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Al Gore, Sitting Bull, and the Yale art department

4 November 2007

Dan Bischoff, a staff writer for the Newark (New Jersey) Star-Ledger, reviewing El Maestro Francisco Toledo: Art from Oaxaca, 1959-2006, now showing at the Princeton University Art Museum, describes the Zapotec artist as

…a towering personality, esteemed as “El Maestro” not only for his art but for his leadership in the protection of Oaxaca’s political autonomy, cultural heritage and environment. In Mexico, he’s sort of Al Gore, Sitting Bull, and the Yale art department, all rolled into one.

We don’t think of Toledo as a Zapotec, though he’s probably the best known member of that Oxacacan indigeneous group since Benito Juárez. When I was writing my Mexican history for foreigners (good news … it looks like pre-publication review copies will be available as early as January), I always had to mention the “race” of prominent Mexicans who were from minorities. Juárez’ “Zapotec-itude” is of less concern to Mexican historians than the fact that he overcame a non-Spanish speaking, dirt-poor backcountry childhood. Or that Juan Alvardo or Vicente Guerrero were Afro-Mexicans.

At first, I thought Biskoff might be using the Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotaka) reference simply because it was the first “Indian” that came to mind. But it makes sense. The wise Hunkpapa leader

… was not impressed by white society and their version of civilization… He counseled his people to be wary of what they accept from white culture. He saw some things which might benefit his people; but cautioned Indian people to accept only those things that were useful to us, and to leave everything else alone. Tatanka Iyotaka was a man of clear vision and pure motivation.

Maybe it fits. Francisco Toledo — as a world-renowned artist — has traded on his name-recognition to fight cultural hegonomy. Sitting Bull, during his tours with the Buffalo Bill Wild-West Show used to give food and money to poor whites. Toledo, protesting the imposition of a McDonalds’ on Oaxaca City’s main Zocalo, also fed the “whites” — though in Oaxaca, foreign tourists weren’t so much in need of immediate assistance as consciousness-raising.

Since the 2002 “Food Fight” Toledo has been connected with numerous actions to protect his state (and his people — or people in general) from those that would impose foreign values (or plain old fashioned home-grown repression. Sitting Bull isn’t such a bad comparison.

Rabbit Beheading Bean

 2002, oil on canvas (Arts Central)

One Comment leave one →
  1. mexijo permalink
    6 November 2007 4:25 pm

    My mother in law is from the Isthmus and played with toledo when they were kids. Later she remembers him coming to the girls with strange paintings – they didn’t like them and threw them away… Chin…

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