Artist Francisco Toledo is responsible for sustainably preserving traditional Oaxacan art and culture
In late November of last year, I headed south from L.A. to explore the historic city of Oaxaca nestled in the Sierra Norte mountains of central Mexico. I witnessed the exuberance of the local culture with spirits especially high during the inauguration of President Manuel Lopez Obrador that was celebrated by fireworks and firecrackers that punctuated the joyous occasion. The human scale of the bustling town center replete with gorgeous 16th century colonial structures and streets of green volcanic stone; rows of confetti-colored shops and houses; unique wall murals; elaborate holiday decorations; musicians and artisans of every kind - all created a seemingly mythical wonderland of abundance, magic, and creativity.
Oaxaca and its surrounding towns and villages prosper by plying their centuries-old mastery of wood carving, painting, sculpture, weaving, pottery, and embroidery in traditional and contemporary modes. The indigenous and authentic sense of this rich backdrop owes its preservation largely to one amazing man: the artist, Francisco Toledo (b.1940).
A native of Oaxaca, Mr. Toledo is an internationally revered painter, sculptor and graphic artist who has infused his native Pre-Columbian and animistic imagery with references to Durer, Goya, Ensor, Klee, Miró and other European masters. He has dedicated a large part of his life and fortune to securing the continuance of the Oaxacan cultural, architectural and ecological communities. Because of his proactive involvement, no four-lane highways, luxury high-rise hotels, or asphalt parking lots disfigure the aesthetic and natural integrity of the city.
Toledo is the founder of several important cultural institutions, including the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo; the Jorge Luis Borges Library for the Blind; the Centro Fotografico Manuel Alvarez Bravo; Ediciones Toledo (printing house); the Centro Cultural Santo Domingo (art restoration lab and botanical garden); and the cultural center (CASA) in St Augustin, Etla, just 20 twenty minutes outside Oaxaca. CASA is housed in a repurposed 19th century string factory, now the hub for workshops and exhibitions by Mexican and international artists and performers whose expertise includes papermaking, printmaking, painting, dance, film, and photography. All the local workshop creations: lithographs, books and kites of handmade paper, wool felt wall hangings, and more are made available for sale in support of the various institutions. Toledo’s energetic commitment is endless and he is ensuring that these arts will live on through his community’s future generations.
In his craft as a jeweler, what powerfully grabbed my attention were necklaces and earrings made from medical x-rays that were delicately laser-cut with Zapotec motifs based upon symbols of the region’s ancient Mesoamerican civilization. The x-rays are composed of silver halide crystals set in a gelatin matrix on a base layer of a polyester film. While the silver component can be extracted, processed, and recycled, the polyester base layer, which is toxic to the environment, cannot. As old-fashioned x-rays are being increasingly phased out due to digital technology, Toledo has transformed filmic x-rays into beautiful, wearable artworks that are an ingenious solution and an important contribution to the protection of the planet we all love.
Oaxaca is a testament to the success of a dedicated and sensitive activism that upholds the beauty and complexity of an ancient culture and its mythology, while respectfully integrating positive ideas from abroad. The result is an autonomous transformation of this rural region into a sophisticated global destination with universal and practical lessons in political, economic, and artistic sustainability.
My team and I at Made Out of WHAT long for a progressive and diverse world that nurtures life and creativity like the one Francisco Toledo has achieved in Oaxaca!
Founder, Denise Domergue