Anyone who has visited Oaxaca and walked up the broad central avenue lined with the beautiful green stone walls of 17th-century colonial mansions will have been struck by the fact that within a half-mile square there are more museums and art galleries of a gem-like perfection than could be found in any other city of a comparable size. On entering the shaded courtyards to study the collections they contain, one finds them models of good design, both respectful and intimate, bound by a common intent and the vitality and passion to fulfil it. It is unlikely that any visitor would know that almost all have been founded through the efforts of a single artist because his name is nowhere to be seen. This selflessness of service to the art and culture of his region is the hallmark of Francisco Toledo's work, but he certainly does not see it in such terms: this is his world, the one he knows intimately and passionately, and he has gathered it here in order to protect it as well as to dwell within it.
Even the visitors to the recent Toledo retrospective at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London would not have been aware of this aspect of the artist's life unless they acquired the catalogue. What they viewed was Toledo's artistic career, and of course no one could have missed the closeness of the artist's work to his world, a seamless relationship that is as characteristic of Mexican art as it is foreign to the tradition of the alienated artist in the West. It takes only a brief immersion into Mexico to discover the innate sense of design obvious in all aspects of Mexican life - the building of adobe homes, for instance, or the use of clay and tin in everyday objects such as cooking pots and lanterns, or the construction of elaborate altars in homes and on street corners on the Day of the Dead - and to relate this gift to the way arts and the artist are an integral part of Mexican life.
It must have been an instinctive understanding of this fruitful symbiosis that made Toledo return from Paris to Mexico in 1965, when he chose to work not in the great metropolis of Mexico City but in Juchit n in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec where he was born, and later in Oaxaca where he had his first art lessons. The articles in the Whitechapel Gallery catalogue by Catherine Lampert, the curator, Dawn Ades and Carlos Monsiv is all point out how Toledo's art is rooted not in the Mexican revolution as the earlier Mexican painters' was, but in the pre-Hispanic Zapotec culture of the isthmus. This could direct viewers into labelling Toledo's work as "primitive" but, even if it employs the mythology and folklore of the region, its sophisticated use of this material prevents one from doing so. Moreover, Toledo's work, which belongs historically to the ruptura that followed the revolution, forms a link to the contemporary art of the region.
Whatever he drew from it, he returned to it: from his funding of the Casa de la Cultura in Juchitán, which then became a model for other regional art centres where classes are held in drawing and pottery, and the accumulation of archives of paintings and graphics, books and photographs, to the string of museums and galleries that have made the heart of Oaxaca a vibrant art centre such as would be the envy of any city in the West, or the North. Typically, whenever Toledo made a collection of books, photographs or prints, he donated it to public institutions (in the spirit of the artists of the revolution who were committed to returning art to public spaces, to the zócalo , in the form of murals) - the Instituto de Artes Gráficas in Oaxaca, for instance, once his home, now made over to the public. His efforts went on to create the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca, the centre for photography named after Manuel Alvarez Bravo, which also has a lending/listening music collection; the Jorge Luis Borges library for the blind, which contains books in braille; the Cine El Pochote, where the local population can view films by the likes of Bu$uel and Kieslowski; as well as the rescue and restoration of the cloisters and convent of Santo Domingo and the establishment there of a Centro Cultural instead of the proposed hotel and conference centre. In addition, a workshop has been set up outside Oaxaca for the production of handmade paper, a highly saleable item. The Whitechapel catalogue also has photographs of the gardens he has created with indigenous trees and plants.Toledo's energy and fertility of imagination and ambition are such that, as Ades notes, he himself "says, somewhat wryly, that he may be remembered as a cultural cacique [chieftain] as much as an artist". As a result, Oaxaca has become the centre of a Renaissance with a community of 500,000 artisans - (Toledo sees no distinction between artist and artisan).
