Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Contemporary and counterculture art scene in Oaxaca’s galleries

Oaxaca is considered the cultural heart of Mexico, acting as a muse for creatives and drawing artists from across the country and world, who adopt the colonial city as their home.

Some are attracted by the graphic art traditions of printmaker Francisco Toledo and painter Rufino Tamayo, but the city is also a hotbed of startling street art. Ethereal murals share wall space with mock advertisements offering great apartments to foreigners – back in their own countries – while crude graffiti advises gringos to shut up, go home or worse. Much of the city’s ever-evolving street art also references Oaxaca’s history of cultural rebellions, state violence, corrupt leadership and battles for Indigenous autonomy.

Harnessing all of this energy are collectives, galleries and artists curating spaces across the city to share diverse points of view in settings that range from gentrified to gritty.

Natalia Siu Munro is an indigo, or añil, textile artist with Nicaraguan-Chinese heritage from the UK who has lived in Oaxaca for four years. 

“I was seeking a place where art lived and breathed, and Oaxaca was it. [Art] is ingrained in the culture and you can find it everywhere. For me, the scene accepts all and has no prejudices. It’s constantly shifting. There’s a new exhibition every other week – sometimes three openings on the same night. Generations of artists work and collaborate to evolve [Oaxaca] into a safe creative space for all,” she said.

Farid Cruz Vasquez, director of Cocijo Gallery, has noticed that the artistic culture of the city is always growing in sphere and influence. “So many cultures in one place, with different visions of life. Now all the world is coming to work and enjoy,” he said. 

“Madre e hija”. Paint by Ricardo León. Galería Cocijo, Oaxaca (@galeriacocijo/Instagram)

But it’s the abundant street art – from dreamscape-y murals to quickly-laid, expletive-laden stencils – that provides the city with an artistic vibrance that envelops you immediately – even if you never step inside a gallery. 

Renowned painter Guillermo Olguín believes the city’s best art showcases are its avenues, lanes and alleys. “The art on the streets is sophisticated, well executed and not only political. There is poetry in it, there is very fine talent and the continuation and revival of the classic Mexican graphic school technique,” he said.

Within the city limits lies one of the country’s most admired graphics institutes, and continues to give birth to artists and galleries that take the tradition to the people. The Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca (IAGO) was founded by Toledo, the celebrated creator of iconic Mexican intaglio prints lovingly called ‘el maestro’ and hero of many local tales.

Red Dot Art Gallery – Director Teresa Diaz sees Oaxaca as a place “recognized as a fountain of artists of all different techniques. Influences from abroad make it an inspirational destination and have diverted the long-holding trance of Mexican Magical Realism that once permeated the city’s art.” 

Red Dot Art Gallery (Courtesy of Teresa Diaz)

She noted artists like Demian Flores, Mauricio Cervantes and Emilia Sandoval, who are creating micro and macro works that go beyond the personal to broach a global significance, while Zapotec printmaker Gabriela Morac and painter Alberto Mendiola use their mediums to ironically meld pre-Columbian imagery with ideas of branding, marketing and merchandising.

Though art can be enjoyed throughout the city – on its streets, in a number of museums and through a variety of groundbreaking collectives – these are the art galleries in Oaxaca that have stolen our hearts. 

Espacio Zapata – A space as revolutionary as its namesake Emiliano Zapata, the gallery, tied to the Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca (ASARO), furthers Mexican graphic and political heritage alongside lithographs, woodblock prints and more. You’ll spot this place from the top of the street with its high-energy facade featuring ever-changing, eye-catching murals – currently it’s painted with dozens of Mexican art motifs in shades of gold and black. Inside, discover friendly and passionate artists showcasing work that extends from frames to walls – and from the art world into the community. 

Calle Porfirio Díaz 509, Oaxaca 

An iconic wall in downtown Oaxaca City is the one belonging to Espacio Zapata. (@espaciozapata/Instagram)

Red Dot Art Gallery – Focused on experimental and avant-garde visual arts, this large space favors unconventional points of view and always leaves visitors with new ideas to ponder. Exhibitions investigate issues of culture, gender, humanities and politics while a regular roster of public talks, music and events offer even more reasons to return to the bright and airy space.

Stellah Gallery – This small, intimate gallery holds a gorgeously curated selection of textiles, furnishings and paintings alongside Australian owner and curator Stellah De Ville’s own tactile ceramic vessels and sculptures. With a preference towards organic shapes, colors and materials, guests feel an immediate sense of calm wonder upon entering. 

Av. José María Morelos 301, Oaxaca 

Stellah in her gallery. (Courtesy of Stellah de Ville)

La Santísima Gallery – Fans of dark, minimalist print work with a bent towards the macabre will gravitate to this grungy, authentic and frenetic space where the city’s creatives gather to drink canned beer on opening nights and view works by up-and-coming painters, textile makers and artists like graffiti muralist Dreka Ventura. Pick up unique gift items made by gallery artists in the adjoining shop. 

Miguel Hidalgo 1019, Oaxaca 

Siqueiros Gallery – A must-stop spot for fans of political street art, this multi-room gallery offers a large range of graffiti, paintings and prints alongside merch like tote bags, stickers and pins. Most pieces have a unique story related to some aspect of Oaxaca’s history. The multilingual staff are eager to share these tales and you may find yourself in deep contemplation and long conversations here.

C. Porfirio Díaz 510, Ruta Independencia, Oaxaca

Cocijo Gallery – Focused on weirdly wonderful paintings and woodcuts, including many that reflect on the region’s rich past and incorporate a full circle of influences. Discover works by emerging Mexican artists such as Indigenous lithograph artist Gilberto Delgado, J-Paw and Tupac Emiliano as well as occasional demonstrations and classes.

C. de Mariano Abasolo 107, Ruta Independencia, Oaxaca

Laurel is a nomadic lifestyle journalist whose favorite stories focus on weird and wonderful travel and culture. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Vice, BBC Travel, Travel + Leisure, South China Morning Post, The Culture Trip and more. 

@laureltuohy, www.laureltuohy.com

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