Signal: 01: A Journal of International Political Graphics & Cultureby Alec Dunn
Dedicated to documenting the compelling graphics, art projects, and cultural movements of international resistance and liberation struggles, this unique resource serves as an active discussion of the role of art in revolution. Introducing the artists and cultural workers who have been at the center of upheavals and revolts, this work expands beyond graphic arts and
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Dedicated to documenting the compelling graphics, art projects, and cultural movements of international resistance and liberation struggles, this unique resource serves as an active discussion of the role of art in revolution. Introducing the artists and cultural workers who have been at the center of upheavals and revolts, this work expands beyond graphic arts and includes political posters, comics, murals, zines, and features works from both present and pastfrom political freight train graffiti to subversive photo montages in 1980s San Francisco.
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By Alec Dunn, Josh MacPhee
PM PressCopyright © 2010 PM Press
All rights reserved.
TALLER TUPAC AMARU
THE FUTURE OF XICANA PRINTMAKING
Founded in 2003, the Taller Tupac Amaru is a printmaking collective made up of Favianna Rodriguez, Jesus Barraza, and Melanie Cervantes. Their mission is to create visually powerful screen printed political posters to be used by social movements. In the past eight years they have produced hundreds of posters and graphics used for a wide range of social justice struggles, from Palestinian liberation to anti-gentrification, immigrant rights to Indigenous solidarity. All three members were interviewed by Alec Dunn and Josh MacPhee in the Spring of 2009.
What's the history of the Taller?
Jesus Barraza: In 1998 Favianna took a class at UC Berkeley with Yreina Cervantes, who asked her to take part in a screen print portfolio at Self Help Graphics in Los Angeles. Favianna's idea was to digitally create color separations for her print. She asked me to help and the two of us set off on figuring out how the hell we would do that. We took her drawings, digitally reproduced them, and we color separated this nine-color print using Illustrator and QuarkXPress. We did it totally wrong, but we did it. And it was right after that, in the parking lot of Self Help Graphics, that we first talked about having our own studio. About three years later, I got a job at the Mission Cultural Center in San Francisco as a graphic designer. Part of my job was to design the screen-printed posters for their exhibits. That's how I got involved in screenprinting and then it jumped from there.
While I was at the Cultural Center we pretty much had free reign of Mission Grafica (the printmaking studio housed there), but once I left we had nowhere to go. After that I started working with Favianna at the graphic design business her and Estria Miyashiro were running at the time, called Tumis. There was an idea to start a T-shirt arm of the business, so we set up this T-shirt screen print studio. And that's where the Taller was born.
Favianna Rodriguez: One of the reasons that we were able to get materials cheap was because all these older printers, our mentors, were no longer screen printing or they were going digital, trying to embrace new technologies. We were already working in these new technologies, so we were really trying to set up a space where we could print by hand. All this equipment was lying around, and we took it and set up our studio.
Because we were already running a design firm we were almost immediately making posters for community and political organizations. We can definitely outsource posters to offset printers, but often groups need things faster, cheaper, in small runs, or that aesthetically are more like propaganda posters. Screenprinting became one of the design options that we offered. When you get hired as a designer it's a really interactive relationship where you have to follow what the client wants, but when it's a collaboration between an artist and an organization, we have more of a chance to have an artistic voice. And we can get much more radical.
JB: On my end, I had done a few jobs for people or organizations where I designed posters for them and had them offset printed. But I didn't really have the money to print large runs of my own posters in offset, so screen-printing was about being able to find my own voice: posters that just really came out of a raw idea that I had about the Zapatistas, or Angela Davis, or Palestine, or about something that was going on in the Mission. It was really an opportunity for me to voice my opinion and put myself out there in a way that I had never been able to do before.
How did you originally meet?
FR: We met in college in 1996.
JB: I was at San Francisco State, but living in Berkeley because both of my sisters were at UC Berkeley, living off-campus at Casa Joaquin Murrieta, a Chicano co-op. They moved out, but got me housing there. I started working on La Voz de Berkeley, a newspaper that my sister had started a few years back, which was an oppositional Xican@ paper. That's how I got involved in UC Berkeley campus politics.
FR: The co-op was a place where a lot of Xincan@ activists lived and worked and there was history there. In 1999, the Third World Liberation Front, which had originally been organized in the 1960s, was reborn, and led student strikes and hunger strikes because the school was trying to cut the Ethnic Studies Department. Jesus and I had already been collaborating and living in the same space, and we were going in the same direction, towards media, technology, and arts. So when the hunger strike happened we coordinated the media and cultural support, like fliers and the newspaper. It was really significant because it meant that we would write, develop art, and do graphic design together. We would teach each other stuff. Jesus taught me how to design. Marco Palma taught me how to write web code. All this skill sharing was happening around media production.
JB: Our first collaborative effort was called Ten 12. It was an artist/techie collective made up of Favianna, myself, Marco, and Jose Lopez. We had the idea of making art and websites and working on tech-based projects. It was the late '90s, so the web was really new. That was the first iteration of our collective work, which eventually turned into Tumis and the Taller. It's been an evolution.
What were you doing at this time, Melanie?
Melanie Cervantes: I was being exploited! (Laughter)
I was working. My trajectory is a little bit different than Favianna or Jesus. I wasn't tracked to go to university out of high school. I worked for five or six years before I came to the point where I was like, "This is so fucked, I'm really skilled and it doesn't seem to matter: men get promoted above me, people that don't have the same skill sets get promoted above me, white folks get promoted above me." I was working in retail and in the fashion industry, and really was only able to survive because I was doing custom clothing for folks.
