Saturday, September 8, 2007

Arte en la calle

One of my favorite things to do in Oaxaca is just walk around on the streets. Occasionally I'll notice a door that's open and peek in, and I'll catch a glimpse into what world might exist inside. Every open door seems to reveal some incredible interior design. The exterior walls are great to look at as well, especially those that have been well-seasoned by the elements.

There's one element in particular here in Oaxaca that frequently peppers the walls, probably often to the chagrin of whoever may own the wall in question: the street artists. While there's plenty of hastily-scrawled graffiti on the walls - which unto itself is a window into the enduring culture of resistance here, if not the most visually or intellectually stimulating - there's also some well-crafted spray paint expression to be found.

I'd like to think that whoever owns the wall now adorned with the multidimensional cyclops cat featured above is happy to lend that surface to the cause, even if it was perhaps unsolicited. That said, there's a fair share of street art that does little more than vandalize other people's property. I've often felt that graffiti, depending on the level of creativity in either the philosophy behind it or the actual rendition of the art itself, can range from thought provoking to a complete waste of time. Some unintelligible initials carved or sprayed onto an old tree, to me, is not only disrespectful to the object but lacking in purpose to the point that I have to wonder if it was even worth the effort to deface the poor tree in the first place.

Which leads me to think that whoever tags FUERA URO for the thousandth time is another young kid who sees little to lose even if he gets caught, which is unlikely given the ten seconds it takes to spray 8 letters on a wall in quasi-cursive. Not to say that I think such a sentiment doesn't deserve expression, but there's clearly a more effective and creative way to say so.

Usually such guerrilla expression is painted over as quickly as it's portrayed, if not in quite the same color the wall might have been originally painted. Case in point, underneath and below the man in red are some tan squares that doubtlessly cover over some less inspired creativity, while the gentleman wheat-pasted on the wall is still there as I write today, if in a slightly more tattered state. Whoever painted over in tan what was painted before deemed this portrait fit to remain. Is it because this fellow is more visually appealing than one more tagline on the wall, or because, having been created on paper, he's bound to come down on his own before long anyway?

If that's true, wheat-paste art, for its impermanence, might be the way to make a point last a little longer. Existing on paper, it also has the advantage of being infinitely reproduceable, as was the case with this anti-bullfighting propaganda that caught my eye my first week here this year:

For a few weeks, this visual campaign was visible throughout the city. Granted, due probably to their more meaty political message, these tended to get clawed down from the walls much moreso than the red man featured above. Wheat paste also has the advantage of going up pretty quickly. For the street artist concerned with being caught in the act, most of the time-consuming creative process for a flyer like this takes place from the comfort and safety of the computer desk. Press print, repeat 100x, mix a can of paste and go to town. Each singular example of self-expression will take no longer to perpetrate than one more anonymous ULISES ASESINO tag, has a bona fide political intention, and in my opinion at least, is much more interesting to look at.

The medium of guerilla expression I appreciate the most, I think, shares with wheat pasting the benefit of being infinitely repeatable, and in the case of the simpler versions, quick to be put on the wall. It also retains the classic element that made graffiti the art form that it's become: the spray bottle. Of course, I'm referring to stencil art.

Okay, so this one goes beyond simple stenciling, and it probably didn't go up in just a few seconds, either. But it does illustrate why stencil lends itself to some highly creative expression. It blends nicely with more traditional spray can graff, and while it can be as simple as a single tone outline, it can clearly be taken much further. Work like this also raises the question: when does art borne in the street become something besides what the word graffiti brings to mind? Does this art - here in Oaxaca or elsewhere - have a place outside of city walls?

As I walked to Ollin one day, I saw on the wall of a bus stop a sight that brought my rhetorical question closer to a real answer:

This poster, along with a half dozen or so others, was promoting a gallery opening of a project by various students at Bellas Artes, a fine art school across the plaza from the chapel of La Soledad. Appropriately enough, this exhibit, displaying a collection of work sprung forth from the movement of resistance that arose in this city over the course of several months in 2006, was promoted by means of flyers wheat-pasted around town. I had the fortune of being able to attend the art opening, and happened to choose a route to the gallery that put me in a better frame of mind to appreciate the medium:

This brooding scene appears amidst a downtown neighborhood given over to the cause of guerrilla expression ranging from the simplest scrawled message to vistas such as this one. Connecting the dots even further were the halls of Bellas Artes themselves, graced as they were by the presence of some well-rendered zoology.

At which point I arrived at the entrance to the gallery, in time to join in the audience of the commencement of the exhibit, given by a number of faculty at Bellas Artes, and distinct from other gallery openings I've attended by virtue of a ribbon cutting ceremony. An auspicious introduction to a project inspired by a movement borne in the streets. While I spared the presenters my flash during their introduction, I was shameless in photographing the work on display after the initial rush of onlookers had subsided.

