ASARO: “The Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca”
ASARO is a collective of radical young Mexican artists. I met them in 2007. ASARO’s woodblock prints were laying in the street near Oaxaca’s cathedral. The artists were sitting on the curb. Some looked to be fifteen years old. Broom handles and chunks of stone kept the artwork from blowing away. Kneeling to look closer, I was stunned by the raw power of the images: revolutionary heroes, marching skeletons, striking farm-workers, open coffins, screaming widows. Black ink on ragged gray paper. It was as if the ink was shouting. I was mesmerized.
I found ASARO’s prints astonishing, not only for their political content, but also for their artistic excellence. It was exhilarating to see a centuries-old medium, woodblock printing, applied to the revolutionary issues of the 21st century. For one hundred pesos (roughly 10 U.S. dollars) ASARO sold prints by day. At night they poured their energy into street art, or interventions, as they call them. If a fellow activist was arrested or “disappeared” ASARO commemorated the event immediately with prints and stencils. They pasted tissue paper prints on the city’s ancient walls, or used pre-cut stencils to create complex murals in a matter of minutes.
Oaxaca’s most dramatic times occurred in 2006 after the annual teachers’ strike spun out of control. Teachers and their supporters protested to oust Governor Ulises Ruiz. APPO, the self-described “people’s assembly” occupied the city for months until Mexican Federal Police brutally removed them. Amnesty International documented the killings of at least 18 demonstrators; the full report is available as a pdf. Into 2007 there were still sporadic demonstrations, arrests, and disappearances.
There were other talented art collectives in Oaxaca, (notably Arte Jaguar) but ASARO’s daily gallery in the street made them the most accessible. I learned that some of the crew had studied art at the university with the Japanese-born printmaker, Maestro Takeda. The trained artists taught printmaking to anyone who wanted to join. Many had led hard lives. One ASARO artist told me he was abducted by thugs and questioned for 72 hours. I believe him. In 2007, their studio’s location was secret. The police would beat graffiti artists on sight. I remember being very nervous the rainy night I carried a portfolio of 20 political prints from that studio.
Since ASARO formed in 2006, they have produced close to 200 different prints. They have also done canvas paintings, murals, folk art, and performances. Yet I remain enthralled by their woodblocks. They have created print portfolios focusing on issues that transcend their original concerns including: The Murdered Women of Juarez; The Future of Mexican Agriculture; Migration; and Petroleum. They have come up from the underground in the years since printmaker Lester Dore showed their work in Madison. Kutztown Univertity’s ASARO print collection has toured the country. Chicago Art Magazine’s Robin Dluzen noted, “It is as if the ASARO has now occupied the art world.”
THAT WAS THEN. THIS IS NOW.
Last month the NY Times rediscovered Oaxaca. “With the city’s street art scene, a mescal-fueled night life and one of Mexico’s most exciting regional cuisines, Oaxaca is as cosmopolitan as it is architecturally stunning.” The article points out Espacio Zapata, ASARO’s workshop at Porfirio Diaz #509. This new location is in the historic district. ASARO has also been featured in the official Oaxaca State Tourist Office’s guide to the city. Now ASARO has a blog. Recently ASARO offered a free course in printmaking at Espacio Zapata. One of the course’s sponsors is Conaculta, Mexico’s National Council for Art and Culture.
There is another change. A new governor, Governor Gabino Cue, replaced the polarizing figure of Ulises Ruiz. The New York Times is right; this is a good time to visit Oaxaca.
ASARO in Princeton, New Jersey
Princeton University is exhibiting a portion of their splendid ASARO print collection. Alas, none of the artists will be able to attend the Feb. 9 reception, but I will be there. The public is invited. I am honored that Princeton asked me to write about ASARO for the gallery walls. I’m taking part in a panel discussion “Born in the Zocalo: Art and Protest in Oaxaca, Mexico” at 4:30 on 2/9/2012. Reception to follow.
ASARO: Art and Activism in Oaxaca, Mexico
Protest prints from a collective of Mexican artists
Jan 16 to March 8: Bernstein Gallery, Princeton University
Sponsored by Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, exhibition designed by Kate Somers. With special thanks to Karin Trainer and Princeton U. Library for the loan of artwork. For directions & gallery hours, ph. 609-497-2441. http://wws.princeton.edu/bernstein/