Eduardo Galeano complained that "The dominant culture accepts Indians as subjects for research, but does not recognise them as subjects of history: Indians have folklore, not culture; they practise superstition, not religion; they speak dialects, not language; they make crafts, not arts," and one can see that Toledo has worked consistently to overthrow this attitude even if he does not belong to the generation of the revolution and for him "the practice of art in the service of national identity held no interest." Ades writes of the ruptura of the 1950s when artists turned their backs on "the debased rhetoric of the revolution" and among whom one, José Luis Cuevas, attacked the "superficial, folkloric and debased art" of the time and wrote The Cactus Curtain , a manifesto of ruptura art, through the figure of a painter, Juan, who is ruined when he follows the party line, then breaks away by overthrowing "the fathers" and pursuing an art "where all roads open up as a long and rewarding continuation of life itself". This could be a description of Toledo's endeavours: he was too young to play a part in the revolution (he was born in 1940) but his people, the Zapotecs of Juchitán, fought for independence from Mexico in a resistance movement that prefigures the Chiapas rebellion of our times. To the people of the isthmus, Benito Juárez, the great Mexican hero, was a figure of oppression; Toledo believed Juárez was responsible for dispossessing the Zapotecs of their communal lands and salt flats. He has mocked him in a series of graphics showing him as a solemn, sober Indian dressed uncomfortably in western clothes, emulating the caricatures of José Guadalupe Posada's popular woodcuts. His feeling for the land itself, and the Indian titles to that land, made him create a series of maps that are a record of history and genealogy as well as a method of expropriation, Planos de Juchitánand Titulos Primordiales . He uses materials such as pistachio nutshells and jacaranda seeds and black beans, embedded in clay and paper pulp - products of the land itself.
Toledo's intimacy with the natural world goes so far that he sees his own skin and flesh as part of the animal world he paints and photographs, filled with the volupté and frondosa (luxuriance) of the natural world. Toledo would have been at home in 12th-century India: he would have identified with the pagan joyousness of temple carvings, the stylised grace of cave paintings and the symbolism of the yoni and lingam in Hindu temples; for him the female sexual organs are central to his culture just as the concealing robes and cloaks of the Virgin Mary are to Christian art,which deifies the Immaculate Conception. What would not have fitted in is the artist's ego: his placement of his body, his self, at the centre of this world is not a characteristic of the Hindu artist, always anonymous. Toledo naked, Toledo's phallus, Toledo's skin and flesh photographed in conjunction with cayman and iguana skin, palm and banana leaf, relate Toledo to the land and its products as closely as animals and insects are related to it.
The other sources of Toledo's work are the Maya creation myths of the Popol Vuh , the Zapotec Cuento del Conejo y el Coyote , Sahagun's tales of grasshoppers, fish and scorpions, and Borges's Zoología Fantástica , which includes imaginary and mythical creatures - the feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl, the minotaur, the hippogriff, the sphinx, the dragon and the centaur. Toledo seems fascinated not so much by their exoticism as by the likeness of human to animal behaviour and plays obsessively with the image of the grasshopper, to him the insect equivalent of the human mating position, reclining and protruding at the same time, its desiccated appearance similar to the calavera that figures so prominently in the Mexican fantasies of the dead. The likeness of fish, snake and penis provide the morphology of paintings such as Woman Attacked by Fish . Conversely, a domestic object like a sewing machine sprouts needles like the claws of a scorpion or centipede.
"What interests him is the immense zoological garden and the infinite pairing where rabbits, fish, deer, tortoises, goats, mules, cows, iguanas, native women, he himself, in a perpetual tribal circle, are on the verge of concupiscence," Monsiváis writes in his provocative and refreshing article "Off with Toledo's head", but he also warns against seeing Toledo as a "native" and "exotic" painter and so relegating him to some primitive hinterland. He vows to write of him without once mentioning Frazer, Mircea Eliade, Jung, Campbell or Lévi-Strauss or ever using terms such as "sacred fire" and "macrocosm". Instead, he chooses to point out Toledo's relationship to Rufino Tamayo, who preceded him and formed the bridge between the revolution and the ruptura by painting murals in the revolutionary manner but making them abstract, not representational, and to Klee and to the absence in Klee of the fear of seeming naive and childish. Toledo did, after all, study in Paris where he met Tamayo, who arranged a subsidy for him and left him his tools, as if passing on the torch to Toledo. Both painters employed abstract signs - circles, semi-circles, triangles and so on - and pale, delicate watercolours and gouache. Like Klee, Toledo is interested in creating self-portraits that are masks, a tradition that goes back to African and Oceanic art - which influenced Picasso's generation. It was in Paris that the "primitive" became avant-garde.
Unlike the artists of the 1920s, Toledo has not made political statements; the closest he has come to this is his plea for respect for the environment. But his art and his achievements in returning art to the public, to the zócalo , present his beliefs in a way that make speech unnecessary. The retrospective of his work at the Whitechapel, and the fine work done on the catalogue by the three critics who present his work, as well as the video drawn from ten hours of film made by Cuauhtémoc Medina and Rafael Ortega, should go far towards displacing and replacing the strangle-hold that the muralists have had on the public consciousness of Mexican art with this powerful representative of the present generation of painters.
Anita Desai is a novelist and professor of writing, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, United States. She is currently researching a book on Mexico.
Editor - Catherine Lampert et al.
ISBN - 0 85488 123 9
Publisher - Whitechapel Art Gallery
Price - £19.95
Pages - 160