Francisco Toledo, who is regarded by many as Mexico’s most important and provocative living artist, works in an erotic, scatological, humorous, and mythical vein, making images that date from the first or third millennium. Toledo’s art is true to many materials, including handmade amate paper, ostrich shells, polychromed wax, natural pigments, stone, ceramic, bone, tortoise shells, and animal skins. He is also a highly productive artist on paper, producing many drawings, prints, and photographs each year.
Toledo was born the son of a shoemaker and tanner in 1940, in the town of Juchitan in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico; he later migrated to the capital city, also called Oaxaca, to attend the Benito Juarez Autonomous University, a sometimes frustrating experience he often recalls when speaking of his current public projects to increase Oaxacans’ access to cultural and educational resources. At the age of 17, Toledo studied at the Taller Libre de Grabado in Mexico City, where he met the celebrated Oaxacan painter Rufino Tamayo. From 1960 to 1965 he lived in Paris, painting, exhibiting, and eventually making many editions of graphic work in the studio of Stanley William Hayter. His work was recognized by many French critics including Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues, who said, "I know of no other modern artist who is so naturally penetrated with a sacred conception of the universe and a sacred sense of life, who has approached myth and magic with such seriousness and simplicity and who is so purely inspired by ritual and fable." Toledo’s return to Mexico in 1965 coincided with the emergence of “la Ruptura,” a new group of Mexican artists including Jose Luis Cuevas, Vicente Rojo, Rodolfo Nieto, Pedro Coronel, and Manuel Felguerez.
With proceeds from the sales of his drawings, prints, paintings, and photographs, Toledo has recently turned his attentions to the capital of his native state of Oaxaca, with the aim of conserving and protecting Oaxaca’s unique cultural and natural patrimony. Toledo, an ethnic Zapotec, has been instrumental in building a series of highly successful cultural institutions: the IAGO—a graphic arts museum and library; the MACO, a contemporary art museum; the Centro Fotografico Manuel Alvarez Bravo; the Francisco de Burgoa Library, a rare book library in the recently restored Convent of Santo Domingo; the TAPO, a handmade paper factory; PRO-OAX, an environmental and cultural protection nonprofit organization; and El Pochote, an art cinema. With the exception of the Burgoa Library and the MACO, where operating funds come from government and private sources, admission to these institutions is free of charge. Public access to cultural institutions and defending cultural/natural patrimony is a challenge to the status quo in Mexico.
Toledo is regarded as important here by everyone from politicians to younger artists because he has had the cojones and the ability to bring art to the masses. The public works are what make Toledo a historical figure, a great artist in Latin America and not just a “famous” artist. Toledo’s generosity can be viewed as a version of an Oaxacan village custom known as el tequio, volunteer labor by which villagers repay a moral debt to their community. Oaxaca is located in Southern Mexico, just north of Chiapas. Covering almost 10,000 square kilometers, the state has 15 different subclimates ranging from arid desert to tropical rainforest, making it one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. Despite the five centuries that have elapsed since the Spanish conquest, Oaxaca’s population and culture is still overwhelmingly indigenous. One third of Oaxaca’s three million inhabitants do not speak Spanish as a first language but rather one of 14 languages: Zapateco, Mixteco, Mazatico, Chinanteco, Mixe, Chatino, Triqui, Cuicateco, Huave, Nahautl, Zoque, Chontal, Amuzgo, or Chocho. Francisco Toledo’s base of operations in Oaxaca is the sunny café/patio located in the back of the IAGO in the center of town.
Although perpetually busy, El Maestro Toledo, as he is known, is extremely accessible and straightforward if you can catch him in a spare moment. As we downed numerous rounds of papaya juice, I spoke with Toledo on three different occasions about his many past, current, and future projects.
George Mead Moore In recent months you have been working with a vengeance here in Oaxaca, making engravings and lithographs. The work is intimate in scale and teeming with characters we know from your past work: pigs, rabbits, coyotes, alligators, vast quantities of insects, and finally many self-portraits. When I saw this work in exhibition here at the Casa de La Cultura I was intrigued to see in the gallery a display case of etching and engraving tools with explanations for their usage. Was that your idea?