This piece, for me representative of the collection for its imagery - elements of which I've seen in street art both this year and last - as well as its statement of popular solidarity, brings together symbology given definition in our minds throughout the history of the culture of modern urban uprisings. The most central image in this work could be found around the city during this year's guelaguetza, a traditional Oaxacan summer fiesta tradition this year punctuated by a brief relapse of conflict between protestors and police:

Such an image, removed promptly from the canvas of the public streets after the guelaguetza was over, is now reappropriated and raised up on exhibition at the city's well-known school of fine art, where it joins a well-articulated assembly of modern visual archetypes, some distinctly Mexican, others universal. The street corner above, like many others in town, is home to ancient walls weathered by many generations of paint and paste. Like the countless doors one passes in the streets, they offer a glimpse inside the city's hidden corridors.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Mountain paradise

I thought I'd share with you my stay in the village of Cuajimoloyas, which I visited on the 18th and 19th of August with my group from Ollin. Cuajimoloyas is a small town in the mountains north of the city of Oaxaca, beautiful and green.

Our original idea for that weekend was to go to the beach for a couple of days, but the massive tropical storm in the Pacific had other plans. So Omar from the school recommended that we rent a cabin in the mountains outside of this village that he'd been visiting since he was a child. If you're going to get caught in the rain, I thought, more fun to do so on the trails in the woods than on the beach where you're expecting to soak up some sun.

With very little persuasion necessary, we managed to convince Omar to come along with us for the weekend. Looking back, I think he planned to go all along, given how at home he seemed to be both in the village and on the trail.

Omar told me later that he'd known the little boy sitting to his left since he was a newborn. When you get to know the people of this village, it's easy to understand why Omar cares so much for that place. The villagers there are incredibly kind, their children shy and curious about this strange bunch of visitors that descended suddenly on their streets.

The people there are living traditional rural lives, raising livestock and living to a great degree off of the land. As I've noticed is common amongst the small villages around the area, there is an outspoken consciousness towards natural resources and the need to protect them.

Omar, dedicated to the preservation of traditional language and culture, is working towards bringing more ecotourism to the area in order to help support the people of Cuajimoloyas to continue living in the way that they do. He said the greatest part about working in such a way is that he gets to visit places like this and conduct business with his friends who live throughout the state.

There was a great restaurant in the town that served what I might consider to be the best food I've had in Mexico so far. We ate there twice in two days, and I think if I lived in that village I would go there probably every day, the food being as healthy, simple and delicious as it was. We were served fresh tortillas at least every five minutes, along with black beans, rice, green beans and nopales, the flesh of the paddle-shaped cactus that's ubiquitous throughout Mexico and the Southwestern United States.

After that delicious country fare we headed into the woods towards our cabin. The campsite is about a kilometer outside of town and is located on the edge of a large wilderness that reminded me a lot of the New Mexico pine forests. There were two main varieties of pines that weren't so different than what you'd find in any forest I've visited from East to West. One thing I realized during our night there in the mountains is that when you get into nature it's easy to forget that you're in a countryside that might happen to belong to this nation or that. The only language being spoken when you sit down in the woods is that of the wind in the trees and the birds in their branches. The first moments of holding still in a forest are those of total silence. Then, as your ear becomes accustomed to the relative quiet, it becomes loud with the many sounds of nature.

Looking out into the open hills is enough to make you wonder how we ever got obsessed with dividing up the world into arbitrary borders and territories. In the woods, that idea becomes absurd. As Eduardo Galeano has written -Perhaps one day the world, our world, won’t be upside down, and then any newborn human being will be welcome. Saying, ‘Welcome. Come. Come in. Enter. The entire earth will be your kingdom. Your legs will be your passport, valid forever.’

Or maybe Bob Marley said it best -Why can't we roam this open country?

Along with our small group of noisy invaders roaming in the woods were the livestock. The people of Cuajimoloyas let graze their burros, toros, cabras y caballos in the mountains, and I couldn't resist the opportunity to engage in a brief communion with them. Some were bewildered by our strange shenanigans:

Others, cautious but curious:

Some were very friendly:

Others, a little too friendly:

That last guy was a really nice little donkey, actually. I just made the mistake of leaving my hand in his face for a few seconds too many. The bandana around his neck, besides earning him style points, is there to protect him from mal de ojo, known in English as the Evil Eye. You've got to watch out for that! Of course, if you ever do get hexed by mal de ojo, you can make use of an egg, which you rub on your body, to restore your good mojo to its former glory. It makes sense, when you think about it. The egg, a symbol of life. It gets you back to the source.
We also witnessed what I think must be the biggest agaves I've ever seen in my life:

Once we got to the cabins, we spent a very long time - and all but a couple of our matches - building a fire from some wet firewood, after having explored the mountains awhile. Omar managed to find some mushrooms that seemed a lot like the kind we call "hen of the woods." They were very tasty, as was the tea we made from some leaf that he gathered that reminded me of lemon verbanum. We stayed up nice and late, sipped some mezcal, told a lot of stories, and saw a different set of stars in the sky than I had before, sitting at a different vantage point for stargazing than I'm used to. We also might have filmed an impromptu Bollywood movie, of which I have a copy. As much as I'm tempted to post it here for posterity, I said I'd keep it off the internet and I guess I will.
Leaving the next day was hard for me. And not just because the bus driver was hurtling down the windy dirt road at what I'd call a breakneck pace while text messaging his girlfriend.
A mountain village such as Cuajimoloyas is pretty close to my mental image of paradise. Maybe someday I'll move to a place like that and spend some years there, retiring or raising some children. Until then, I'm glad I took a lot of pictures.

