The first oil painting I ever did was a portrait of the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. I wanted to do something modern and pop, therefore I used acid and psychedelic colors. I decided to update his elegant “charro” (Mexican cowboy) suit by painting it purple and his tie avocado green. In the background I painted a desert landscape with a saguaro and a prickly pear cactus in a symmetric composition where the handsome revolutionary stood in the center foreground. The sky is painted in warm colors that fade from hot pink to cadmium yellow through bright red denoting a sunset from a Peter Max poster from the sixties or a TJ velvet painting, When I proudly showed my creation to my peers, somebody complained, “It’s horrible, it looks like Chicano art”.
At that time my only contact with Chicano art was having seen Luis Valdez’ piece, Las Dos Caras del Patroncito. My father took me to see it in the sixties when the Teatro Campesino was performing it in Mexico City.
Choosing Zapata as a theme was not my idea, it was my art teacher Eugenia’s. The pop Zapatista link existed as well through a rumor that was circulating my Junior High School that Frank Zappa’s real name was Francisco Zapata. We thought that Zappa, like Sam the Sham and Ritchie Valens, had changed his name to hide his true identity. The evidence was on Rubén and the Jets’ album (where the legendary funkahuatl Rubén Guevara participated) and other songs that included parts in Spanish. This would take place after the group La Revolución de Emiliano Zapata were successful in Avandaro with their single in English, Nasty Sex.
Diego Rivera painted Zapata, Lider Agrario (Zapata, Agrarian Leader) in 1931 for his solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In this fresco Diego painted Emiliano Zapata dressed in huaraches, white canvas shirt and pants standing next to a white horse to identify him with his followers, peasants who dressed in a similar manner. Rivera’s vision is probably just as distorted as mine, dressing Zapata in a psychedelic “charro” suit. In the photographs of Zapata that we are familiar with, he is always dressed very elegantly in boots, a dark “charro” suit and bullet straps.
“(Zapata)... dressed in a short black jacket, a long, light blue silk bandanna, a bright colored shirt and he traded off using a white handkerchief with green fringe and one that was multicolored. He wore tight black pants with a Mexican cut, with silver buttons sewn onto the outside seam of each pantleg.”
A North American Agent1
After Rivera’s painting was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, this image of the Mexican Revolutionary was internationalized. Later, Warner Brothers presented for the first time a little mouse dressed in white canvas pants, shirt and a sombrero that quickly steals the cheese to hand it out to other less able and fortunate Mexican rats. The similarity between the images of Speedy Gonzalez and Rivera’s Zapata cannot be a coincidence.
Yepa, yepa, yepa!
From the Mexican Southeastern mountains.
Subcommander Insurgent Marcos
Alias “The Sup Speedy Gonzalez” or “the stick in the mud”
Mexico, July 1998.”2THE IRELAND CONNECTION, ST. PATRICKS BATTALION AND FORCED MURALISM.
Zapata’s image has turned up voluntarily and involuntarily in my work (he appeared prominently alongside Speedy Gonzalez in the video How to Read Macho Mouse, done in collaboration with Aaron Anish). The craziest situation happened in West Belfast in Northern Ireland.
I went to Ireland in the summer of 1992 to research and establish contacts for a possible exhibition that would associate the cultural experiences between Ireland and Mexico. In the beginning this seemed like an easy task, but it turned into a mission impossible. During the flight to Europe I opened an envelope with a series of instructions from the project’s organizer that seemed more suited for a secret agent than for an artist, it even included the request to destroy the letter before arriving in Belfast. They had mentioned that along with meeting local artists and art spaces there would be the possibility of painting a community mural. I clarified from the beginning that it was something I preferred not to do seeing that these activities are normally presented as social work and tend to not be taken seriously as art.
After being in Derry and Dublin, I took a bus to Belfast. In the morning we saw a report on television about an explosion in downtown Belfast. Arriving at the bus station, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the police that are for the most part Pro-unionist and Protestant) was looking for another bomb. We went to see a play in the evening that was part of the West Belfast Cultural Festival, where they sang Republican anthems and saluted Irish nationalism with their fists up. My Mexican fellas and I quickly noticed that it would be impossible to take a neutral position in the middle of this context without risking total alienation in the midst of this sectarian conflict.
