was built in Lake Texcoco

The geography of Mexico City is a valley that was once the massive Lake Texcoco within which the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was constructed (founded in 1325), sustaining the life of anywhere between 200,000 – 350,000 people, the biggest city in the Americas at that time.  The layout of Tenochtitlan and its beauty provided an initial sense of awe for the Spanish when they first arrived.  However, after the city was conquered by 1521, the Spanish drained the water from Lake Texcoco and began to build what has become current day Mexico City.  Udi and I decided to visit the ruins of the Templo Mayor (the Aztec ‘main temple’) in el Zocalo, the center square of the city.  The Templo Mayor was the most important temple to the Aztecs. According to Aztec religiosity, the god Huitzilopochtli provided a sign of an eagle on a nopal cactus with a snake in its mouth, symbolizing the importance of this particular site as the place for the main temple. This symbol appears on the current Mexican flag.

Photo taken by Udi on the grounds of the Templo Mayor – the sacred serpent adorning the front of the main stairs

Excavations on the area of Templo Mayor began in the late 1700s and continue today.  A large portion of the Templo is still to be unearthed as it now lies under several blocks of city buildings.  Excavations were quiet for at least a century before 1978 when electrical workers, digging for the Metro, accidentally discovered monolith of Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec moon goddess.  This prompted the Templo Mayor project and the area has been slowly excavated ever since.  The entire area is a graveyard of people and objects of cultural and spiritual significance.

Photo taken by Udi at the Templo Mayor Museo on the grounds of the Templo Mayor – the goddess

Templo Mayor, or what you can visit of Templo Mayor, is just next to the enormous Spanish church that quite aggressively declares its spiritual significance over that of the conquered Aztecs.  The location of the visitor area of Templo Mayor is about 200 meters from the church.

Photo taken by Udi from the grounds of Templo Mayor

Photo taken by Udi from the ground of Templo Mayor – the Mexico City Cathedral just in the background

Within this area were hundreds of tourists and locals witnessing and interacting with three different groups of Aztec dancers and healers.  There were also heavily armed police as well as an abundance of food, clothing and souvenir vendors.  A colourful mural with Aztec symbolism lined the long wall between the Templo Mayor and the Mexico City Cathedral.

Photo taken by Udi of the space between the Templo Mayor and the Mexico City Cathederal

The Aztec dancers were all wearing different headdresses adorned with colourful feathers and leg bands of shells that made soft, hypnotic sounds as they moved.  There were queues of people waiting to be cleansed by healers using smoke and branches, murmuring songs and covering each body with smoke and a gentle touch of the branches.

Photo taken by Udi of Aztec dancers in front of the Mexico City Cathedral

Photo taken by Kelly (from film we shot) of Aztec dancers between the Mexico City Cathedral and the Templo Mayor

Photo taken by Udi of Aztec healers in front of the Templo Mayor

I could not help but recall primary school memories of learning about the Aztecs.  The practice of human sacrifice is unsurprisingly what I remember the most, horrifying and gruesome as it was, particularly through my eyes as a young child.  There are continual debates of stories and narratives about the frequency and justification behind process of human sacrifice that occurred to please the Sun God that, according to the Aztec cosmovision (view of and way being in the Universe) allowed for the continuance of life on Earth.  These murals below were painted by Diego Rivera (they can be seen in the Modern Art Museum in Mexico City), representing the oppression of each major religion historically in Mexico.

The site of Templo Mayor is a juxtaposition of periods of time, histories, narratives, religious and spiritual practices.  Similar to the complex and violent history of Mexico, the history of the destruction of the Aztec empire is equally violent and complex, with a range of competing stories and accounts.  The different accounts by the Spanish and the Aztecs of a massacre on this particular site of Templo Mayor in 1520 are a key example.  Whilst not denying the slaying of many Aztecs, the Spanish account holds a rationale for the event whilst the Aztec account of the event is far more descriptive and graphic of the extreme violence their people experienced at the hands of the Spanish.  The church being built directly on the ruins of the Templo Mayor is typical of Christian conquest.  The same practice can be found across the UK – many churches were built on former pagan spiritual place.