My latest attempt at academia

In the last month, I've completed the program through the School for International Training, at a local language institute here in Oaxaca called Ollin Tlahtoalli (a nahuatl phrase, English translation: language, movement).

So, I'm now certified to teach English around the world. Not bad for a month's work! It was an intensive course: four weeks, five days a week, and at least ten hours a day of learning and teaching, observing, and giving & receiving feedback for the lessons I gave and those of my classmates. My group of classmates was small, five of us, our trainer Joah, and the director of the institute, Omar. Here I am with one classmate and great friend, Meara, a student at Smith College who's been living and studying in Mexico since January. She came to Oaxaca already having grown familiar with the city of Puebla and a love of Mexican culture:

and, with Sari, a Swedish/Colombian brooklynite who's likely to become a naturalized Brasilian in the near future. She plans to open a language school and organic farm near the Brasilian coast:

This is Jules, who came to Oaxaca directly from Costa Rica, where he's been working for the last few months. Here he was learning some backstrap weaving from one of our students. He's been working hard to find some work to begin teaching right away, and with luck will be working in Quito before long:

Here is Greg, calmly seated behind the wheel of Omar's coveted silver 2002 VW Beetle (the classic air-cooled model, of course). Greg's a pre-med biology student at Tufts University (alma mater of New Mexico governor Bill Richardson). By now Greg's back at school and about to embark on his junior year of undergrad.

Joah, our trainer and primary source of information about such topics as teaching and Bollywood, has been walking the talk of teaching your way around the world for the past several years. He's taught and trained in Costa Rica, Mexico, Japan and India, and is most likely about to begin work in the land of Burma.

Last but not least is Omar, director of Ollin Tlahtoalli. Here he is pictured in front of a cabin where we stayed in the mountains outside of the village of Cuajimoloyas, an amazing town he introduced us to during our second weekend as a group. For the last several years Omar has been working tirelessly and happily on his mission to preserve and cultivate a wider awareness of the cultures and languages of the state of Oaxaca. Not the least of his efforts was to host and guide our group of wide-eyed norteamericanos during our stay in his native city.

We taught two different classes, one class of young professionals living in Oaxaca city, and the other a group of weavers from the nearby village of Santo Tomas Jalieza, a small town of weavers who showered us with an outpouring of affection and food upon our visit to their home. They have been a joy to work with, and have taught me at least as much as I've been able to teach them. I have the good fortune to stay here in Oaxaca for another two weeks and continue to work with them here in Oaxaca and hopefully, in their village as well.
Here we are during a meal together in Santo Tomas. A scene that looks a little too much like the last supper for my taste! Not all of the weavers were able to join us for lunch, but from left to right standing behind me is Priscilla, Dolores, Victoria, Teresa and Alicia. Seated at the left of the table is Suzanne, a graduate of the SIT program here to visit Oaxaca once again, Gisela, one of our students from Oaxaca, and Matt, a student in the US here to study with Omar.

As fate would have it, I visited Santo Tomas last year as well, as part of a tour through the language institute I was attending at that time. I have to admit, as part of a tour that felt like an excuse for the older people in my group to buy textiles, I didn't have a great first impression of the village. This year, after I had already been teaching some of the people from Santo Tomas for a couple of weeks, when we came to visit them in their village I realized that I had been there before. My experience was very different this time, and the difference was that now I knew the people and understood who they were. When I looked at their weavings I realized that these were their creations, made by their own hands. When I held them and ran my fingers across the designs I could almost see how they made them and the time and attention it took to create them.
That's the main difference between the two kinds of human encounters you can have, I think. Either you know someone and have compassion and respect for who they are and where they're coming from, or you don't. One thing I learned from visiting Santo Tomas a second time is that I ought to look at every stranger as someone I just need to get to know in order to see into their lives for who they really are. For those people who I may meet and not have the opportunity to get to know, it's enough to think for a moment or two about that person and the entire life that's unfolded behind them and before them. I'm very grateful to the people of Santa Tomas for welcoming me and helping me to learn that little lesson. Here's one more photo of all of us together for the last time as teachers and students, this time at Ollin Tlahtoalli:

There's been a lot more going on in the last few weeks as well, but I'll save those stories for another time! Be well and keep in touch.