The next day I went to see the location where they had invited me to do the mural in collaboration with Gerard Kelly. When I arrived ready to express my opinion about painting murals, a platoon of English soldiers interrupted us looking for clues of the gunmen that had been shooting from the building across the street the day before. The soldiers tried to give candy to the children to bring them along and use them as their protection against potential snipers but the freckled brats just threw stones at them. At the same time radio frequencies were interfered to avoid remote control bombs while dogs were sniffing around looking for plastic explosives.
I tried to explain that not all Mexican artists are muralists. Jerry Kelly proposed that I could at least do the drawings and that he would paint the mural. This mural would probably not solve any problem, however rejecting my participation would appear more like a cowardly gesture than something conceptual. I finally decided to emulate John O’Reilly and St. Patrick’s Battalion where Irish soldiers ended up fighting (and later being hung) on the Mexican side during the U.S. invasion of Mexico and as an internationalist gesture, I decided to try to help with my training in drawing.
The murals of Belfast achieve the same as the murals and graffiti of the barrios of Los Angeles, they delineate territory. The themes and styles are surprisingly similar: in the barrio they romanticize the Aztec past and in the communities of Belfast the Celtic past (the unionist murals depict the heroes and battles of the eighteenth century using a rococo style). In East L.A. they paint homages to their homies who were victims of enemy gangs and in West Belfast murals are painted in memory of the voluntary members of the Irish Republican Army (or the masked paramilitary unionists in East Belfast).
Irish murals have some characteristics of their own. British soldiers turn themselves into abstract expressionist painters by throwing paintbombs (balloons filled with paint) on the Republican murals to censor the parts they consider problematic. Due to this contingency, the murals are painted with plain colors so that they can be repaired easily by the residents of the houses that serve as canvases. In the beginning I made a few relatively experimental designs that included splattered paint and drippings with the intention to incorporate the English soldiers’ paintbombing as a collaboration. I took photographs of some murals with violent motifs that after being splattered with paint became very interesting, it even reinforced the content. The idea of self-splattering the mural seemed offensive to my Irish hosts and they thought that it would be misinterpreted by the community. Another proposition I had, which was also rejected, was to incorporate and alter certain recognizable icons of popular culture. There was no other way than their own.
They wanted us to represent Mexican and Irish heroes who in other contexts could be seen as villains; revolutionary heroes of the past and present. When I realized that there was not much to negotiate I began to illustrate these ideas. I would once again resuscitate the big mustache and sombrero of Zapata next to the Irish revolutionary James Connolly, but a problem arose. We would paint a volunteer from the Irish Republican Army as a contemporary Irish revolutionary, but what image could we use for a contemporary Mexican revolutionary in 1993? Of course not one of a PRI politician (the paradoxical Institutional Revolution Party that monopolized power in Mexico from the revolution until now). It occurred to me that iconographically the closest thing to what they wanted would be to represent a Brown Beret. Brown Berets are Chicano nationalist militants named for the berets they wear, who in the sixties organized to support the Chicano civil rights movement. Today they still appear at certain public events. And so it was, we painted a homeboy from some barrio in Califas with his brown beret, Dickies shirt with only the top button buttoned, his hand tattooed with the characteristic cross and three points representing the “vida loca” (the crazy life), khakis and throwing up a sign that originally denoted the V of victory. We had to change his hand gesture because in Ireland it read as an obscenity and so we opted for a W, which according to me meant West Belfast (like the hand sign they use in Los Angeles to mean West Side).
We encountered several difficulties in completing the mural. Some of the problems were just technical, we had paint that was oil-based, others that were water-based and some colors were missing altogether. We didn’t have enough ladders and we had to coordinate the children of the neighborhood to fill in the parts that we were drawing. The main problem was that the English kept sending platoons of soldiers and a helicopter that hovered over us to see what we were doing. My collaborator Kelly spent the time insulting the soldiers while explaining to me that the chopper had sophisticated spying systems from which they could hear and record us. Knowing this I had no other choice than to insult them in Spanish, which I assumed they did not understand.
