If you drive through the town of Tierra Amarilla in Northern New Mexico, you'll see a large banner just off the side of the road. It's a portrait of Emiliano Zapata, whose deeply furrowed brows, enviable mustache and implicating stare are unmistakable. Just to the right of his silhouetted face are the words "Tierra o Muerte." Below, in cursive script, the banner proclaims, "Zapata Vive." Land or death—this was the rallying cry of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), a time when Zapata fought for land reform. "Tierra o muerte" was also a phrase that was adopted in the late 1960s here in New Mexico when, at the height of the Chicano Rights Movement, Zapata's visage and revolutionary politics fueled land grant struggles in Tierra Amarilla and elsewhere.
In 1967, silkscreen prints of the revolutionary similar in form to the banner circulated in the small town, the same year the militant organization La Alianza raided Tierra Amarilla's courthouse. When I think about the image of Zapata that now hails drivers from alongside Highway 68, I feel the punch of multiple histories of revolution, image production and circulation that cross much of the 20th century.
I was reminded of this when I saw A Mexican Century: Prints from the Taller de Gráfica Popular, now on view at the New Mexico History Museum. The Taller Gráfica Popular (TGP), or the People's Print Workshop, was a collective print center established by four artists in Mexico City in 1937. Although the Mexican Revolution had ended more than 15 years prior, the social and political fabric of Mexico was still amidst radical change. On the image front, the TGP took the reins in creating a visual language of labor, agrarian reform, public education and indigenismo meant expressly for the masses. They did so by building upon the legacy of José Guadalupe Posada, a caricaturist whose politically cutting prints could be seen in penny presses at the beginning of the 20th century. Taking a cue from Posada, the artists used the cheap method of linoleum cuts and woodblock printing to make their posters both popular and affordable. Because of this method, the chiseled marks of the artist's hand, the labor of making, are almost always evident.
The prints have an in-your-face sensibility as a result: black and white, flat, stylized, angular, deeply silhouetted and populated by thick-set figures. Some almost edge on abstraction with amped-up contrast between the dark of the ink and the light of the page. The visuals are barbed, yet also straightforward, carrying messages that would spark recognition among those facing the uneven process of reform after the Revolution. Zapata's face is easily recognizable in images that reach back and forth in time, from Mexican Independence to the Revolution, and from the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas to the redistribution of land as part of the new Mexican constitution of 1917. They are all part of the same varied story, one that unfolded in the history of the TGP's images.
Take, for example, Francisco Mora's "Contribucción del pueblo a la expropriación de la industría petrolera, 18 de Marzo 1938″ ("The Contribution of the People to the nationalization of the oil industry on March 18, 1938"), which features two image registers on the same plane. Above, a landscape is peppered with oil pumps bearing the Mexican flag. Below, a mass of people, many of whom are individualized, are donating whatever they own— money, sewing machines, pigs—to help pay the debt of expropriating foreign oil companies in President Cárdenas' creation of a national oil company. Until then, all oil companies in Mexico were owned by foreign interests. At one point, the US industries owned 76 percent. With workers striking for better wages, 40-hour work weeks and benefits, the president intervened with expropriation in 1938.
On loan from the collection of Jeff and Anne
Bingaman, Prints from the Taller Gráfica Popular proves an intimate show with images lining rust-
colored walls in a low-lit room on the second floor of the museum. More emphasis on narrative storytelling in the curation would have been nice—because, in a sense, this is what the imagery was originally all about. And while the pieces do have the ability to speak for themselves in their purely graphic appeal, the histories around them feel unspoken, even abridged; as viewers, we likely don't have the same relationship to the Taller Gráfica Popular prints as those they initially spoke both to and of. I still
recommend that anyone interested in seeing the visual culture of a revolution and its legacy take the time to reflect on their continued influence.
A Mexican Century: Prints from the Taller de Gráfica Popular
Through Feb. 18, 2018.
New Mexico History Museum,
113 Lincoln Ave.,