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Meeting hospitality and friendship on the road…

Meeting hospitality and friendship on the road…

Posted by on Jan 6, 2013 in all posts, Mexico, on the road, Universidad de la Tierra | 3 comments

A journey such as this one is only possible because of the generosity, hospitality and friendship of others we have encountered on the way. We begun our trip with some sketches of possible routes and a few contacts from friends and colleagues of a number of people we came to meet. Between plans and the actuality we initially felt a gulf filled with a sense trepidation and risk, leaving the relative safety and comfort of our lives, our home and jobs into something unknown. What we had not imagined was the warmth and generosity we have encountered and been drawn into in all the places we have visited, the doors that were opened, the food shared, the walks taken, the friendships built. This has been one of the most wonderful and humbling aspects of the journey, the openness with which we have been received and the hospitality those we have met have shown. Maybe it is also because we have ourselves been more open, to people, to situations, to life. Whatever it is, the friendly rapport and genuine exchanges we felt we had with so many people over the last few months has felt truly alive (enlivened!) and quite a world away from the stifled, cautious and awkward dynamics that often unfolded in and around the academic institutions we had been accustomed to.

Tepoztlan, Amate tree (ficus insipida – a kind of giant wild fig tree) which we were shown by Alberto.

So this post is more of an expression of gratitude, as we start this new year, for the openness we found on the road but also a discovery of the many shapes and forms hospitality takes. The dinners and conversations with Cynthia Chambers, Ramona Big Head, Narcisse Blood and Alvine Mountain Horse. Being guided through ‘the pond’ by Ryan and Adrienne Heavy Head who shared the story of the Beaver Bundle with us. The warm hospitality of our friends Amanda and Sebastien (along with their newborn baby Maeve) in Calgary and the many conversations about the environmental situation in Canada. Being shown around the landscapes, rivers and forests and sites of First Nations art in and around Terrace by Dempsey Bob, and sharing a number of beautiful conversations and meals with him. An unexpected dinner organised last-minute by Rocque in his wonderful house by the lake a few miles south of Terrace.  Through the contact of our friend Amanda who Kelly met in Birmingham – staying with her friend Janice, and now our newly found friend, in Vancouver,  who introduced us to the world of urban gardening there and the exciting initiatives happening around this at the University of British Columbia with First Nations groups. Then in Mexico staying with my camarada Carlos and Rachel in their flat in the charming and bohemian Coyoacan region of Mexico City, spending hours talking about Mexico, Guatemala, academia, anthropology and food, amongst many other things. Meeting a new friend, Alberto in Tepoztlan, a filmmaker and academic who took us on a wonderful walk around the edges of the town to meet some wonderful trees (see the image above). With our home stay in Oaxaca with the tremendously hospitable Margerita and her husband Hector with whom we also shared stories in a (generously) slow-spoken Spanish over breakfast of tamales and one day for lunch an exquisite Oaxacan mole (one of the seven the city is famous for). Funny how food seems to have so often gone with these enlivening encounters and conversations!

Then there was the generosity and friendliness of all the students we met at these different places, those in Ryan and Duane’s class at Red Crow, at the Freda Diesing School, in Unitierra who shared their experiences of being in these spaces.

We had already thought and talked much about these wonderful encounters throughout our journey before we reached Oaxaca where we learnt that in the work and life of Gustavo Esteva and Ivan Illich, and in the ethos of Unitierra, these qualities of friendship, hospitality and generosity are also central orientations.

As we wrote in a previous post on autonomy, these qualities provide a different perspective  to the individualism and self-centredness commonly cultivated in the learning and institutional life of industrial modernity. Illich and Esteva’s writings and their actions instead attempt to show that there are other ways of relating and conducting one’s lives based on these orientations of friendship, generosity and hospitality. We already described in a previous post the atmosphere in Unitierra in respect to this. Here I also want to write a little about our own attempt at creating an environment of generosity in the world of academia.I have a vague memory of reading something somewhere about how the academies of ancient Greece functioned as a meeting of friends to discuss life, ideas, politics. The early scientific and learned societies from the Enlightenment onwards in Europe similarly gathered friends in pursuit of their passion for learning, though like the ancient Greek ones these societies did tend to elitism and where exclusively the privilege of men. Yet how strange that this key quality of friendship seems to have been squeezed out of corridors of the academy, often supplanted by a cold individualism.

