“We declare the world as our canvas” – Street Art Utopia
After first arriving in Oaxaca, Mexico it was hard not to be struck by the amount of artwork adorning public spaces – from walls to bridges and pavements to roofs. There are pieces that remain in place for weeks, months or even years, while all the time I am surprised by new pieces springing up out of nowhere. Some just outside my door, others in tucked away spots I have been lucky enough to stumble across.
What is really so amazing about this phenomenon is the quality of work – not just someone tagging initials or names on walls, but beautiful murals, interpretive pieces, political criticisms… the list goes on! This form of art is clearly designed to make the viewer think more closely about some aspect of the world, to raise consciousness about social, cultural or political issues, or just to contribute some small amount of happiness to the world.
Oaxaca’s street art has an interesting history – in 2006 the people of Oaxaca revolted against the corrupt state governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, demanding his resignation. Widespread protest, plantones (city encampments), radio station takeovers and road blockades gave way to deadly clashes with the police and eventually the arrival of the military.
Despite living in harsh, repressive conditions the people of Oaxaca still found a way to come together – to resist, to organise and to help one another. It was at this time that a street art movement formed and gained momentum as a form of protest. It gave people a space to speak out and condemn the abuses of power, but also importantly it was a way to engender rebellion and raise awareness of shared realities.
The Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca (ASARO) was born at the end of 2006 and helped to spread the notion of resistance through highly politicised pieces of street art. As one young member of ASARO said of that initial coming together, “The capacity for creativity was enormous and the arts were flourishing. We thought about freedom. We broke away from traditional rules and impositions and we found out about the liberating power of art.”*
Revolutionary artwork has a long and proud history in Mexico, with the likes of José Guadalupe Posada, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. 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.