The Art of Resistance in Oaxaca

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.
Oaxaca is a city with deep artistic roots. In order to fight against violence and bureaucracy the local artists gathered together. One the first art groups who showed his position was a street art collective Asaro (Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca) and particularly a prominent Oaxacan street artist and a member of the collective -Yescka. Many of Asaro 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.
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. Asaro's work has a higher social purpose that is rooted in, and reflects the reality around them.
Lapiztola is another art collective famous for its resistance art in Oaxaca. Shortly, Lapiztola is an art collective in Oaxaca created by Roberto Arturo, Rosario Martínez and Yankel Balderas in 2006 during the Oaxacan uprising. At the beginning, Roberto Arturo and Rosario Martínez were creating designs for t-shirts, banners and posters in support of the protests. Even after the uprising had officially been quelled, the duo continued designing and printing t-shirts for the movement. In 2007, they formed the collective Lapiztola, a play on the Spanish words lápiz (pencil) and pistola (gun), with Yankel, an architect and graffiti artist who had also been active during the 2006 protests.

Like many other Oaxacan street artists, the members of Lapiztola have showcased their work at numerous exhibitions in Mexico and abroad. An adaptation of a mural titled El maíz en nuestra vida (Corn in our lives), originally painted for a festival in Cuba, recently found its way onto the streets of Oaxaca. The piece depicts a young woman aiming a rifle at scientists dressed in white hazmat suits, leaning over long stalks of corn. The piece links in with current protests across Mexico, the birthplace of maize, against the widespread introduction of Monsanto's genetically modified corn.

Since that time their work has become iconic, and easily identifiable through their large works that adorn the walls of Guelaguetza in Los Angeles and Agave Uptown in Oakland.
The last but not the least resistance artist to mention is Gran Om. Gran Om is famous for his political prints, contemporary gig posters and social political theme murals. Together with his friend illustration artist Kloer they design prints and paint murals that affect the life of people in the communities leaving a rich commentary on today's social and political issues: the fight of the indigenous people for their land, women rights, the collapse of the political system.

While being exhibited in the USA and Mexico, Gran Om keeps showing the contemporary aesthetics of design and street art through his works on the streets of Oaxaca.
What is happening today in Oaxaca clearly builds on this tradition, but has also managed to push out the boundaries – it is after all not just the work of one person, but a collective of independent artists. Surrealism, the fusion of ancient cultures with modern twists and political commentary all find a home in this rich melting pot of artistic expression.

It is fantastic to see that resistance art is still flourishing in Oaxaca, enlivening the everyday cityscape and opening up the realms of possibility for what is yet to come.