Whilst living in England we had experimented with a small group of other colleagues from the university with an ‘amateur academic adventurers club’.  Amateur because we were engaged in something we loved and enjoyed, as the Latin roots of the word imply, and an adventure’s club because it sounded fun and suggested that the pursuit of ideas and social inquiry can have the quality of an active running forth, an investigation and act of discovery. Within this community, we explored ideas and enquiries we were concerned with, thinking about, pondering over, wanting to explore. Over the course of some 18 months we met every few weeks just to talk about ideas, research projects, questions and dilemmas we had been thinking about in relation to our enquiries. Our only rule was not to talk about the day to day troubles we all faced in the academic environments we were working in: increasing and increasingly redundant bureaucratic controls and procedures, a confining utilitarian and profit-driven logic, growing workloads, decreasing time to pursue our own ideas, enquiries and to research and write, decreasing spaces for collegiality and the exchange of ideas. Anyway, we did not talk about any of that.

So we attempted to create a space outside this atmosphere of institutional, and subsequently interpersonal, toxicity which was the opposite, an environment of hospitality, friendship and the nurturance of ideas. Taking turns we came to develop and deepen various themes which were enriching in our own enquiries and enlivening in our sense of the possibility of how a community of friends engaged in the world of ideas and social research could work together in creating and relating and thinking. This environment also became one that gave us strength and solidarity in our day to day working lives reassuring us that another way of doing things is indeed possible. This experiment did not take much, only an intention and effort to be open, generous and hospitable to each other and each others’ ideas and concerns, and some food and drink to go with that.

Some six months or so after our last meeting with this group of friends we have found numerous other examples of generosity and hospitality throughout our journey that emerged spontaneously through various encounters or which were being nurtured as part of an organisation’s ethos, such as in Unitierra. What has been beautiful to see is that the orientation of a society of friends in pursuit of learning is still very much around and is found in many places, just there, nearby, awaiting us to go forth, open, to meet them.

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Reflections on Literacies, Part 1 Oaxaca

Reflections on Literacies, Part 1 Oaxaca

Posted by on Dec 23, 2012 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 2 comments

Painting on the walls of Mcmenamins Kennedy School in Portland, Oregon (no name – but we refer to it as ‘Banking Style Education’), photo by Kelly

I am sitting at a kitchen table with my back to the sun and the view below of endless tiled roofs until green mountains rise abruptly behind them.  In spite of this captivating view, I am once again absorbed in my computer screen. Every day we feel a constant tug of war to ‘catch up’ and ‘enliven’ our ‘enlivened learning’ blog and write what can often seem as an endless stream of emails to connect with friends, family, colleagues, places to visit, people yet to meet.  We are reminded how much computers suck away energy – draining colour from our faces and brightness in our eyes – quite a far cry from an enlivened state of learning!  Yet, using these machines is essential as part of our learning and communication – to connect with and relate to so many different people from different parts of the world, building perhaps new communities, new relationships.

Today I am writing up my notes and Kelly’s notes that were jotted down previously sitting by another window overlooking a different view. These notes were registers of my memories of our time in Unitierra and in particular our exchanges with Gustavo around the topic of literacy, orality and the screen culture or society that seems to be emerging in all corners of the world.

On the first day visiting Unitierra, we attended the Wednesday weekly afternoon seminar.  When we walked into the front room, at least 10 people were busy peering into their computer, typing furiously.  Side conversations occurred intermittently without much eye contact.

It was a curious thing to see the wall of computers encircling the large table that is actually 10 tables pushed together.  The computer screens nearly blocked the faces and bodies behind them, looking as if it is a meeting of computers rather than of bodies.  I wondered how different this scene would have been 10 years ago.  Would there have been books and notebooks as the center of focus instead?  How does our reliance on computers play a part in community, and in comunalidad (see previous post)?  How does it strip away the atmosphere of comunalidad?  And, how does it offer another type of comunalidad?

