Paper rebels

Graphics and politics are inextricably linked, and this relationship continues in the social ferment of modern-day Mexico. Maeve Hosea explores two shows looking at how print has reflected and fuelled revolutionary fervour in this country

A farmer, dressed in clean white clothes, holding the reins of a horse whose aristocratic owner lies dead at its feet, is possibly the most well-known printed image in Latin America. Diego Rivera’s iconic lithograph of a Mexican revolutionary hero, Emiliano Zapata and His Horse, is part of an exhibition opening at the British Museum on 22 October. It shows the great age of Mexican printmaking set against a backdrop of Socialist revolution.

The key era of Mexican revolutionary printmaking from 1910 – when the first revolution broke out – to 1960 contributed the basis for considering print design as a political tool and a precipitator of social redistribution, as well as set the foundations for the possibilities of using printmaking as an artistic medium.

‘Go to Mexico now and you will see similar ideas expressed in posters pasted on walls across Mexico City and in Oaxaca, where there have been major political upheavals recently. Many artists used the medium of print to talk about politics,’ comments Revolution on Paper’s curator Mark MacDonald.

The exhibition features 140 woodcuts, linoleum cuts, etchings and lithographs by 40 Mexican artists including Jose Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Rufino Tamayo. ‘They are the works of major artists responding to social and political needs,’ comments MacDonald. ‘Simple to make and spread around, they were intended to convey strong messages to a mass audience.’

Inspired by the post-revolution printmakers of the early to mid-20th century, today’s artists continue to use printmaking as a medium for exploring larger social themes. Erick Beltran’s design-oriented practice concentrates on the visual and graphic formation of language and makes use of printed media such as newspapers, posters and books. Beltran sees newspapers as the printed version of what is considered important in our society and, through a number of collaborative projects with global newspapers, has made comments on that social reality. He typically inserts his graphics work like a virus into conventional communication media.

‘I use infiltration in newspapers, printed confetti, posters, billboards, pins, books, self-published newspapers, archives, stamps, indexes, catalogues, slideshows and conferences,’ he comments. ‘Almost any medium that implies a selection and reproduction of an image.’

One project, Standaard 19-02-2005, was a collaboration with the Belgian newspaper De Standaard. All the photos were replaced by the same image, with the word Twifel (Doubt) against a red background in all these spaces. In 2002, Beltran created O Povo, where the complete edition of the Brazilian newspaper was published without dots or commas, and their place was taken by around 5000 examples of a small symbol of a running man through the paper’s 78 pages.

Revolution is not just a political theme in printmaking, but part of the physical process. Olga Davila, curator of the exhibition Print-making as a Contemporary Practice currently showing in the artistically important city of Oaxaca, believes there are several key dimensions to printmaking in Mexico today/ a traditional school which focuses on the technical aspects of the discipline, and a more contemporary one that seeks to challenge through aspects of printmaking and graphic expression.

In Printmaking as a Contemporary Practice, 14 young Mexican artists explore and rethink the boundaries of the process of print-making, looking at new territories within walls, the Internet, animation and clothes. Jaime Ruiz Otis’ piece, the result of a collection of objects found on a rubbish dump in Oaxaca and used as stamps and stencils to print on a large section of gold foil, is an installation that tackles the theme of migration. It takes 3D objects from the rubbish dump as part of the print language, and moves printmaking into an expanded perception of the printmaker’s territory across a wall.

Re-examining the political themes of the early printmakers, artist Abraham Cruzvillegas’ Ink & Blood: 1968-2009 is a cardboard box containing silkscreen prints as facsimiled images from social revolutionary movements in Latin America since 1968. They are reprinted on different formats and qualities of paper, reproducing the homemade production environment of pamphlets, propaganda, fliers and stickers in which they were made originally.

While media such as the Internet are now commanding a large share of public attention, the use of print for political communication continues to have a salience. In Oaxaca, during recent uprisings against the corrupt local and national government, people printed, cut, wrote and drew their posters, banners and stencils in a direct language.

‘All around the world, civil, farmer or student organisations, unions, artists and individuals are still using the cheap printed media to make known their demands and needs,’ comments Cruzvillegas.

‘That was the original goal and purpose of the poster, as history shows, starting with the Bastille riots in France, and perhaps never ending, as society is still far from full justice, freedom and peace for everybody.’

Revolution on Paper: Mexican Prints 1910-1960 runs from 22 October to 5 April 2010 at the British Museum in London. Printmaking as a Contemporary Practice is currently on at Taller de Grafica Actual Oaxaca in Oaxaca, Mexico, then touring next year

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