In a way the soldiers understood the mural more than the neighbors because when they saw Zapata they began to yell, “Yepa, yepa, arriba, arriba, andale, andale!,” imitating Speedy Gonzalez and making the Post Riverian association (and now Neo-Zapatista with the Sup’s communiqué). The nearby residents kept asking me if it was a Basque nationalist.
The mural began to have a life of its own. More than a piece of art, a Jerry Kelly mural, a Rubén Ortiz Torres experiment or a revolutionary illustration, an international popular painting was born. It is a global barrio mural as eccentric as the reality that produced it. A popular expression with characteristics of Pico Union and Springhill, Belfast. The piece was really completed when it was plastered on the pages of the cholo magazine, Teen Angels.
To my surprise and skepticism, the mural and my pieces with Speedy and Zapata converted into prophecies which I still haven’t gotten over. Six months later the iconographical twist had an unexpected turn when war spread throughout the jungles of Chiapas. The balaklavas transformed into ski masks and the Zapatista National Liberation Army took San Cristobal de las Casas revamping once again the mythology of the Mexican revolution.THE MARCEL GAME
Marcel Duchamp was able to institute himself as the legitimizing system of art by permuting the every day object into a work of art. Today any banal ready made can be permuted into a valuable commodity and the avant-garde has become institutionalized. In a non-reciprocal flux of information avant-gardes are generated on the periphery in the spirit of Marcel, but Marcel Marceau. They imitate the looks and style but they leave out the discourse under the pretext that art speaks for itself. When cultural institutions and validation systems collapse, artists often depend on and produce for distant and different contexts in the capitals of culture. “Nothing is more Latin American than fearing to look like one” said Jesús Fuenmayor3
proving that the need for a lack of cultural specificity has become just that, another cultural specificity and a regionalism. This wanting to act “globally” is a way to think locally.
Culture and artistic discourse homogenize, accompanying a global violence with the universal mandate to add itself to a supposed “internationalization” as if it was a redeeming exit to the notion of nation. The international modernist style was a formal reductionism inspired by Mies Van de Rohe’s trademark, “less is more,” justified in the utopian vision that promised the solution of social ills and the achievement of spiritual harmony induced through aesthetics. However, today the international language is not accompanied with any of these justifications. It is not that I defend the concept of nation, on the contrary. But we need to impede homogenization and remember the paradoxes. Shouldn’t it be that “international” should mean the combination of notions and aesthetics of two or more nations, or even better of cultures? That instead of the homogenization that erases the past and denies cultural or political diversity, we can offer combinations that in their exacerbated hybridism remind us of the impossibility of the national just like the internationalism of monochrome paintings (banal objects or any uniforming trend). In this way projects as crazy and conjectural that go beyond the individual will (in the end artistic production in whatever context, depends on a series of negotiations) like the mural in Springhill, Belfast or the portrait of Zapata dressed like a Commodores singer combine various national representations and are therefore international for good or bad.
To understand the social, aesthetic, political and cultural mechanisms that define beauty (in this case the beauty of the impure) is the necessary permutation that incorporates lessons from Cage and the first Marcel.
Zapata is reincarnated once again on his white horse flying not as the signifier of a nation-state but of something unpredictable and different depending on the site of his apparition.
Nican ca namotata,
1Zapata, Iconografía, Fondo de Cultura Económica, primera edición 1979, primera reimpresión 1982, México, D.F., México, p. 40
2MARCOS, Subcomandante, La Jornada, Thursday, July 16, 1998, Mexico City, Mexico, pg. 5.
3FUENMAYOR, Jesús: “Nada más Latinoamericano que Temer Parecerlo”, Así Está la Cosa, Instalación y Arte Objeto en América Latina, Centro Cultural de Arte Contemporáneo, Fundación Cultural Televisa, 1997, Mexico City, Mexico, pg. 16
4MARCOS, Subcomandante, La Jornada, Thursday, July 16, 1998, Mexico City, Mexico, p. 5.