Why is Oaxaca Mexico’s Art Center? 7 Theories

By Prof. Kevin McCloskey, March 04, 2014


Zapata, inkjet on vinyl print, by collective Arte Jaquar. Location: Jardin de Pañuelito. Photo: Kevin McCloskey

Oaxaca is the best place for a visitor to experience art in Mexico. True, there is far more art in Mexico City. Mexico City, however, has a population 30 times greater and its art scene is spread thin across dozens of barrios. In Oaxaca, on the other hand, much wondrous art can be found in the walkable centro historico. If you don’t like what you see at one place, there is always something else up the block. Here are 7 theories why Oaxaca has become Mexico’s Mecca for the arts.

Theory 1: Mescal. We often hear the phrase “Oaxaca’s mescal-fueled art scene.” Mescal certainly lubricates conversation and perhaps opens collector’s wallets at art openings. The hippest new Mescalerias, such as Cuish and In Situ provide the famed beverage at openings, large and small. That said, Oaxaca’s hardest-drinking artists tend to become the least-productive artists.

Theory 2: Hot coffee and hot chocolate. These locally grown stimulants may help artists’ productivity after a night of mescal.


Central image: The Virgin of the Barricades, stencil and tag by ASARO collective (Asamblea de Artistas Revolucionarios de Oaxaca). Photo: Kevin McCloskey

Theory 3: Grand Maestros. To name just two: Maestros Francisco Toledo and Shinzaburo Takeda. Toledo, one of Mexico’s great artists was raised in Juchitan on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca state. He now calls the city of Oaxaca his home. Watercolors by Toledo sell at auction for $300,000 (that’s dollars, not pesos.) Toledo has invested a huge portion of his personal fortune in the art culture of Oaxaca. In 1988 he founded IAGO, the Institute of Graphic Arts of Oaxaca, a cultural center built around his own art library. He has supported nearly every part of the cultural landscape from the Borges Braille Library to The Manuel Bravo Photography Center. Art historian Selma Holo calls him Oaxaca’s art cacique, or chieftain. Toledo is generous, yet quite canny in dispersing seed money for the arts. He leverages his name to get foundation money, government funds, and public support. If the other players don’t pony up, he withdraws his support to focus his energy elsewhere.

Master printmaker Shinzaburo Takeda experienced World War II as a child in his native Japan. He moved to Mexico as a young man and became an art teacher. At age 78, he still teaches at Oaxaca’s Benito Juarez University. The Biennial Takeda, Oaxaca’s semi-annual print extravaganza is named in his honor. He jokes that Oaxaca (elevation: 5,100 ft) will sink like Venice under the weight of its printing presses. If so, Takeda will be partly to blame. Most of Oaxaca’s famed printmakers have studied with him or one of his many students. Successful younger artists, such as Demián Flores, emulate the great maestros Toledo and Takeda and fund art workshops and exhibition spaces for the next generation.


Maestro Shinzaburo Takeda at UABJO (University Benito Juarez, Oaxaca). Photo: Kevin McCloskey

Theory 4: City as Gallery. During the rebellion of 2006 every wall in Oaxaca was covered with protest prints wheat-pasted in the middle of the night. Now these same walls display murals by international artists. In Oaxaca, for better or worse, murals are not permanent fixtures. Prime walls like the facade of Espacio Zapata are repainted seasonally. Interior walls in cafes, bars, restaurants, libraries, and artist’s studios become pop-up galleries covered with artworks. Space is at such a premium that exhibitions often change weekly.

Theory 5: Linguistic Diversity. At least 12 distinct indigenous languages are spoken in Oaxaca including Mixtec, Trique, Zapotec and Nauhatl –more than most parts of Mexico. Communication through the visual arts, graphic design and music becomes more important when a culture’s common vocabulary is limited. Metaphors and symbols are born of the need to communicate across linguistic frontiers.

Theory 6: Class Mix. Talented young Oaxacan artists, including grafiteros who never finished secondary school, rub shoulders with academically trained painters from Mexico City and abroad. Discipline-based resentments are cultivated in U.S. and European art schools: fine artist vs. illustrator, folk art vs. fine art, practicing artist vs. art historian, etc. These grudge matches mean little in Oaxaca.


Stencils by ASARO (Asamblea de Artistas Revolucionarios de Oaxaca), urging a boycott of Guelagetza Festival, 2007. Location: Oaxaca Cathedral. Photo: Kevin McCloskey

Theory 7: Birds of a Feather. One night in Oaxaca I ran into 27-year-old British-born artist Sophy Tuttle. She had come to Oaxaca for a one-month artist’s residency in July. Eight months later she was still in Oaxaca painting a mural and eking out a living selling prints. I asked her “Why are there so many artists in Oaxaca?” She answered, “Because there are so many artists in Oaxaca.” She’s quite right.

Prof. Kevin McCloskey teaches illustration at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. In 2007 he was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to study in Oaxaca, Mexico. He has since curated Mexican print exhibitions across the U.S, notably at the Fowler Museum, UCLA. In 2012, he was invited to Princeton University to lecture on the prints of Oaxaca’s ASARO collective.

He blogs at  illustrationconcentration.com

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