The air quality of Mexico City is a soup of smog.  With the multitude of people using some sort of auto transport and the factories that have sprung up on different sides of the city it is hardly surprising that smog is constantly trapped in the valley bowl.  After being on the bus for an hour or so, we notice bluer sky, clear white clouds and a particular snow-capped mountain with puffs of gray smoke emerging from its peak.  This is Popcatepetl mountain, affectionately called ‘Popo’.  Popo is the second highest mountain in Mexico, nearly 18,000 feet (5,426 meters).   Earthquakes occur continuously in Mexico, particularly within the regions of Mexico City, Cuernavaca and Oaxaca.  We have already felt several, the biggest one being nearly 5.0 on the richter scale.  People have told us that if they do not feel earthquakes once a week, once every other week, that a much bigger earthquake is coming.  A film has started playing on the 6 different video screens that hang down on different parts of the bus.  It is X-Men:  First Class 2’ and dubbed in Spanish.

We notice field after field of hay that has been thrashed into cone-like shapes along the road.  There are maize fields here and there, but far less than we had assumed.  Udi dozes off while I do some reading.

After another 2.5 hours, the road becomes more tortuous and there are sharp and step hills and canyons as far as we can see covered with cactus forests.  These cacti stand over two metres straight up.  It is a completely different type of fxorest than I have ever seen.  We try to capture it on film but it is difficult with the incredible bends in the road that seem to appear every 100 or so meters.

Photo taken by Udi of cacti along the road between Mexico City to Oaxaca

Photo taken by Udi of cacti and canyons along the road between Mexico City to Oaxaca

The video screens on the bus come to life again and I see Britney Spears entering onto a stage with thousands of screaming fans surrounding her.  The video of Britney goes on for over an hour and as the sun is starting to set and the road becomes ever more tortuous within the hills of cacti forests, I find it more and more difficult to avoid watching her.  That the scene is surreal is an understatement. Udi and I discuss the geographic, demographic and political distinctions that we know about Oaxaca which are in sharp contrast to the video of Britney grinding her way through song after song in shiny and increasingly small outfits.

Oaxaca is one of the most biologically diverse states (after Chiapas and Veracruz) with a diverse number of reptiles, amphibians, mammals and plants.

Oaxaca is also the most culturally diverse state in Mexico.   There are 16 officially recognized indigenous communities, with at least 17 languages and 37 dialects.  Many of these dialects are more like different languages, as different as Spanish and Italian.  These different indigenous groups have survived and thrived to varying extents within an overall environment of waves of oppression and colonialism.   Surviving (and thriving to any extent) has been through incredible struggle that has occurred in various ways (many of which we will be posting about).  It is estimated that during the first 100 years of Spanish colonization, nearly 90% of indigenous people were killed or died due to disease across all of Mexico.  It is said that at the time of independence, two-thirds of the Mexican population was of indigenous peoples.  Now, they make up around 10% of the population (although this is contentious as many people identify themselves as non-indigenous to elude discrimination that often comes with indigenous identification) and are divided amongst more than 55 languages through out the country.  That Oaxaca state holds such a large number of these different languages can be attributed to the rugged and isolating geographical terrain of Oaxaca state, making it impossible for the Spanish to fully conquer.

Photo taken by Udi of a map of Oaxacan linguistic and ethnic groups. The photo was taken in the Museo Nacional Antropologia.

Oaxaca is currently the second poorest state in Mexico with more than half of its population living in extreme poverty, earning less than Mexico’s minimum wage of $4.50 (US dollars) per day. Indigenous peoples account for the majority of Oaxaca’s poor.  In addition to the oppressive legacy of colonialism, the ramifications of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) have been particularly harsh with corporate-led development targeting lands rich with natural resources for their own profit-making benefit, rather than for that of the indigenous peoples on these lands.  What I had not realized before coming to Mexico was that the majority of Mexican migrants into the US are indigenous peoples from Oaxaca who are seeking some stable source of income and freedom from oppression. An important reason for this flight from rural areas has revolved around the struggle for land access, the struggle to resist corporate takeover that is ever-present.  What has resulted for many of these immigrants to the USA is the encounter of a new and different type of oppression once they reach the USA (as illegal alien status) which is continually and hotly debated within all civil and political arenas in the USA.