Ivan Illich seminar at Unitierra – Oaxaca (teleconferencing with people from Spain, Colombia and Argentina), photo still from film footage, by Udi

The writer Bennedict Anderson used the term Imagined Communities (title of his 1983 book) to refer to how nationalism emerges as a historical phenomenon in which large groups of people come to envisage themselves as part of a community with shared attributes and a common identity. These communities, acquired a social consciousness as being part of a larger group in parallel to processes of self-organisation around the institutions of a state. For Anderson one of the key catalysts in this is the emergence of what he called ‘print-capitalism’, that is, the wide availability of printed books published in the vernacular, through a newly established print industry that included literary productions, pamphlets, newspapers and so on. Anderson’s influential work then brought together these technologies of communication with new forms of political organisations, imaginations and identities.

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

Killer Whale, by Latham Mack

Peering at the screens before us in the front room of Unitierra that afternoon, and reflecting on our own experiences with computers we also wondered about the role and effects of communication and information technologies like computers and the Internet in transforming our societies, forms of organising, our identities and imaginations. But beyond these questions, which Bennedict addressed in his work in relation to the printed press, we wondered how these mediating technologies changed our interactions with the world and each other. How do these technologies alienate us from immediate experience and each other whilst at the sane time bring us together in new ways, allowing for novel forms of organising, creating, communicating? How do these technologies make our lives easier and more enjoyable — and how have they made us more anxious, obsessively needing to ‘stay in touch’ and consume an overwhelming amount of random information? How have these machines liberated or enslaved us?

We guessed the answers would be obvious and subtle. These technologies have made it possible that we can publish our experiences and ideas, across the world, unmediated by publishers or other gatekeepers of the printed press. But they have also tied us to hours of typing and tinkering in front of screens, as Kelly notes describe above, away from the world unmediated by screens. Much has been written on the transformations at different times and places of mediating technologies, whether the computer or book, on societies and cultural practice. More subtle are the impacts of these technologies on the ways we experience and relate to the world and each other.

This had also been the topic of a long running seminar in Unitierra, using some of Ivan Illich’s work on the theme of literacy – he wrote two books on this topic, ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind (1988, co-written with Barry Sanders), and In the Vineyard of the Text (1993). The seminar met weekly over a period of several months discussing these and other texts and bringing diverse experiences and ideas. A story Gustavo told from this seminar stuck with me. This involved a young man who, excited about these discussions on literacy and orality, returned to his village outside Oaxaca to interview his indigenous grandfather with a recording device over a period of several days. When he explained to his grandfather what he was doing with the machine, recording every statement, the elderly man laughed uncontrollably for a while. He then told his grandson the stories and experiences he was telling him changed depending on what he was feeling, what day it was, what he ate. So all he was recording was his mood.

The story chimed with us and speaks to the working practice of every researcher, how the seeming permanence of registering words, in recording devices or text, solidifies the transient and changing flux of lived experience. How does growing up in a ‘society of the book’ and increasingly ‘of the screen’ affect our experiences? What kinds of experiences, relationships and ways of communicating do those forms of literacy foreclose or render more difficult as they replace other ways of being? Is it even possible to remember what is forgotten through the introduction of these new mediating technologies and the practices of relating, reading and writing the world they introduce? Can these deeply ingrained sensibilities be unlearned?

Photo taken by Udi – Petroglyphs inside Writing-On-Stone

Whilst learning with the Blackfoot, from Blackfoot ways of knowing and from the sites that were important to them we had a taste of what it might be like to learn from and listen to place, to plants and animals, to the sky, the mountains, the weather – to gain new forms of literacy with the land – reading and relating to the land.  This required a legitimising of these aspects of the natural world as sources of knowledge, as things we can also ‘read’ and learn from on par with that which we might acquire from books. Cynthia Chambers, Narcisse Blood, Ryan Heavy Head, whom we spent some time with in Alberta, helped us become more sensitive to these ways of being in place. Cynthia has also worked with Inuit Aboriginal communities in the Arctic on mapping their ’embodied memoryscapes’ or literacies of the land, stories that developed through centuries about different land formations that guided their migration patterns annually without any printed text.

