El Arte de Resistencia / The Art of Resistance

With three separate events happening in Bristol this fortnight celebrating the work of radical Mexican street art collective Asaro (Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca), I wandered round the Bearpit to look at some of the group’s work, and had a chat with Oaxacan artist Yescka about art and social change.

‘My future is in your hands, stop the privatisation of education!’ / ‘Stop violence against women!’

Tucked into a curve on Mexico’s southern coastline, the state of Oaxaca is known for its rugged mountainous landscapes, the Spanish colonial architecture of its capital city and its vibrant art scene. Along with neighbouring Chiapas, a high proportion of its inhabitants are of indigenous origin. Indigenous peoples such as the Mixtec, Zapotec and Mazatec make up around a third of the population, which also experiences some of the most severe poverty in the country.

Over the past decade, Oaxaca has also become known for political upheaval and experiments in local democracy. In 2006, a massive popular uprising shook the region in response to the violent repression of a teachers’ strike in the state capital. APPO (the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca) formed the same year, a non-hierarchical social movement agitating for justice in the region. In particular, it called for the expulsion of governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, who was accused of corruption, sanctioning human rights violations, and even the use of death squads.

‘We don’t forget, we don’t forgive’

Asaro emerged out of this social ferment, as Yescka, one of the group’s members and a prominent Oaxacan street artist, explained to me over Skype. Many of its founding members were college students at the time of the uprising, but formed a collective in order to pool their resources and lend their creative talents to the political struggle happening on their doorstep.

Since then, the collective has become known for its stunning works of street art, most of which are produced from wood-cut prints and stencils. These have helped create a visual commentary on the country’s political situation — such as the disappearance of 43 students from the town of Ayotzinapa in 2014 — that is in-keeping with a long tradition of murals and popular art in Mexico. But there is also a utilitarian aspect to their design: they are easy to reproduce and reuse, meaning they can be used to cover a lot of walls in a short space of time.

Yescka mentions how the collective is also dedicated to using its skills to help marginalized communities around Oaxaca. Espacio Zapata functions as the group’s studio. Much of their work is produced there, and some of it is sold to put back into the running of the collective. The space also hosts education workshops: artistic and printing techniques are taught to young people from the colonias around Oaxaca, to make sure the area’s creative talent is nurtured.

With Asaro’s work arriving in Bristol this week via PRSC’s outdoor exhibition in the Bearpit, as well as an exhibition in our own gallery, I asked Yescka what message Bristolian audiences could expect to take from the work. For him, much of what passes for art, especially in Europe, is essentially about “fashion, or making something look pretty”, whereas the collective sees art as something that should have “value and integrity”: Asaro’s work has a higher social purpose that is rooted in, and reflects the reality around them.

Yescka remarks that it is important for people in Bristol to see their work because many of the issues the group touches on — social inequality, violence against women, political corruption, and the selling off of public resources — are just as relevant in Europe as they are in Mexico, and should resonate far beyond the streets of Oaxaca.

Our exhibition of Asaro’s prints will run in the Hamilton House gallery from 19–23 October.

PRSC’s Bearpit exhibition Resiste! runs until 29 October.

On 27 October, Stoke’s Croft’s Café Kino will host Kiptik and Asaro: an Evening of Films and Talks, supported by Bristol solidarity group Kiptik.

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