My first real engagement with Oaxacan history was after I encountered a wonderful book at a Solidarity Economic conference (2009 – Hampshire, Massachusetts)  called Teaching Rebellion:  Stories from the Grassroots Mobilization in Oaxaca written in 2007 just after the uprising occurred.  The book provides a tapestry of voices participating within the uprising – teachers, musicians, schoolchildren, elderly, religions leaders, indigenous community activists, radio journalists, union leaders, etc.  Hearing such a diversity of voices provides an excellent introduction into the profoundly complex political history of Oaxaca state.

Photo of the cover of the book ‘Teaching Rebellion: Stories from the Grassroots Mobilization in Oaxaca’ (2007) by Diana Durham and C. A. S. A. Collective

The uprising began in May 2006 when around 20,000 teachers decided to strike (for the 25th consecutive year), occupying the Zocalo (city center), calling for a living wage, resources for infrastructure repair, free schoolbooks and social services. By June 14th, three weeks later, 3,000 police were sent to break up the occupation with tear gas, clubs, guns and helicopters.  This violence was typical governmental response, the purpose of which is to silence social movements.  This time, however, the people fought back.  The public outcry formed the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (the APPO) that called for the resignation of the Oaxacan governor, Ulises Ruiz, who was believed to gain political entitlement illegally.  APPO organized marches of over 800,000 people in Oaxaca and over 50 city blocks were occupied.  Waves of violence ensued and over 20 people were killed, hundreds were tortured, incarcerated and declared as disappeared.  There was peaceful occupation by Oaxacans of city buildings, setting up barricades throughout the city, painting public art (see Udi’s post on Art and Politics for more information on this) and also hunger strikes by striking teachers.  The uprising culminated with a particularly violent encounter between the APPO and Oaxacan occupiers and the police at the end of November, 2006, over 6 months after the original teachers’ strike.

Photo from http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2006/11/19/18331008.php by Barucha Calamity Peller taken Sunday Nov 19th, 2006

As darkness ensued and the bus entered the city limits of Oaxaca city, Udi and I both felt a sense of anticipated excitement about what we were to learn and experience over the coming weeks.

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Discussing art and identity with emerging Northwest coast artists

Discussing art and identity with emerging Northwest coast artists

Posted by on Dec 7, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art | 0 comments

We talked with several of the students at the Freda Diesing school, on and off camera.  I would have really enjoyed engaging in conversation to a much further extent with all of the learners at the school, but those that I was privileged to talk with, I learned a lot from.  Each person learning and teaching at Freda Diesing have inspiring stories to tell – stories of how their engagement with art has helped to inspire a deeper connection with their identity, but this self identity being deeply connected to their larger community of place, land and people, including their ancestors.

Photo taken by Udi of students’ morning practice art at the Freda Diesing school

This posting is meant to provide a sketch of some of the key messages that I learned listening to several students speak of their stories of how they ended up coming to the school as a student and what experiences they have had since their immersion into the program.  I have kept these names anonymous for this blog posting as these conversations were either recorded for the film or were unrecorded informal conversations.  I feel it is imperative to stress that what I write here is not their direct voice – rather, I provide a brief account of what I learned.  I wanted to write this posting because of the deep inspiration I felt from each conversation.  Fuller accounts that were provided through recordings will be provided to the students themselves and the Freda Deising school for their own use over the coming months.  Sections of these and other recorded conversations will be used for a shorter film specifically related to the Freda Diesing school, and for a longer documentary film that we will be producing from our entire journey, integrating moments from each place we have visited and will visit over the next 8 months.

