Exploring everyday arts in Oaxaca
OAXACA, Mexico—Walking down the streets of Cuernavaca, as she passed by homes decorated with bright colors, store fronts painted with beautiful murals and walls adorned with colorful ads calling for social action, Jocelyn Aptowitz came to a realization.
In Mexico, she said, art is not only found behind the walls of a museum, but is present in paintings on homes, bus stops and bridges.
“There’s this beautiful graphic art everywhere that is uplifting. You see bright faces, color. It’s everywhere, and it’s fantastic,” said Aptowitz, a junior at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance. “It was an incredible experience.”
Mona McKinstry, a recent graduate of the Stamps School of Art & Design, agreed.
“The thing is, is that art is everywhere, most of the walls and the colors of the homes, the advertising, the illustrations, all the things that were put on the wall,” she said. “There wasn’t planning like you would see in a public arts display (in the U.S.). These things just happen and they seem to be very natural, very effortless. People there are naturally artistic.”
Aptowitz and McKinstry, along with students Carolyn Gennari (Stamps) and Mia Massimino (Stamps), were led by professors Anita González and Holly Hughes on a 12-day trip to Oaxaca to meet artists and make cross-cultural connections for possible future collaborations.
During the trip, students met and worked with local artists, helped with the production of a musical video for local celebrity La China Sonidera, met Diego Rivera’s daughter, Guadalupe Rivera Marin, as well as best-selling author Andrea Valeria and her husband Leon Garcia Soler, a political journalist with Mexico’s Excelsior newspaper, according to the story published by the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design.
They also learned about weaving, participated in workshops of traditional textile making, historic restoration, alebrije sculpting (wood carvings), and exhibited their own work in a new multimedia space connected to el Museo del Ferrocarril.
The trip was funded through a “mini-cube” grant from the U-M Office of Research, which aims to stimulate innovative research and scholarship by distributing seed funding to multi-unit, faculty-led research teams.
González, professor of theatre and drama, is the author of “Afro-Mexico: Dancing Between Myth and Reality,” in which she explores the relationship of historical background and its expression in dance, and “Mambo and the Maya,” on archetypes of African identity in Central America.
Over years of research, González developed friendships and acquaintances with artists in Mexico and was glad to help her students connect with them, not only to learn about each other’s work but to truly understand it. Projects like this trip, she said, are particularly important for students at the school, as professional networks and continued collaborations are key to have the work seen and shared internationally. Most importantly, these professional networks allow students to continue to interact with artists and to generate new work with them, she said.
“Oaxaca is a unique area for indigenous traditions of the Zapotec and Mixtec people, and it is a place where a person can find artists working across generations—families where sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers have all been working continuously in a single art form such as pottery or weaving or painting,” she said. “You can see the innovation in traditions coupled with decades of daily practice around artistry.”
Holly Hughes has joint appointments with the Stamps School of Art & Design and SMTD. She most recently published Memories of the Revolution: The First Ten Years of the WOW Café Theater, about the women’s experimental theater space called WOW Café (Women’s One World), a vital part of New York’s downtown theater scene since 1980.
Hughes said she was excited about the opportunity to visit and meet artists from the region, a historically important cultural center where Aztecs and other Meso-American cultures developed traditions like the Day of the Death, which celebrates the lives of loved ones who have passed away.
“Oaxaca’s been on my mind for more than 30 years,” Hughes said. “Like most Americans, I’m scared to death of death, but death is very visible in Oaxaca because it’s the center of the Day of the Dead celebration. I wanted to have the opportunity to learn how artists in another cultural context represent this crucial part of life thru performance and visual means.”
McKinstry said her favorite activity was learning from restoration artists in Santa Ana Zegache.
“It was such an honor learning from artists that spend countless hours working meticulously,” she said. “I realized I could use that attention to detail and patience.
“Talking to people, meeting new people and asking random questions—we talked about everything. It gives you a sense of humility. You realize you don’t know anything and you’re learning from the masters.”
For Mia Massimino, it was the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with artists from another culture that stood out.
“It was truly amazing to make these connections,” she said. “Personally, I was able to meet and talk with a street artist who made feminist art. Her name was also Mia! I am hoping go back for a short residency with a dance group.”
Gonzalez said when there’s cultural exchange, “that’s when you’re really learning about others, when you’re learning together about each other. It’s the only way to learn.”
“I hope they learned what art is like when it’s done that way…with generations doing the art,” she said. “I really hope they go back and do residences, physical theater. It depends what they want to do with their art.”
“Audre Lorde’s famous observation that ‘poetry is not a luxury,’ proved true in this city of many cultures and ethnic traditions” added Hughes. “It was evident that many Oaxacans were poor, but arts, crafts, music, dance and performance are not decorative luxuries. Instead, they are one of the main tools that citizens use to make sense of their world, their history and their future.”
Photos courtesy of Mona McKinstry.