Dispatch from Mexico: Oaxaca’s Vibrant Print Scene
The following is the first of two new guest posts by Kevin McCloskey from Oaxaca, Mexico. All photos by Kevin McCloskey.
Durer mural by Liqen
Oaxaca, (pronounced Wah-Ha-ka) high in the mountains of southern Mexico is a mecca for printmakers. For a city of 375,000, Oaxaca has a phenomenal print scene fueled by a rare mix of young and old talent, experimental venues, generous benefactors, and the occasional art collector. I asked several Oaxacan printmakers how many ‘tallers’ or studios exist there. Answers ranged from ten to seventy. Since I visited ten nicely equipped studios this summer, I know the low estimate is off.
My visit coincided with the third Takeda Biennial, an all-Mexico print competition. I saw sixty exceptional prints selected from over 450 entries in the exhibition honoring Shinzaburo Takeda. Born in Japan in 1935, Takeda experienced World War II as a child. After studying art in Tokyo he moved to Mexico City and immersed himself in Mexican art and life. He found his way to Oaxaca and is still teaching at Benito Juarez University at age 77. Takeda jokes that Oaxaca, elevation 5,100 feet, is sinking like Venice under the weight of its printing presses. If so, he shares the blame. Most Oaxacan printmakers have studied with him or one of his many students.
Oaxaca, at times, has an international feel. There is a mural of Albrecht Durer (see picture above) on the wall of Lucien Santiago’s taller, La Huella Grafica. The mural by Spanish artist Liqen portrays Durer running his body through a press, reproducing himself. The afternoon I visited his studio Lucien was drinking mescal and reading a 19th century German anatomy book illustrated with stunning lithographs. Lucian studied lithography at Taller Bambu.
Maestro Abraham Torres founded Taller Bambu in 2003. The studio name honors Takeda. Takeda in Japanese means ‘place of Bamboo.’ In the past decade Taller Bambu has hosted 40 international visiting artists. Torres is planning Bambu’s 10th birthday exposition for September 2014 at IAGO, the Institute of Graphic Arts of Oaxaca. IAGO is the central pilgrimage point of the Oaxacan print scene. Founded by Francisco Toledo, IAGO has a fine art library (66,000 books) and the largest collection of prints (over 7,000 works) in Latin A merica. The library is free thanks to Toledo, arguably Mexico’s greatest living artist. He devotes considerable energy to supporting grassroots art organizations and individual artists. Antique presses are used as tables to display books at IAGO. Art openings there can be a madhouse; mescal is poured by the gallon from red plastic gas cans.
There are dozens of art venues ranging from libraries, galleries, and coffee houses to mescal bars. Exhibitions hang for as little as a week, so there might be several openings a night. Oaxaca’s two daily newspapers send reviewers to cover art openings even at small cooperative galleries.
Espacio Zapata is home to the political printmaking collective ASARO, the Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca. ASARO was founded in 2006, during a time of barricades, tear gas, and mass arrests. The ASARO crew risked life and limb to paste topical protest prints on the walls in those days. Now they sell more anti-capitalist T-shirts than prints, but the blocks for their protest prints can found in the backroom, near the sturdy press.
Mario Guzman of ASARO tells a story of his student days. His teacher, Maestro Takeda, sent him to ask Francisco Toledo for support of a project to send Guzman abroad on an artist exchange to Japan and Spain. Toledo gave Guzman a small portfolio of his prints and told him to contact a particular art dealer. The honest dealer gave Guzman far more money than he expected or needed, so he booked tickets for a second young artist, Cesar Chavez.
Cesar Chavez became ASARO’s master printer. Some nights he cranked out hundreds of protest prints. At dawn he would sleep beneath the press on the ink-stained press felts spread across the concrete floor. Cesar now has his own studio, Taller Chicatana, up the street from Espacio Zapata. He teaches a three-day intro to relief printing course. He carves sheets of red neolite, a material used for the souls of shoes, that cuts much like linoleum.
Gabinete Grafica is one of Oaxaca’s most energetic new co-ops. Most of the young artists are still university students working on their senior projects. Maestro Takeda, among others, donated prints to the group to help them get the gallery going.
There are high-end contemporary galleries in Oaxaca’s historic center. I was prepared to dismiss these places as slick commercial entities until Cesar Chavez brought me to visit Vicente Mesinas of Galeria 910. Mesinas, an indigenous Mixtec, grew up selling trinkets to tourists. He is now a printmaker, painter, and gallery owner. Nearly fifty prints hang in his print room, making Galeria 910 the best place in Oaxaca for an overview of the local print scene. Many of these prints came to him in trades. Mesinas traded ten large sheets of Arches paper for a print from Ivan Bautista, a member of the Gabinete Grafica.
Mesinas also traded Cesar Chavez twenty picture frames for one large woodcut. Messina notes there is not a big market for Chavez’s moody woodcuts, but he admires the younger artist’s work.
At TAGA, a taller founded by Demian Flores, I met a young Columbian artist, Monica Naranjo Uribe doing a 10-week residency. She was finishing a suite of etchings called Oaxaca XO. Later the same week I found her hanging the project at a gallery in a public library.
Other studios worth visiting are the venerable Taller Rufino Tamayo, and CASA, Center de las Artes de San Agustin. San Agustin is about ten miles from the city of Oaxaca and CASA is housed in a restored textile mill. At CASA the emphasis is on environmentally friendly printing. Follow a stream downhill to reach a small paper mill where paper crafted from local plants can be purchased. This may be the most beautiful setting for a print shop and paper mill imaginable.
If you visit Oaxaca don’t forget to ask how many print studios there are, it’s a great conversation starter. —And bring a mailing tube. Wonderful prints abound, but tubes are hard to come by.Bookmark / Share / Print