Photo taken by Udi of students at the Freda Diesing school

An older student told me that art, or his engagement with and learning about First Nations art, had saved his life.  I was admiring a design he was drawing as a copy from an old bent-wood box and I asked him about his work – what he was doing, how long it had taken him….  He said that he was in his second year.  And then he looked at me and said that art had saved his life.  This came as a surprise as I was not expecting him to talk with me about this sort of experience as suddenly as he did.  He told me that Dempsey had come to teach a class that he sat in on – while he was in prison.  He said that he had a long sentence and that he had been an alcoholic and drug user like many people from his community.  He also told me that he had been to residential school as a child – a horrible part of his life – similar to many other people from his community.  He said that after being introduced to art through these workshops he decided to stay involved and he ended up coming to the school after he was released.  Art helped him to reconnect to himself, to heal, to be proud of his identity.

Photo taken by Kelly of photos of bent-wood boxes re-enhanced photographically by Bill McLennan

One student we spoke with, a first-year student, spoke to us with a great deal of enthusiasm about the ways in which studying art is helping him connect to his community and identity.  We noticed him on the first day speaking publicly about different repatriated Nisga’a objects (masks, blankets, combs, shaman’s regalia) within each room at the Nisga’a museum, but did not realize until the end of the day that he was also a student.  He was interning at the Nisga’a museum (which he is really enjoying), helping to convey the histories and importance of different repatriated objects in the museum to visitors.  When we asked him to introduce himself in the interview, he spoke to us first in his own language to introduce himself (we found this quite often) – his name, where he was from.  He also introduced himself through his ancestral past and his crest.  He told us about being half-White, that having this identity meant that he was not as engaged with the community growing up as he could have been.  He did not grow up in the dancing, ceremonies, cultural events.  He explained that before coming to the Freda Diesing school, he learned from a non-native how to carve native art (this person also taught him philosophy).  He did not focus on learning more about art or becoming an artist.  He went to study mechanical engineering at university.  He had a hard time with the linear non-creative environment and ended up failing his first term.  He knew that he wouldn’t be happy and so he then pursued art and ended up with a scholarship to come and learn at the Freda Diesing school.  He spoke proudly and confidently telling us that learning at the Freda Diesing school gave him a really strong integration into traditional perspectives towards everything.  For example, he explained that right now, as we spoke, we were in Tsimshian territory – and how when we went to the Nisga’a museum, we went to the Nass and back – to a different territory.  He marveled how this was done in a day, that before the time of contact, this would have taken well over two weeks.  He explained that thinking this way, in a traditional cultural sense – gives more respect towards everything. He loves being at the Freda Diesing school with so many First Nations students – from different First Nations communities and has learned, in his view, that all First Nations cultures are connected – pieces of the same spiritual forms..  He told us that there is so much to learn and that he wants to learn as much as he can.  He is particularly interested in learning about traditional spiritual forms, the stories, language and grammar through which each form has come into being.  He also just really wants to help in his community.  He told us this with a strong sense of energy and passion.  He also told us that he is torn about this – ‘helping’ is easier if you are a shaman – you cannot force these things.   He told us emphatically that art opened the door for him to re-connect – to himself, to his community.

Photo taken by Kelly of the interior of the Long House on the Freda Diesing school campus

Another student came back to the Freda Deising school later in life after other career trajectories.  He introduced himself as Haida and German and explained that art had always been a side interest, but eventually he decided to go back more strongly into it.  He knows now that he wants it to be a full time career.  He loved art as a child, but he did not pursue it in school.  He wanted to work in a logging camp when he was an adult.  He was discouraged from doing art because of money – he explained that most people stay away from art because of income.  His abilities in art waned – he told us how he had lost his edge because of so many years of doing other types of work.  He told us how he used to always tell people that he was an artist and when they asked about his work he would say that he wasn’t doing it now… but he would again soon.  This ‘soon’ took a long time to happen.  Now, however, he is in it properly, learning with other artists at the school and intending to continue with his learning and practicing after.  He then discussed his background and connection with his community.  He told us that the Haida have possibly been on Haida Gwaii for at least 20,000 years.  He talked to us severity of how disease had decimated the population of the Haida and the stealing of the objects by the British.  He also told us how the Haida burnt their objects because of the fear of God through Christianity.  These tragic stories, as well as his own desire to be an artist, helped him to be inspired to learn and engage with Haida art – to help maintain the continuity of the art. He described how inspiring it is for students from different First Nations groups to unite and learn from each other as much as learning about their own cultural past – like they are able to at the Freda Diesing school.

