Art and Indigenous Performance: A Workshop with Three Zapatista Muralists

by Melanie Vietmeier (Nantes)

Within the framework of the Transregional Academy “Spaces of Art. Concepts and Impacts in and outside of Latin America”, October 26th – November 3rd, 2019, in Mexico City, one of the academy’s fellows, Amal Eqeiq, Assistant Professor of Arabic Studies and Comparative Literature at Williams College, Massachusetts, organized and chaired an artist-audience encounter on October 31st. She invited Gustavo Chavéz Pavón (Mexico City), Janet Calderon (Hidalgo) and Dyg’ Nojoch (Chiapas), three Zapatista muralists from different regions in Mexico, to discuss with the academy’s participants about their artistic practices which address indigenous struggle, global solidarity and communal feminism. During the discussion the invited artists reflected on different categories of space as well as the appropriation of and encounters with space. Thereby, the workshop perfectly integrated with the overarching topic of the academy which aimed at reconsidering space as a fundamental category from a transregional perspective and which envisaged to reexamine the construction and perception of spaces in and outside of Latin America from a postcolonial perspective.

The workshop gave the academy’s participants the opportunity to get insight into indigenous street art practices in Zapatista caracoles – autonomous communities in the Free and Sovereign State of Chiapas in Southeastern Mexico – as well as in the streets of Mexico and beyond. While Calderon and Chavéz Pavón are intensely involved in international muralist movements connecting individual experiences in their limited temporality and locality to a larger collective whole, Dyg’ Nojoch is engaged in creating a pan-indigenous Mesoamerican movement of artists reclaiming a prehispanic past and present. The specific visual language of his murals merges Mayan symbology with graphic design reflecting on questions of identity and belonging. Transregional activities such as Chávez Pavón’s mural “To exist is to Resist” (2004), whose motif was painted on two walls – one in a caracole in Chiapas, the other in Bethlehem, Palestine – touch on global affinities and shared resistance in general moments of crises and also reflect on fundamental issues of indigeneity.

During the encounter the debates centered on specific acts of appropriation of urban space and on the artistic practice of muralism as didactic, participatory, community oriented and politically charged. This involved the discussion of contemporary muralism in Mexico as a continuation of a prehispanic tradition but also as a continuation of resistance and anti-colonial struggle. Negotiating the question of the accessibility of art, Calderon emphasized the importance of initiatives such as the foundation Siqueiros SIN Fronteras, a travelling muralist school with collaborative, non-hierarchical ways of learning and working with local communities in rural areas. Furthermore, one important aspect addressed in the discussion was the difference between graffiti and muralism as two distinct artistic practices and techniques with their own histories but also different ideologies in regard to different forms of appropriating public space. This also involves contemporary questions of aesthetics and ecology in regard to the material usually employed for graffiti and in turn the deployment of ecologically-friendly colors as in murals by artists such as Calderon.

Another productive area of inquiry, which arose at the close of the session, is the notion of institutional spaces for thinking about ideologically-charged establishments. Museums, galleries, or art academies are institutional spaces that play a crucial role for the cultural life of a region. However, they are often based on European models and their structures raise questions concerning who has a voice, who has access to which institution, who is represented in regard to class or origin. An ambivalent or critical approach to institutional space also characterizes the artworks of the invited artists, as for instance, the art event Chavéz Pavón organized in front of the emblematic Palacio de Bellas Artes the following day of the workshop – an art event which aimed at symbolically reclaiming this national institution and raising questions in regard to agency and unequal power relations due to the effects of colonization.

Captions:
Picture 1 (top left): Q&A session with the audience following the presentations of the artists.
Picture 2 (top center): Amal Eqeiq (Workshop organizer and moderator) presenting Gustavo Chavéz Pavón, Janet Calderon and Dyg’ Nojoch (order of people from right to left)
Picture 3 (top right): Participants in the Academy in a group picture with the artists after the workshop
Picture 4 (bottom left): The team of translators together with the artists: Prospero Carbonell, Gustavo Chavéz Pavón, Amal Eqeiq, Janet Calderon, Ana Bilbao, Dyg’ Nojoch, and Diogo Rodrigues de Barros
Picture 5 (bottom center): Amal Eqeiq & Dyg’ Nojoch during a presentation of his murals
Picture 6 (bottom right): Part of an ofrenda installed by Gustavo Chavéz Pavón in the morning following the workshop in front of the Palacio de Bellas Artes to celebrate Día de dos Muertos


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