Francisco Toledo Yes. People who are not familiar with engravings only see the copy; they don’t know the process. They don’t know what tools are used. The idea was to set up an exhibit and also teach the youth visiting the exhibit how an engraving is done.
GMM In all your work and projects you emphasize giving free access to the public so that they don’t feel intimidated about coming into a museum or worried about having to pay.
FT Most of the time people are intimidated by cultural centers because they think there are entrance fees or that there will be police around. They don’t know what awaits them inside. With lower-income people there is a fear of coming near because, socially, they think cultural places are for people with money, people who are well dressed. We are trying to destroy or at least diminish the attitude that only the few, the educated, can enter.
GMM There is an element of humor to your work; your engravings and your paintings invite appreciation from all kinds of people.
FT With the engravings, I’m reflecting my mood. If they contain something humorous, it’s because that’s how I am. But it was not my intention to make it easier for people to gain access to the work. It’s good for people to laugh, but first I laugh and then the rest can come.
GMM When I think of your work there is a folk tale from Chiapas that comes to mind—one that you’ve told many times about God and man and dog.
FT Let’s see if I can tell it. I did an engraving about Juarez (Benito Juarez, the 19th-century reformist Mexican President who was, like Toledo, a Zapotec Indian from the State of Oaxaca) depicting him as a postman delivering a letter and I pictured my own dog running alongside him. This image is born from a legend from Chiapas that explains why dogs sniff each other’s asses every time they meet. It seems that the dogs were upset because men were hitting them, kicking them, weren’t giving them enough to eat—generally mistreating them. So the dogs called a big meeting, where they said, "We dogs can’t go on this way, we’re going to write a letter to God to complain. This is not life, this is a dog’s life." For the letter to be delivered to God, a dog would have to cross rivers, traverse mountains, and sail the seas to reach Him; it was a very dangerous journey. Finally they chose a dog to act as messenger and told him, “The only way to protect this letter is to roll it up and stick it up your ass. Because if you put it in your mouth, it will fall out when you bark.” So the dog courier left and the other dogs kept waiting for a response. Years passed and generations of dogs are still waiting for God’s response and the return of that dog. So that is the reason dogs sniff each other’s asses—because they believe one of the dogs has God’s reply rolled up his ass.
GMM (laughter) The letter is in the mail…
FT But it never comes.
GMM Mexican dogs are really special. I saw a very funny scale model of yours for a monument to the “Mother Dog” at the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca in 1997. This was part of the show that you organized which had monuments as a main theme. Can you tell me a little bit about that piece, the idea behind it?
FT We all know how ridiculous monuments are. The ones created all over the world for heroes, mothers, teachers, statesmen… Well, the Mother Dog was a way of ridiculing the sacredness of these personalities. Homages to mothers always show a mother image taking care of others—that’s normal; but an homage to a female dog was a way to play with something people do not consider worthy of a monument—the love she can have for her puppies. There was also another scale model for a monument, The Chayote, which is, as you know, a pear-shaped vegetable with thorns, but chayote is also slang for bribes paid to journalists to speak well or ill of a politician. Our environmental group, PRO-OAX, and especially me, had been attacked by a certain journalist who went by the pseudonym of Juan Diego. It seems that the government was paying him to speak ill of us. So I made a model showing a chayote plant hanging from the balcony of Government’s Palace with Juan Diego in front of it contemplating a vision of the Virgin of Guadeloupe. He was taking the chayote as if he were taking roses from the virgin. This was a way of getting even with this Juan Diego for all his bad talk about us.
(Interviewer’s note: Juan Diego is the Christian name of an Indian peasant who had three visions of the Holy Virgin Mary in a Mexican town called Tlatelalco (now part of Mexico City) in 1531, 10 years after the Spanish Conquest. On the third vision, Juan Diego was given roses by the Virgin of Guadeloupe, as she was later called, which he took to the local bishop in his mantle. When he opened his mantle to show the roses to the bishop, a painted image of the virgin appeared on the cloth instead of the flowers. A cathedral was erected on this site and the Virgin of Guadeloupe later became the symbol of the Mexican Revolution.)
GMM Speaking of monuments and historical figures, you have also made a series of drawings about Benito Juarez that later illustrated a book by Carlos Monsalvais.
