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The Empowering Art of Zapantera Negra

The College of Art and Humanities and the Art and Design Department at Fresno State have collaborated to present the exhibition “Zapantera Negra: Flower of the Word — Zapatista and Black Panther Visual Encounters of Collective Empowerment.”

“Zapantera Negra” is the curated works from a variety of artists presented in a wooden cabin highlighting the Black Panther movement and Zapatista movement. The installation was led by Emory Douglas, former minister of culture of the Black Panther Party, and Caleb Duarte, founder of Donde Era la Uno.  

The installation explores encounters between artists of the disenfranchised groups, and how each movement parallels one another.  Both groups have used the power of art as a medium to communicate their oppression peacefully.  

Douglas, in particular, designed graphic art for the Black Panther Party magazine in the 1960s, which expressed provocative yet factual interpretations of injustice, police brutality, and inequality in America.  Duarte’s expertise lies in making temporary installations that illuminate on community collectives. 

Zapatistas are an autonomous indigenous group that reside in Chiapas, Mexico, and their objective is to resist the oppression of the Mexican government.  Duarte collaborated with this group in 2010 and gained trust among its members.  Duarte then introduced Douglas to the group, which resulted in the group creating elaborate embroideries out of Douglas’ work.

We caught up with one of the artists, Caleb Duarte, at the “Zapantera Negra” artist reception at M Street Studio in downtown Fresno, and asked him to elaborate on the exhibition.

Q:  Can you clarify what the relationship between the Black Panther Movement and the Zapatistas is?

A:  They existed in different times, so by the time Zapatismo came in ‘94, the Black Panthers were no longer existing.  They stopped existing around ‘82 as an organization.  As individuals, they became lawyers, congressmen, professors, and stuff like that.  Zapatismo became public in 1994. 

What we’re trying to do is see how they use the rich visual culture within the two distinct movements.  They’re actually polar opposites.  One was in the cities, in the United States, and the other one was in the jungles, the highlands of underdeveloped Chiapas which was completed isolated from the outside world until corporations started discovering a lot of their natural resources.  

But it was communal land at the time, and the government passed laws where they allowed individual families to sell their portion of the communal land, so a lot of people started getting bought out.  And that’s what created this uprising, because they were losing their communal lands to corporations.  So the relationship is how they use art.

I wanted to know if there was a Zapatista movement in America?

Zapatismo influenced a lot of things.  After 1994, there is what we know, the WTO in Seattle, where a lot of people stormed the World Trade Organization meeting with global leaders that make laws about trade that affect us all.  And it’s not a democratic form, these top leaders decide how trade is going to happen worldwide, and so that was hijacked by activists, and it was inspired by what happened with Zapatistas.  

And so after that, a lot of things happened.  The world social forum started. Zapatismo has influenced a lot of indigenous movements, a lot of movements that try to decolonize themselves as far as understanding who they are as people through 500 years of colonization, setting up new standards of beauty outside of the European aesthetic.  So it’s not anti anything, but it’s kind of a reaffirmation of who we are as people.

I want you to describe Zapatista art and its magic.  

We went to go share art in August, and international artists showed up, hundreds of them, and then they showed artwork, and then at the end of it, one of the leaders spoke up and said “we want to thank you for coming, we wanted to share our work with you.”  And then he started going down about, how they understood art was.  Art was a planting of the seed, cultivating the corn, smashing it, drying it, and making the tortillas, counting how many guests, because they were feeding all of us.  

And so he brought up the women and the farmers as artists, as them, that it was a creative, strategic act to be able to feed all of us.  Also their relationship to the land, the relationship to the stars, the cosmos, just them working the land every day.  Their language is very visual.  I guess you would have to experience it to kind of, soak it in and see what a completely different world it is from the world we live in here.  

What is their way of life like?

There’s a lot of, you know, comforts that you don’t have.  For instance, we sleep on boards with cardboard, and a blanket, under the stars.  The restrooms are deep holes.  Very little electricity.  We have an egg for breakfast with beans.  We will get our water every day.  

It’s not to romanticize indigenous living, because there’s a lot of extreme poverty, child immortality rate, illiteracy.  It’s not a way to romanticize it, ‘that’s the way to go.’  It’s the way they’re doing it, it’s the way they’re imagining progress for their community.  That’s something we have to respect.  They’re not looking to us to see what progress is.  They’re trying to figure it out themselves.  

I wanted to know how Zapatista art was/is similar to Black Panther art?  If there are any similarities?

The use of the body.  Understanding performance and theater.  So I think the way they saw it, the Black Panthers, was to make an aggressive, threatening impact on the establishment.  So people could fear them.  It was strategic.  It was theater, like how could a couple hundred black people threaten the U.S. government?  

So it was theater, and they knew it.  But it did scare the white establishment, it did inspire people that were being oppressed and abused by the political structures.  I think we see the same thing with Zapatistas, that they use the mask, and they come in and their bodies are about this short, and there are thousands of them in their masks and their colorful wear, and it’s just like no matter who you are or what position of power you are, you’re going to be like, ‘wow.’  That’s how powerful art is.

I know you briefly mentioned inaccessible art.  How can these groups make art more accessible to those that might not have the chance to see it?

That’s the thing, this art was widely distributed.  That’s what gave it its power.  There’s over 270,000 copies at one point distributed across the United States of Emory Douglas’ works.  They were accessible.  You would pin them on your room, and then you would mirror the idea of the self.  You have a strong black body being empowered, and so that kind of mirrored the viewer.  And so it was widely accessible.  

What I was referring to was art that is not accessible to the majority of people, which is institutionalized art, museums, the art world, the academics.  Institutions are nervous about not having that representation in their members, so they want to bring in more people.  They’re looking at community artists and social practice artists, looking at how they’re creating art and shared authorship, so I think this falls in that category of where it’s a shared authorship of the works.  

Why are these kinds of collaborations between activist groups important for progress?

We started the artists’ residency as to really break the disciplines within the arts, theater, dance, painting, sculpture.  Even within painting you got your realists, abstraction, so everything is so fragmented, so divided.  Then within that, you have your academics, and then your activists, your scholars, your community organizers, your NGOs, and everybody existed in their own little circles.  

So we brought them together in the same room for a few weeks, all these different folks from different backgrounds, different races, different socioeconomic status, different education.  They were all trying to be creative within their own training, like self-taught architects trying to build structures out of sandbags.  

This is what we learned from Zapatismo, all these different aspects are actually a creative way of living a creative life.  So yeah, that was activists, artists, all folks from every spectrum that are concerned about our future.  

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Written for MCJ 102W (Reporting) for Professor Ronald Orozco on November 21, 2016.

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