Photo taken by Udi of students doing morning ovoid drawings at the Freda Diesing school

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Learning from Museums

Learning from Museums

Posted by on Dec 2, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Vancouver | 0 comments


‘First Nations of British Columbia’ map from Museum of Anthropology, photo by Kelly

We were nearly an hour late for our appointment with Bill McLennan, head of Northwest coast art at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, yet he still gave us a warm welcome, and a generous and intimate tour of the museum. Bill has for many years been researching the art of this region and getting to know the communities who make it. When we were at the Freda Diesing School, multiple copies of Bill’s book The Transforming Image: Painted Arts of Northwest Coast First Nations could be seen across the desks and were constantly used by students. This book was affectionately, and mischievously, called ‘the bible’ of the course by Dempsey. The black and white photographs of the bentwood boxes whose designs the students meticulously copied in their drawing exercises also came from Bill and his work. Bill stumbled upon this technique of photographing these old pieces with infrared film so as to bring out more the faded designs. Bill also sits on the advisory board of the School and is a regular lecturer there.

Museum of Anthropology, main hall, photo by Kelly

The Museum of Anthropology sits at the far end of the leafy campus of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The modern concrete building perched on a hill overlooks the Bay that edges the city. Through the museum window we see the cold waters of the Bay glistening in the light of the setting sun – the contours of hills and small islands engulfed by evergreen trees that thrive down to the water’s edge. This was like no other anthropology museum I ever saw. You walk through the entrance into a large hall with a number of different totem poles from this region, both old and some contemporary. Bill guided us through the museum which was about to shut, taking us through the main hall, the contemporary exhibits, the new wing which displays the art of this region in an innovative way and other various rooms.

Restoration and infrared photography, photo by Kelly

In the new wing, in a section entitled ‘multiverse’, objects are displayed in glass cabinets as well as drawing on an interactive online set of catalogues. The notion of ‘multiverse’ As the panel introducing this wing explains provides an explicit valuing of different worldviews, cultural practices and ways of knowing without valuing one over another. The panel also explains the role that First Nations groups have had in helping to curate and tell the stories of the objects displayed. We were thrilled to see this perspective of a ‘multiversity’ so explicitly stated and practiced in the museum. This resonates with the idea of the ‘multiversity’ found in higher education which similarly acknowledges that there are diverse knowledges, ways of learning, teaching, engaging, relating and living. The Multiversity movement internationally rejects that there is and can be a single definition of a ‘Uni’ -versity that, in the movement’s perspective has been colonised by ‘Western’ notions of Higher Education. The multiple ways of valuing in the ‘multi-verse’ section of the museum reflects how Bill and the museum have put into practice this pluralistic valuing of cultural objects as objects to learn from in museums and as artefacts part of living cultures.

Museum practice has come a long way from earlier museum attitudes whereby indigenous artefacts were often seen as ‘deadened’ fossilised cultures, as remnants from a previous age. As Bill explained, here the attitude of the museum is instead one in which it sees its role as that of a caretaker of objects that are part of living cultures. The Anthropology Museum has long running relationships with many of the communities from across Canada where these objects come from. There is an acknowledgement that although they are stored and displayed here for the general public, many of these objects still belong to these communities and that they are entitled to use them when required, such as for certain ceremonies.

Bill Reed Rotunda, photo by Kely

I ask Bill how the curators at the museum, those responsible for the preservation of these objects across time, responded to these changes in practice. Bill replied that they have come around over time. The approach taken is then a pragmatic one acknowledging that the museum is split between two not altogether unreconcilable positions; first, that of a publicly and government funded institution with a role of displaying these objects so that people can learn more about them and the cultures that made them. Secondly; museums also have the role of being the guardians of these objects for the communities that have made them and opening the doors of the museum so that these cultures can tell their stories too.

