Oaxaca's Printmaking Revolution
Published by Asahi, Japan, 2018
There is something of an anarchic spirit in Oaxaca City, in southern Mexico. Travellers here must withstand the daily demonstrations and parades – the two are often combined – along with the fireworks that explode continually above the city.
Twelve years ago the city centre was the scene of violent clashes between protestors and the authorities – with over a dozen dead – and memories are still raw. And as you explore the city, with its stately colonial buildings and centuries-old churches, you cannot fail to notice the murals and graffiti on the pastel-coloured walls, depicting falling bombs or angry protestors, along with slogans such as “Justicia o revolución”.
But what is striking about the murals is the level of artistry. Peering closer, you’ll notice they are handmade woodblock prints. For Oaxaca is a unique conjunction of radical politics and traditional printmaking techniques.
Israel Salcedo, a young Mexican artist, has come to the city specifically to practice printmaking.
“There’re two places in Mexico for art,” he says. “Mexico City for painting and sculpture; Oaxaca for printmaking. People from all around the world come here to study and teach.”
The scene has exploded in the last ten years and there is a studio or gallery almost everywhere you turn. Which begs the question: how did a city in one of Mexico’s least developed states evolve into a global printmaking centre? The answer, according to many artists here, has a lot to do with Maestro Takeda.
Shinzaburo Takeda is a Japanese-Mexican artist and teacher and has lived in Oaxaca State for some fifty years.
I met with Takeda at his home in the hills outside the city. Takeda, a spirited gentleman in his eighties, shakes my hand and offers me a choice of beer or mescal (I stick with beer).
Originally from Seto, in Aichi Prefecture, Takeda came to Mexico in the late 60s, drawn to the country by the politically-motivated murals of artists like Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
Yet it was only later, in Oaxaca, that he started to find his place.
“I was travelling around Mexico searching for the original people of the country,” as he tells it. “I’d visit the villages and towns along the coast [of Oaxaca] where foreigners couldn’t enter.”
You sense his strong affinity for Oaxacan culture in his art, which features native peoples and gods. Though not obviously political, the work also reminds me of the murals that so inspired him. After several years exploring the coastal regions, he eventually settled in Oaxaca City, becoming Professor of Art at the University of Oaxaca.
His earlier students were largely the sons of poor farmers from the indigenous Zapotec and Mixtec communities. Takeda – who grew up poor in Japan after WW2 – taught them printmaking as a means of financial support.
“Even though printmaking is the least saleable form of art,” he says, “and though I worried it might be difficult for them to support themselves, I found they enjoyed doing it. It made me happy that they chose to do it.”
With thirty languages spoken throughout the state, and with many students unable to speak fluent Spanish, Takeda regarded printmaking as a universal means of expression, with tools available to all.
“I am a foreign person; my students were the sons of farmers who didn’t speak Spanish very well. Printmaking was a new language – of the spirit and ideas.”
Takeda – who continues to teach at the university – instructed his students in various artistic methods, including painting, etching and lithography. But it is woodblock prints that appear most frequently in the cafes and galleries here – as well as on the city’s walls. Given his leftwing beliefs, I ask him whether he ever encouraged his students to channel politics into their art. He considers the question and answers with a shrewd, mindful ‘no’.
I get the sense that Takeda is proud of his contributions in developing Oaxaca’s art scene and he likes to joke that the town might one day sink under the weight of its many presses. Some of his former students are now famous in their own right, while many others have gone on to set up studios and form printmaking collectives.
Abraham Torres is a master lithographer and teacher and a former student of Takeda. He runs a studio called Taller de gráfica Bambu (named in honour of his mentor: Shinzaburo means ‘place of bamboo’).
Along with Oaxacan artists such as Francisco Toledo and Rufino Tamayo, Abraham credits Takeda with transforming the city into the artistic centre it is today – as well as putting him on the path to becoming a lithographer.
“In 2003 there were only a handful of studios,” he says. “Now there are around ten lithographic ones as well as fifty engraving studios.”
I ask him the most important lesson he learnt from Takeda.
“He taught me to know my identity, to know the value of my own culture. To see and experience the traditions of Oaxaca. To always carry your sketchbook with you and draw everything you see.”
“Oaxaca has a long tradition of art,” he continues. “Takeda helped us open our eyes and realize it.”
With artists and students from Mexico and abroad making their way here, the artistic spirit in Oaxaca is undoubtedly awake.