FT Yes, Benito Juarez was once the governor of the state of Oaxaca and like a good governor, he was unjust to the people of Juchitan. Benito Juarez wanted to end the nonconformity of the Juchitecos and there are documents accusing him of burning the town down. Of course, he claimed he hadn’t done it, that it was an accident, or that the guerrilla fighters caused the fire. He privatized the salt mines of Juchitan and sold them to a Spaniard named Echevarria. After that, the people had to buy salt instead of being able to collect it freely. The salt mines were the property of the people of Juchitan anyway. Actions like these created very negative feelings about Benito Juarez in Juchitan.
GMM And that was the inspiration for your drawing?
FT No, no, it was really a way to play with a sacred image. I showed Benito Juarez ice-skating in New Orleans; he spent time as a political exile there.
GMM (laughter) Ice-skating in New Orleans?
FT It was a way of taking away the sacredness. I started doing other things while I was learning about historical events in which Benito Juarez participated and there were actually things I ended up liking or respecting about Juarez. At one point I praised him. I thought of him as someone who finds a lucky stone in a fish’s head that gives him good fortune: I reconstructed various scenes of Benito Juarez’s life, that were not a mockery—they were not to take revenge for Juchitecos’s anger, but to see him as a character with virtues as well as defects.
GMM You grew up in Juchitan and you also spent a good deal of time in the southern part of Veracruz. You have said that in your youth, you were surrounded by nature—all types of animals.
FT In the state of Veracruz, in 1940, there were no roads between our town and the port city—also called Veracruz. Everything was forest. Forests and marsh surrounded us and there were all sorts of animals. As kids we would wander around mountainous areas where there were large bands of monkeys and tapirs. We lived nearby a marsh, which was filled with turtles. And at one point, my father had a job making alligator-skin belts for the ladies around town. My father’s love for furs and animal skins later had an impact on my own work. At home there would always be all types of animal skins that he had bought or that people gave him. I’ve always had a love for furs and skins and many of the animal drawings I’ve made come from these memories.
GMM I love the port city of Veracruz and also the southern part of the state, places like the town of Tlacolalpan by the Papaloapan River, with the houses painted those crazy pastel colors and all that great seafood, but I can imagine that now it has changed a lot from when you were a kid—fewer animals and a lot more people and cars.
FT Yes, now people are making sewing machines, typewriters, bicycle tires; it’s a whole new world.
GMM Maestro Toledo, there is something about your work that transcends time… The self-portraits in ceramic, for example, seem almost like artifacts discovered at some pre-Hispanic archeological site. But at the same time these pieces have a very contemporary feel. Is this duality something you work for on a conscious level?
FT What I do is a mixture of things, but the pre-Hispanic world has been a source of inspiration; there are certain solutions that are decorative that come from pre-Hispanic art and at the same time there is much primitive art that is refined or simple but also very modern. It also comes from what I read—many fables from the Americas and other parts of the world.
GMM When I came to Oaxaca in 1997, I was really moved by what you were doing to create cultural institutions because I have always thought that artists can accomplish great things this way. You have said on various occasions that your work with social projects does not come from goodness but from a sense of obligation. This mission of conservation, of protecting the environment and the heritage of Oaxaca—is this something that comes from your family?
FT Well, the best example I can give is José Vasconselos who was Minister of Culture shortly after the Revolution and in the space of a few years did things that had never been done before in Mexico. He gave the walls to the artists to do murals. Artists traveled throughout Mexico to teach art. He has been a good example for other Ministers of Culture since then, but they have never accomplished what he did. He had a genius for organization. Also, perhaps because of the revolution in Mexico being so recent, there was more of an enthusiasm for participation on the part of the Mexican people. He was an example that we could all follow. My mother was another example to me. She was a woman of little formal education who stayed at home with seven children, but I remember once when I was seven or eight years old, the government started radio broadcasts to promote literacy. We kids already could read and write but I remember with great fondness my mother sitting down after a hard day’s work, turning on the radio and teaching our household servants to read and write. There was a sense of love for the community in offering that service.
GMM After studying in Oaxaca you went to Mexico and then to Paris. Was it in Paris that you started to do your graphic work ?
