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Zapatista exhibition captures modern revolutionary identity

Posters and prints feature indigenous, political and cultural imagery from the 90s forward.

Zapatista: Imagery of the Peasant Revolutionary, a student-curated exhibition of Mexican protest ephemera in the Gund Gallery, provides viewers with a window into the tumultuous world of the Zapatista movement.

On display are posters and prints made by graphic collectives in solidarity with the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) — more commonly known as the Zapatistas — a revolutionary political and militant collective began in the 1990s committed to anti-globalization and land reform in Mexico.

The works — which come to the gallery from Interference Archive in Brooklyn and the Kalamazoo Institute of Art in Kalamazoo, Mich. — weave an intricate web that connects land rights with indigeneity, personal identity with collective action and national interests with international vision. Images of Mexican Revolution-era indigenous land reformer Emiliano Zapata, from whom the Zapatistas take their name, blend with motifs pulled from Aztec mythology and contemporary culture to create a visual language of political, mythical and commercial symbols.

Dr. Jodi Kovach, the curator of academic programs, is the expert in Mexican contemporary art who provided the initial impetus for the project and who pushed curatorial interns Jenna Wendler ’17, Natasha Siyumbwa ’17 and Rose Bishop ’17 to pursue it.

“When I fell into the Zapatista project it required a lot of research to know the context of how the Zapatistas rose, what the history behind it was and how best to present it in an accurate way,” Siyumbwa said. “There was definitely a lot of prep for this project because none of us knew anything.”

The exhibition follows a chronology beginning with the nationalistic art of Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco before moving on to the folk-nationalist posters and prints of the Zapatistas. These posters were mostly mass-produced by small graphic collectives in Mexico using techniques like silk screening to develop a distinct revolutionary aesthetic that relies heavily on repurposed imagery.

One print, entitled “Nos vemos en 2010,” depicts Emiliano Zapata as a Superman-like figure in a cape and tights. Wendler pointed out that a Mexican viewer might see Zapata as a luchador, or wrestler, in this image. “That sort of dual visuality allows it to have greater audience,” Wendler said, noting that the Zapatista movement uses platforms like Facebook and MySpace to broadcast its message to a global audience.

A woodcut of a nude pregnant woman standing amid indigenous Mexican flora is entitled “Otro México es posible,” referencing the alternate national vision the Zapatistas promote, one of a national identity founded on agrarian ideals and social equality for all Mexican citizens. Indigenous symbols at the bottom of the piece labeled “land, love, fertility” suggest the link between indigenous rights and the ecosystem.

The interconnected nature of the exhibition’s works has led professors across many departments to weave Zapatista: Imagery of the Peasant Revolutionary into their syllabi. Visiting Assistant Professor of Spanish Mónica García Blizzard is using the exhibition in both her introductory Spanish class and her special topic seminar, “Indigenismo in the Americas.”

“My [special topic] course is significantly centered around the visual, and not just literature and political essays,” García Blizzard said. “I’m asking my students to piece together all of the ideological currents and trends we’ve been looking at and pick out visual genealogies throughout Mexican visual cultural production.”

Those who visit the exhibition can find translation guides, chronologies of the history of the Zapatistas and their antecedents and explanations of recurring symbols in the art to help them follow the complex thematic threads of the works on display.

Zapatista: Imagery of the Peasant Revolutionary opened April 24 and runs through July 8.