I recently reviewed a striking online art exhibition at the Museum of Latin American Art by art collective Tlacolulokos made up of Oaxacan indigenous artist Dario Canul and Cosijoesa Cernas. You can read the review and see the exhibition here.
I was privileged to interview Dario and Cosijoesa from their homes in Oaxaca (phonetic pronunciation – wahaca) via Zoom on 19 March. What follows is an incredibly candid insight into how two young street boys became the artistic voice for Oaxaca.
I would like to give my heartfelt thanks Dr Ester Gea-Mallorquí for her translation services during interview.
Congratulations on your exhibition at the Museum of Latin American Art. Can you tell us about it?
Dario: Cosi and I grew up in a village called Tlacolula. We haven’t lived in California but we’ve been there for work. To create the imagines for our exhibition, we talked to our friends who have moved to California and used our imaginations. We created works that reflect Oaxacan life in California and the continuing connection of those who have moved to the US with their villages in Oaxaca.
Cosijoesa: We weren’t interested in moving to the US because our radical left wing ideas don’t really mesh with the capitalist commercialism that is the heart of the American dream.
Dario: We love the punk philosophy and we don’t believe in a god. We believe in self-sufficiency. We don’t think people in the US would respect these ideas, and we don’t agree with rampant US consumerism. For this reason, we want to stay in our village and grow what we have – to contribute to our community and not abandon it.
Indigenous cultures have thrived in Oaxaca and haven’t been diluted in a way that some other indigenous culture have been. Why do you think that is?
Cosijoesa: I think the key is that the indigenous peoples in Oaxaca feel their identities very strongly and have always had pride and confidence in their cultures and heritage. This confidence has stopped us feeling as though another culture is superior and should be adopted.
This confidence and sense of identity means that we don’t try to commoditise our culture in a superficial way. Recently we had some French designers coming to Oaxaca – they took our fabrics and made clothes to sell. We were angry about that because our culture isn’t just a commodity to be commercialised in such a superficial way.
Is there a tension between exhibiting your art, which is filled with Oaxacan symbolism and people selling clothes with Oaxacan designs/fabrics?
Cosijoesa: In our community, legitimate work has always been seen as physical labour. We want to show our community that other types of work, including artistic expression, are legitimate forms of work.
We are artists for ourselves and our community and that is the difference between us and somebody selling clothes with Oaxacan designs. They are selling Oaxaca for profit. We exhibit our art for cultural exchange and to enrich and inspire our community.
Can you tell us about your Zapotec culture? [Zapotec people are one of the many Oaxacan indigenous peoples.]
Dario: Oaxaca and its indigenous cultures have become very fashionable in the global community. I worry that this is very superficial. It’s taking little bits of our cultures, out of context, and making them cool.
Indigenous cultures exists as vast, complex expressions of societies and their histories – not just little moments in time. The cultural appropriation of symbols is fashionable but what will happen when the fashions change? Our culture will still be here and will still be as rich as ever.
You mention that many of your friends have moved to California. Are they having good lives?
Dario: My friends who have moved to California have a higher level of material possessions. At the same time, they don’t seem to have a lot of space and they work very long hours. They don’t seem to have a very high quality of life.
To me, there’s no sense in having money and things if you don’t have time to enjoy life.
I’ve fought very hard to become a full time artist, to work on what I love but my friends who have moved to America don’t love what they work on.
Cosijoesa: My friends who have moved to America seem to have an eternal nostalgia for our village and an eternal melancholia. They do tell us how much money they now have, and having money certainly helps – but they are always asking me what’s happening in the village, how things are – always quite wistfully.
They tell us they would like to come back, but of course, they never do. They can’t really leave their lives of material plenty to come back to the village and there’s definitely a tension and confusion there.
You work together in what you call an art collective. Can you explain about working in an art collective?
Dario: In the past, we used to belong to a bigger art collective but Cosi and I were kicked out.
We were kicked out partly because of our radical left wing beliefs but also because Cosi and I were the only ones who didn’t have a proper education. Another reason was that we drank a lot of alcohol and smoked a lot. We didn’t look, sound or behave in the way that was compatible with the image of artists that the other members of the collective wanted to project.
So Cosi and I created our own art collective. I do more classical paintings using traditional techniques and Cosi uses more technology to express his concepts. Despite this, Cosi and I have very similar ideas.
You mentioned that you didn’t fit in with the prevailing idea of what an artist should be like. Can you tell us how you became artists?
Dario: Ten years ago, Cosi and I were just street kids. I didn’t even finish high school. We hung around in the streets, drinking, smoking and taking drugs. After a while, Cosi and I started painting huge murals on the walls of buildings to express how we felt. We did this for about 3 years and then one day, a lecturer from an art school offered us both a 2 year scholarship to study contemporary art.
Cosijoesa: Our huge murals started more like a game. We weren’t paid for them. We had no clear goal on what we were trying to achieve or even why we were doing it. We just painted to express our feelings. After we studied at this art school, we started to think about art theory and history. We started to understand what was possible. We felt that we needed to share our art. Without really knowing it, we became artists. Our art is a stimulus for reflection.
How have you been received by the art establishment?
Dario: Now that we have become “reference” artists for Oaxaca, this has created a polarisation in the art establishment. Some people don’t worry about our lack of formal education or our past and just love our work.
There are lots of other people who hate us because we came from nothing and haven’t had the “right” kind of journey to become established artists. We made a big jump – from the brutal life of the streets to being artists and some people really hate that and don’t consider us proper artists.
Cosijoesa: In some ways, not having a proper education has helped us because we are not self-conscious. Our work is always sincere – it comes straight from the heart. Although that sounds romantic, we don’t think about how it will be received, and we haven’t been limited by other artistic concepts. We don’t even try to like our own work. Our work is a direct expression of our hearts.
The Spanish invasion looms very large in your work – you show it affecting everybody even the very young. Can you tell us about that?
Dario: The references in our work to the Spanish invasion is more a reference to a mental state of mind rather than a literal reference. It’s the idea that our minds have been taken over, colonised, by Western cultures.
We want to remove the American ideal lifestyle that has colonised our heads and come back to an idea of autonomy and self-sufficiency.
We put images of colonisation in our work and also images of American consumerism, such as cell phones and sneakers, to symbolise this colonisation of the mind. It’s also a criticism of ourselves. I love sneakers and I collect and wear them. This materialism isn’t what I want for myself and the images of consumerism are a self-criticism too.
Is there anything you’d like to communicate with the people reading this article?
Dario: I want to pass on the message to readers that indigenous people from Oaxaca aren’t just a pretty decoration – we’re not “nice”, “fascinating” indigenous people. We have the same problems and issues as everybody else. We want to be known as thinkers and creators, not just as a tourist attraction.
Cosijoesa: Our culture is not just a mash up of different cultural moments – it’s living and breathing. Our people think, create and turn a critical eye on themselves. We want our voices to be heard as part of global discussion on important issues. Our peoples and cultures aren’t just a fascinating tourist attraction.
We would love it if the tourists who come to visit came in the spirit of cultural exchange – willing to learn something from us and also to leave something of their culture with us too – so we can learn. We want tourism to be a meaningful and rich opportunity for cultural exchange rather than tourists coming, taking, and leaving.