Photo taken by Udi during our conversation with Ryan and Adrienne at the pond near Lethbridge, Alberta (Canada)

What we consider ‘literacy’ or legitimize as being ‘literate’ is completely embedded within relationships of power. What this means is that any definitions and forms of measurement about what ‘literacy’ or ‘being literate’ is, is about including some forms of knowing that automatically excludes others.  These acts of inclusion and exclusion exercise power, that often many people, primarily those being excluded, have no control over.  In the international development and education worlds, UNESCO (United Nations Education Science and Cultural Organization) provides the global definition of what ‘being literate’ means.  This definition has changed significantly over the past 50 years because of being inadequate and hotly debated.  Currently, wider definitions and understandings of literacy do exist because of these debates, although the focus on textual literacy (as reading and writing) tends to consistently predominate because of its fundamental importance in the global economy.

Munir Fasheh, the Palestinian activist and scholar, often gives the example of his own mother who was conventionally ‘illiterate’ but was a gifted seamstress who not just functioned, but excelled at her craft without literacy or numeracy skills as typically ascribed. Kelly met Munir in 2004, when she was living in Karachi and found him deeply inspiring – intellectually and spiritually.  His critiques of education and international development were centred first on ourselves – how we need to reflect critically and spiritually on our own practices before changing the world around us.  Munir gave a Tedx Talk in Ramallah in April (2012) which is well-worth watching (spoken in Arabic but with English subtitles).  Other noted scholars and authors, particularly Brian Street (Kelly’s former PhD supervisor whose work has really inspired her thinking), Tim Ingold (see his collection of essays in The Perception of the Environment amongst many others)  and David Abram (see Spell of the Sensuous) have also expressed in their work a similar sensibility to considering different interpretations and analyses of what literacy/ies are and in particular, how these relate to learning from our particular environment.  That, in different contexts, being ‘literate’ can and should mean far more than a simplified and abstract definition.

Winter Count, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Alberta, photo by Udi

A further re/un-learning around textual literacies that we both had been experiencing in this journey also came up in our conversation with Gustavo. This has to do with the importance of the conversation as a more embodied, interactive and present way of being together and communicating. In academia there is a fetishising of publications; the article, book, ‘publish or perish’, number of citations, journal ranking. Texts are the currency of exchange and the way of quantifying people’s productive capacity, reach and worth. Unfortunately, rare are the spaces created purposively for good conversations. The formulaic nature of most conferences and seminars do not make fertile ground for this beautiful interpersonal flowering of the good conversation to flourish. Academic departments are often too busy discussing the latest bureaucratic procedures or increasing hardships of academic day to day life for people to really talk about the passions and ideas that drive their work.

Here on this journey, in the open plains of southern Alberta, the forests of northern British Columbia, or in the bustling cities of Vancouver, Mexico City or Oaxaca we are rediscovering the enlivening joy of conversations and its importance for mutual learning. We have spent hundreds of hours over the last three months talking to people, those involved in the initiatives we are visiting, new and old friends we have stayed with or met along the way and others with whom we crossed paths. Conversations are the pulsing beat of our journey.

Kelly reminded me of the conversation we had with Cynthia when she told us how visiting is fundamental to her work and learning with Aboriginal communities and how this is not often appreciated within academic circles.  The importance of visiting, of engaging in conversations is primary to the ways in which we are learning with and from the organizations and people that we are encountering on this journey.  This ‘approach’ is in stark contrast to social research methods that we have both been educated about and have followed within our academic work (we will write more about this later). We have loved returning to the spoken word and storytelling as a medium through which to engage with others and share our experiences, questions and hopes. We have also loved the conversation as a present moment, immediate and embodied medium of exchange.

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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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Growing up with art

Growing up with art

Posted by on Nov 17, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art | 0 comments

I grew up with art, it was just something I did and enjoyed since childhood. Painting, drawing, making things out of clay and other materials had always been pleasurable, absorbing and unpretentious activities for me. I also loved looking at art books and going to see art in museums, whenever my parents took me. This all changed after I got to art college. What had until then been a spontaneous, creative and hopeful activity in which I could lose myself for hours now took place in an environment filled with anxiety, insecurity and competitiveness.

Much of the contemporary art I saw celebrated around me, in magazines and galleries seemed shallow, market-driven and uninteresting. Rather than a gratifying and intuitive activity I felt a lot of art to be anecdotal, full of artifice and self-indulgent. I searched through the history and sociology of art for reasons of why this had come to be, writing my masters thesis on the emergence of the cult of the artist and the contemporary institutions of aesthetic contemplation (museums, galleries and so on). I was curious of how the idea and practice of the ‘art object’, as that which is removed from the flow of day to day life and social activity to become its own separate domain, had been achieved.