As we have seen, some Nations such as the Haida and the Nisga’a already have their own museum or heritage centre, whilst others do not have the facility or prefer to house their artefacts in museums and make use of them when needed. The Anthropology Museum also has a number of outreach and participatory projects with First Nations communities such as community arts projects or housing visiting artists who make their art in the museum. Bill told us how sometimes carvers would carve a pole or sculpture in the main hall for the public to see them at work and people describe this as their most memorable experience of the museum.

Museums have come to play an important role in our ‘enlivened learning’ journey, providing us with a multi-sensory learning environment through which we have walked and traced our own paths of discovery. The stories woven together in these places have been significant additions to the other places of learning we have written about such as historical or sacred sites or landscapes. Museums have also provided a historical grounding or context to the various conversations we had and stories we heard across Canada. Adding to the written sources we have consulted, and our own experiences across places, museums have provided further threads through which the mesh of our learning has taken place.

From Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, to Writing-on-Stone, from the Nisga’a museum to the Blackfoot exhibition at the Glenbow museum, these are all examples of museums and displays designed, curated and run by First Nations peoples to tell their stories to their own communities and to others. We learnt much from these exhibitions, from the objects displayed, to the labels and narratives surrounding them, to the total experience they were trying to create. We have over our blog postings used a number of photos from these exhibits to try to convey a sense of the stories and histories being told.

In our travels we also went to several national museums, the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, the Royal Museum of British Columbia in Victoria, the Northern British Columbia Museum in Prince Rupert and the Fort Museum in Fort MacLoud. In many of these cases we also saw how national museums are trying to deal with and navigate the turbulent history of colonialism in Canada and the complex relationship between settler society and First Nations groups. Here we could see an attempt to represent the dark past of Canadian history, the oppressive Indian Laws, the broken and unjust treaties, the missionary conversions, the spread of disease, residential schools, the destruction of cultures and ways of life. We also saw attempts in these museums to show the cultural resurgence occurring since the 1960s, the contemporary artistic, educational, political and spiritual life of these communities. Many of these exhibitions were also curated in partnership with First Nations peoples.

Museums are an important source of authoritative knowledge in our society and increasingly for First Nations too. They are spaces of learning where this occurs in a multi-sensory way, not only through text, but also through objects, and increasingly through audio-visual and various digital media (see for instance my most recent film for the Pitt Rivers museum, Artisans of Memory). Museums are spaces where stories can be brought alive, that is why they are so popular especially with schools and parents. Behind these multi-sensory environments there are multiple designs, narratives and stories of how the world makes sense as well as through sets of implicit values.

Taking a slight detour and speaking about the use of museum in another context. We had wanted to go up to the Tar Sands region in northern Alberta to see for ourselves this place that is often talked about by First Nations peoples with much concern for the destruction it is causing to the water systems (not only immediately within this region but to much wider areas to connected watersheds across Canada and beyond) and the adverse health effects on neighbouring communities. We wanted to see this region as its development is proving to be the engine of the growth of Canadian economy and also because of its role as an increasingly important source of oil for the US and China. The region is then highly strategic for the oil economy but also of insurmountable significance in the costs to the environment and the process of climate change. I bring this up here because the corporations developing the Tar Sands also have their own museum in Fort McMurray designed to show the public their activities funded by private companies and the Alberta government. We wanted to see what this museum, the Oil Sands Information Center looked like and to experience its narratives and sets of values, but the journey north proved too far for our limited time.

Museums are then important sites of storytelling and conveying certain views of the world. They are also powerful institutions, closely tied with the world of academia and the sciences, which have come to have an authoritative aura for providing a legitimate description of the world. It is heartening to see that some of these institutions are now working much more closely with First Nations to not only include but voice their own view of the world, narratives of their histories, their ways of living, their spirituality and values. It is also significant how First Nations are appropriating and engaging with the institution of the museum, just as they are also doing with the institution of the university, as sites for the communication of their worlds and values, both for themselves and for others.

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