FT I started the lithography in Mexico City, and in Paris I started to paint. In the beginning I did not always have money to pay for the expenses of a graphic studio, that came later when galleries started to publish editions of my work. But yes, I’ve always loved graphics and woodcuts.
GMM Nowadays one sees a lot of your photography—but the photos are more recent, right?
FT I am a frustrated photographer. When I was 14 or 15, I discovered a catalog of the work of Manuel Alvarez Bravo at the Escuela de Bellas Artes in Oaxaca. It surprised me, incited and motivated me: I wanted to be a photographer. I bought a camera, I took pictures of my friends and I took trips to the countryside to take pictures, but I couldn’t keep going for financial reasons. I would look at Life magazine, which was published in Spanish in the ’50s and I saw Robert Capa photos and many photographs of war. All that gave birth to my interest in photography. Later, when the Casa de la Cultura of Juchitan was created, we bought the Alvarez Bravo collection through a trade. We also developed a collection of Sotero Constantino, a studio photographer from Juchitan. We rescued 20 or 30 of his photos: studio shots—people dressed up as baseball players, people singing, rural women. Actually, I took up photography again about 20 years ago, when I had small children. I have a whole lot of unedited photography material from that time.
GMM Your photos from this past decade are about your body; they are a strange mixture of still life and self-portrait with your phallus as the main protagonist.
FT Subsequently, in the last four or five years, I’ve been photographing bodies. I don’t remember why or how I got involved in that.
GMM Is there a relation between the particular culture of Juchitan and your own imagery? I am thinking here of the predominance of women in the economic and social sphere and the liberty of sexual expression, not to mention the transvestite culture of Juchitan, which I am told is very visible and public.
FT I guess there has to be some kind of relationship—I don’t know how much has to do with my personal problems, or with my personal tastes, or with my personal preoccupations. Or it could be a fashion thing. I actually think I started making erotic images when I was living in France. I discovered books in which eroticism was treated as something sacred—there are cultures that exalt the phallus as a symbol of reproduction. This is not something that I can dissect for you and say where each image comes from, but definitely I was influenced by reading about erotic art and seeing the erotic images of primitive art in museums. I think it all comes together with the culture of the people of the Isthmus and the Pacific Coast where I come from, where this is a common subject of stories and conversations.
GMM I am trying to imagine how you juggle all these projects—for instance, do you sit down each month and decide who gets to exhibit at the Centro Fotografico Manuel Alvarez Bravo?
FT No. The director and a team of people who work there decide what’s going to be exhibited. Sometimes a photographer I am friendly with gets invited, but not always. And I don’t always like what is shown there. It works both ways. Sometimes we have to give a chance to younger photographers—to see what they are doing. I am not just interested in the past.
GMM No, it is very obvious that you keep in touch with what is going on here, in Europe, in the U.S., and actually I’ve been thinking that all the projects you have founded allow you to keep in close touch with an extensive world of art that really spans not only continents but centuries. We can see the engravings of Albrecht Dürer, Otto Dix or a drawing by David Alfaro Siquieros from the IAGO’s permanent collection; a show by Mary Ellen Mark, David Byrne or Gabriel Orozco at the Manuel Alvarez Bravo Photography Center; and on the weekend, a film by the Japanese film director Juzo Itami. All of this is wonderful for Oaxacans, but I am thinking that it must be so for you too, or you wouldn’t go to so much trouble to make it happen.
FT Well, I have to say that I’m the first one to learn from these institutions. I am the buyer for the collections. I have to keep supplementing them.
GMM You personally buy them?
FT Yes, sir! Every time I go to Mexico City I buy things.
GMM You give such attention to the details of these projects: the paint color of the buildings, the furniture, the wooden doors, the beautiful and austere gardens, to create a dignified civic space.
FT I think that the first lesson in beauty is the building itself. The details are really important.
GMM Part of your work to defend Oaxaca’s cultural heritage is rescuing the environment. You have founded, with other Oaxacans, the environment group PRO-OAX.
FT Rescuing the environment is a matter of life or death, no? The destruction is happening so quickly that we need to do something. If artists have some political force, some influence over society, then they are heard. We have to take advantage of this, to criticize the state’s more destructive projects. The population of the internal valleys has grown enormously and there is contamination from hospital waste, soap scraps, sludge and sewage that is eroding this beautiful space. There is no center to process the sewage and there is no consciousness of the dimensions of this calamity. These are very complex problems, but we are educating the people through the schools.