I did not have the language then, nor the experiences or the readings, to appreciate and describe the role of art in different cultures. I could not see then how good, or great, art is grounded in place, in the people and culture, in history, and how it is nourished by these ingredients. This is one of the important things I learnt whilst in Terrace and especially in conversations with Dempsey.


Dempsey’s art is grounded in the grammatical forms and stories of the Northwest coast. It is also an art that emerges from this place, from the shapes of the mountains, the winding curves of the rivers, the ovoid shapes of the pebbles by the streams, the towering cedars and the animals that populate this region.

Dempsey at Kitselas Canyon, photo by Udi

We spent a lot of time with Dempsey driving to the Nisga’a museum, going to the Kitselas Canyon, strolling across the dry river by Terrace and eating together on various occasions. Often Dempsey would point out features of the landscape guiding our eyes to the shapes he saw in the mountains, or the swirl of the flowing river, or the roundness of a stone. These, he said, are where the grammar of Northwest coast art comes from, the ovoid shapes which we then began to see everywhere.


Grounded in this grammar of this region Dempsey, like a number of other accomplished artists from the Northwest coast, innovates and pushes the boundaries of this art form creating more intricate designs and forms, stretching his skills as a carver. But Dempsey is also an artist between worlds, that of his Tahltan Nation for whom he continues to make ceremonial objects, totems and carvings that become part of a living cultural practice, and that of the international art market, where his objects come to acquire another set of meanings, values and functions.


In Dempsey’s studio we saw the piece he is working on now, a beautiful face with smaller figures emerging from it. The sleeping unfinished sculpture is surrounded by hundreds of chisels, waiting to wake it up. Around the walls of the studios dozens of images serve as inspiration, many of these are of old pieces from the Northwest coast, but as many are of European art, especially Van Gogh and Modigliani.

Dempsey and Udi walking in Terrace, photo by Kelly

My time in Terrace was also a kind of healing from my falling out of love with art that happened in art college. I loved being here and talking to such committed artists who came from a place where art still felt very alive. I loved the generosity of these artists, and especially Dempsey, who shared with us their stories, inspiration, and aspiration for their communities and this art form. Art comes from place, Dempsey would say. And he was not just referring to the art of this region but also that of his favourite artist Van Gogh who drew his energy from the landscapes and people of southern Europe. Through teaching others at the School, Dempsey, Ken, Stan and Dean are opening up the path for a new generation to also connect to place and to its stories (and to culture, history and identity) through a particular way of seeing and making.


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Dancing in the Northern Lights

Dancing in the Northern Lights

Posted by on Nov 16, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art, on the road | 0 comments

Photo taken by Udi, North of Terrace, British Columbia

We had just left the Kitimaat Village, the primary residence of the Haisla First Nations, with warmth in our bellies from a delicious meal, and warmth in our heart from being enveloped by a captivating sunset that had slowly etched its way across the sky, grabbing onto each cloud to bring forth an array of yellows, pinks and oranges.  The single public eatery in Kitimaat, Seamasters Restaurant, as it was located on the edge of the Douglas Channel, a harbor that leads eventually out to the Pacific Ocean, provided us with a double gift of coloured sky and water.  The water lapped calmly against the shore from soft ripples traversing its surface.  Across to the other side of the harbor, perhaps three or so miles away, we could discern hills of evergreen trees, houses and boats – and the metallic sheen of industrial development on part of its edge in Kitimat, the ‘non-Aboriginal’ side, about a 30-minute drive away.   The industrial complex has been built as part of the proposed Enridge oil processing and transport plan, in spite of its continued negotiation with over 60 First Nations communities across Alberta and British Columbia.


Photo taken by Udi – me appreciating the sunset from Seamasters Restaurant, Kitimaat Village, British Columbia

Photo taken by Udi from Seamaster Restaurant, Kitimaat Village, British Columbia

We had chosen Kitimaat Village without much hesitation, the Haisla residence with its highly recommended artistic shops and restaurant along the water’s edges.  Seamasters was difficult to locate, nestled into the middle of the village, without a directional sign.  We stopped to view a totem pole at the village’s entrance.  It stood in isolation and we wondered about its story of creation and emergence.

