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Act Locally

Act Locally

Art Historian Selma Holo examines the activism of the artists and museums of Oaxaca

By Katherine Yungmee Kim
March 2005

The state of Oaxaca always had an identity separate from the rest of Mexico’s. Even though it was considered the heart of mexicanidad—“Mexicanness”—Oaxaca and its strong cultural life of museums, cultural centers, archaeological sites and artisanry thrived no matter what political forces were shaping the nation, says USC College art history professor Selma Holo.

Holo’s latest book, Oaxaca at the Crossroads, Managing Memory, Negotiating Change, examines how the southern state conscientiously shaped its cultural memory in the arts, from the contemporary and the colonial, to the urban and archaeological.

“The private activism of the artists, artisans and private businesses came together and made a change in Oaxaca which, on the scale that it energized the community, hadn’t been seen before,” Holo explains. “I thought it was really worth memorializing and critiquing.”

In 1994, Holo spent a year as a Fulbright senior researcher in Spain, intending to spend more time on her area of expertise, the Spanish artists Goya, Picasso and Ribera. Instead, she found herself interested in the nation’s transition from a dictatorship to a democracy and its effect on museums. Her book, Beyond the Prado, was an examination of how museums colored the nation’s sense of self.

It also reflected Holo’s shift from her study of art history towards the study of museology—the study of museums themselves and their impact on our cultures. In 2000, she was in Oaxaca when Vicente Fox defeated the long-entrenched Institutionalized Revolutionary Party (PRI).

“I was curious to see if it was going to be the same thing as Spain,” she says. “But it wasn’t.”

The Mexican government already understood that it could strengthen its position in the world and its political position at home through supporting arts and culture. “They put a lot of money into the arts,” Holo explains. “I was knocked out by the museums there and I wanted to know what was happening to them as things were changing.”

Oaxaca, in particular, seemed to be able to express itself through the arts. Holo attributes this to the resoluteness of the Oaxacan people.

“You had individual artists like Francisco Toledo,” Holo cites. The Zapotec Mestizo-Indian artist was a leader and political activist in his home state, where he created museums, libraries, gardens and a cinemathéque. In 2000, McDonald’s tried to open a restaurant in the Zócalo, the historical central plaza in Oaxaca City, a place traditionally full of locals and tourists enjoying oaxaqueno and basque cuisines.  

A group of artists, led by Toledo, arranged for a tamaliza in the plaza, a tamale supper with homemade tortillas and fresh fruit juices, to remind people of what they had to preserve. “Many artists were determined to keep the new arches out of view of the venerable old arches that mark the sacredness of the space,” Holo writes.

The artists prevailed in their small triumph over globalization.

“Oaxaca’s efforts in the realm of culture are an inspiration,” Holo concludes. “Its efforts have touched on many of the issues that concern any contemporary region wrestling with the power of the arts to positively influence and enhance its increasingly globalized communities as they struggle to participate in the world at large while preserving intact their local souls.”