GMM Maestro Toledo, your work always seems to attract controversy, and I wonder if you could tell me more about the most recent polemic. 1999 is the centennial of the birth of Rufino Tamayo and you’ve organized shows and conferences about Tamayo this fall. But a journalist wrote an article in La Jornada talking about you and the painter Rudolfo Morales as rivals to succeed Tamayo in the public eye—that you are competing to be the cultural chiefs of Oaxaca. Where is this coming from?
FT I don’t know exactly. Maybe it’s because at the moment the Senate is discussing a cultural heritage law and we at PRO-OAX called for a dialogue, a meeting to discuss the law they want to approve. In Oaxaca, at least, the law was refused unanimously.
GMM Is it a good or a bad law?
FT The laws already exist and it’s a little trivial to propose a new law. I mean, the old laws work—the only problem is that they’re not enforced. No one pays attention to them. With the archaeological site of Monte Alban, which is very fragile, the problem is that the law is not being enforced and so there are all sorts of threats to the integrity of the site.
GMM Is this a smoke screen to attack you?
FT Yes, like a punishment.
GMM To punish you for your efforts?
FT Well, let’s say they are badly informed. To say that I just want power to make a name for myself through the cultural institutions is ridiculous; I don’t need to make a name for myself. It is true that since we started these projects, it seems some writers in Oaxaca have been paid off by the government—have been very critical as if I were slowly taking everything over. Not thinking about the fact that the building that houses the IAGO is my own house. They say these things out of ignorance. They think the government created all this and now I’m taking advantage of it. Another article came out that said, “Stop this accursed Toledo who wants to take over everything.” They don’t take into consideration that it was mostly my money that built these cultural centers—much more so than the government. I control my own money in these institutions and in the case of the IAGO, for instance, if there are government funds they are managed by an executive director. We do not commingle these moneys. It’s absurd to say that Rudolfo Morales and I are fighting to become the cultural chief. (Rudolfo Morales, another prominent Mexican painter, has spent thousands of dollars restoring convents all over Oaxaca state.) It might be a little bit of jealousy—for we have accomplished a lot. Things can be done without a lot of money if you have just a little bit of enthusiasm and are surrounded by people who want to do things.
GMM Obviously the artists in Oaxaca support your efforts.
FT Yes, yes. They have contributed paintings and donated to auctions and raffles. A fund with the money from the auctions was used to buy an old textile mill where we’ll put the historical archives.
GMM Now that we’re entering a new millennium, it’s commonplace to speak of the effects of globalism and technology on communication between the margin and the center—or between the so-called first world and the so-called third world. We all know that the planet is communicating via fax, modem, TV, tourism—increasing exposure to different ways of speaking, dressing, eating, but also promoting a kind of universal sameness. You are an artist with an international reputation who has lived and worked in New York and Paris, but who returned to Oaxaca to pour your time, money, and creative energies into libraries, museums, and archives—all hallmarks of civilization in Oaxaca, a place that for various historical reasons has resisted many of the effects of globalism. If globalism continues its march into the next millennium, what hopes do you harbor for Oaxaca and for Mexico in general?
FT I don’t know if you can talk about hope when you speak of civilization—nor do I think there is necessarily hope for globalization, such as it is. Perhaps I’m being negative, or pessimistic, but I don’t think there is much of a chance of survival for anyone or anything—for globalization or for a response to globalism—that would include conservation, not even of nature. There is such a drive toward total destruction; I don’t think anything can stop it. The costs of civilization are so high. In Mexico people are cutting down all the trees, destroying forests, so then you have the earthquakes, the rains, the mud slides, and everything gets washed away.
GMM Is your public work an attempt to do something about this?
FT I do what I do without any hope of a lasting or significant effect. I do these things because I feel it’s my duty and because I have the means to do them at this moment in time. You have to understand that I don’t have any illusions that anything lasting will come from it. I don’t do it out of a conscious design to change society. What will happen will happen no matter what I do. What we do by day to conserve gets erased at night by TV or movies or radio. So to talk of hope is somewhat in vain.