Photo by Kelly of totem pole, entrance to Kitimaat Village, British Columbia


When we left the restaurant it was dark.  A darkness thick from a fully waned moon.  We were careful to drive slowly along the winding road that leaves Kitimaat through heavy forest until it reaches the highway that leads us the 50 kilometers or so back to Terrace.  Not more than 5 kilometers from Kitimaat, I suddenly noticed a shimmer of light dancing across the sky which seemed to be out of place, not connected to any human-created light.  I had Udi stop the car as soon as there was enough of a shoulder.  We stopped briefly as the shoulder was not wide or safe enough to witness the lights unfolding across the sky. The skies’ horizon was also hindered by large trees and the bright lights of cars passing more frequently than expected.  We decided to drive the 45 minutes back to Terrace and explore ideal observation points from  mapping options displayed on our GPS that was waiting for us in the hotel, and then go from there.


The GPS helped us decide to drive up Highway 113 to a lake that, on the map, appeared to be far from any human habitation.  Highway 113 sharply curved its way out of Terrace, continuing on for miles in an inky blackness.  We were wary of running into moose, bear, wolves, caribou, deer, so we restrained ourselves from driving too fast.  We did not see any Aurora brightening the night’s sky, and we thought perhaps that our opportunity to witness the elusive event had disappeared as quickly as it had made itself known.  Determinedly we drove on, convincing our impatience to hold back until we found a place to stop, a place that provided a wide open view of the night’s sky.


A wide turnoff appeared and we could just discern a lake below us.  A view of the Big Dipper (or ‘Plough’ as I learned it is called in England) was clearly visible – directly in the middle of the sky’s northern horizon in front of us.  It was nearly 10pm.  We waited.  We did not see any lights unfolding.  5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes… I kept anxiously turning around every time I heard an unidentifiable noise, hoping that a bear was not choosing to pay us a visit.


During this time we had noticed a faint band that seemed to dust the entire sky at about a 60 degree angle in front of us.  We wondered if that was part of the halo of solar particles that is the Aurora Borealis we had observed from photographs on the Internet gripping the upper northern hemisphere of the Earth – just two days ago.  The appearance of the Aurora Borealis is not predictable, a clear sky and waning moon is necessary in addition to the clashing of charged solar particles and atoms high in the Earth’s atmosphere.


Suddenly a faint being came into view.  It was as if a dancer who has been dormant, without warning, performs a half-hearted body wave in a ethereal and luminescent suit, before resting herself into another position – less dormant, but resting and visible all the same.  This single body wave seems to awaken another, and then another, a domino of dancers, each reacting to the other.  The particular splendour of the view was the reflection of the Lights dancing on the surface of the water below.


Photo by Udi north of Terrace, British Columbia

Photo taken by Udi, north of Terrace, British Columbia

We later learned through Dempsey Bob that many First Nations groups relate to the Aurora as dancing spirits – appearances of their ancestors.  We stood outside, marvelling at the lights when they appeared and waiting when they rested out of sight.  The experience, especially the first time defies adequate articulation.  It must be experienced.  I felt the presence of my grandmother and other family and friends who have passed.  They were somehow with me.  Udi also felt it was a spiritual experience that is profoundly difficult to grasp in words.

Photo taken by Udi north of Terrace, British Columbia

Photo by Udi north of Terrace, British Columbia

Photo by Udi north of Terrace, British Columbia


Photo by Udi north of Terrace, British Columbia


When we realized it was after midnight and we had an early morning a few hours in front of us, especially after a long day of driving, we reluctantly headed back to Terrace.  The Aurora were resting again when we left.  Not 5 minutes after driving south, however, I saw the entire sky light up and we stopped again at a small shoulder.  This particular dance surpassed anything we had thus far witnessed.  Some how the Aurora had shimmied its way right above our heads as well lighting up the sky behind us.  The lights were radiating out of a centre point in slow, hypnotic rays, a light purplish colour, different to the ones we had seen in front of us.  We were so awestruck that we did not manage to capture this part of the experience on film.  This photograph below is of the illuminated sky behind us.

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