I loved color, but being able to express myself was more utilitarian and more of a way to support myself. It wasn't until I went back to community college and started doing organizing and cultural work for campus organization that I started using art as a creative tool, but I didn't think I was an artist; I was just making "stuff." I was doing community work and doing what was right. I didn't have political ideology and I didn't have the experience to name what I was doing. As I finished the two years I needed to transfer to a bigger school, I really came to see that I wanted to pursue ethnic studies. When I got there it took me awhile to embrace being an active agent of change and an artist. It was only after the encouragement of a Xicana artist, Celia Herrera Rodriguez, who really pushed that identity. She was like, "You've been doing this, you just haven't named it."
So I really started my art practice doing fabric, textile work, and stencils. The fabric work really came out of Celia pushing her students to do what they knew, and I was like, "Well, I learned sewing from my mom, and my mom learned it from her mom, and her mom learned it from her mom." It's a generational thing, and a source of empowerment, this ancestral passing down of doing work that talked about being an Indigenous Xicana. At the same time, I was seeing a lot of stencils online and seeing that a lot of the stencil artists in the Bay who were well known were white men, and I thought, I can do that too as a Xicana. So I started at first by printing out other people's stencils and figuring out how to cut. I was doing campus organizing around Proposition 54, the racial privacy initiative in California that would ban the collection of racial data, which was a campus issue. I started printing all these stencils to raise awareness. I look back now and see they're not the greatest stencils, but it was my introduction to making reproducible art.
At this point I had actually seen Favianna's and Jesus's work but I hadn't met them. I met them when my employer hired Tumis to design business cards. A year later Jesus and I were dating. I was producing work, big painted banners that had the graphic style of posters. Jesus sent images of my work to Favianna and she was like, "She should be in the Taller." That was a few years ago.
FR: A lot of us Brown and Black folks are not trained in art school, but end up in college and take ethnic studies classes if we can. Chicano artists are not getting hired at art schools, they're getting hired to teach seminars at universities, so we get pulled into the arts though this back door. This is one of the only ways we can engage with professional artist of color. The reality is that there are not enough Chicano, Latino, and Black printmakers.
I teach a lot of white kids how to do linoleum block printing because of the places I get invited to teach. But when I teach youth of color, there's a whole other layer of commitment because, again, these young people are probably not going to go into an art career. One thing we've been struggling with is that we don't get to mentor a lot of youth that look like us. We always try to be good mentors, but sometimes it feels like we're only one tenth the mentors we had.
MC: Yeah that's a huge challenge. How many one-off workshops do we do where we give a general introduction, but we can't ever really get deeper into it? How do we go beyond the one-off workshop? Even if it's a seven-day workshop or a three week workshop? We're gonna try and experiment with doing some internships and apprenticeships so we can try and go more into depth. We don't have a huge infrastructure. We really operate from a few seed grants and mostly out of pocket. The models we're trying to build and learn from have to be better than the non-profit model, we need to look at groups like OSPAAL (Organization in Solidarity with the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America) in Cuba and the TGP (Taller de Gráfica Popular) in Mexico.
You mentioned the Third World Liberation Front and the 1969 student strike. Rupert Garcia, Malaquías Montoya, and the origins of the modern Chicano printmaking movement came out of these strikes. Mission Grafica had also been a hotbed of political printing in the 1980s. Were you aware of this history? How do you relate to it?
JB: I was lucky because I had two sisters who went to college and every year after my first year of high school my sisters would bring back their books, so I was reading Karl Marx, but they also brought back the exhibition catalog for "Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation (CARA)," this big art show that happened in the late '80s. It was an exhibition that had toured big museums, that was where I first learned about Rupert García, Esther Hernández, and Juan Fuentes.
FR: As far as collectives, when we first started organizing we looked up the points of unity of Inkworks, which is a collectively run offset printshop. I also recall referring back to Justseeds. Remember, in the late '90s there was hardly a web presence for anyone. It was not until 2004 or '05 that our mentors were even thinking about the web. All that information was gathered through word of mouth: Mission Grafica, the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, meeting Lincoln Cushing, meeting Emory Douglas, we'd meet these people and be like, "Ooh, cool."
But looking back on a lot of older projects, they were running in a way that was unsustainable, they were either on the verge of collapse, or would close their doors in the next five years. When we started Tumis, it was different because it was a for profit operation. We learned that we needed to have a business side of things. We needed to think about the long term, things that were sustainable. Things like what Amiri Baraka or Emory Douglas formed, these informal artists collectives didn't survive long enough to get passed on to us as the next generation, except as stories.
JB: All of a sudden in the 1990s, there was just this disconnection; everything got fucked up and screen printing really slowed down in the Chicano community. I remember working at the Mission Cultural Center and Yolanda Lopez coming up to me and being like, "This whole thing is being passed down to you. You are the next generation." Having that kind of love from these older artists, it just breaks my heart every time.
I get the impression that you had to track down this older generation. Are you trying to keep open connections to a younger generation to avoid those problems?
FR: I grew up here, and actually, before I was born, Malaquías Montoya had a print shop on the next block, here in Fruitvale (Oakland). I was being trained by people who'd been in the mural arts movement. Like the artist Andres Galindo, who gave us our screen printing equipment, he was actually my teacher when I was nine. They did help me, but it was really one class at a time, and then I didn't see them for months and months, and it was at whatever center was operating and could fund them to teach those classes. So I would help on a mural or I would cut the image for a screenprint, usually at an inadequate space because having an art class was the last priority! "First we have to have all the gang violence stuff and then safe sex classes and then ..."
I remember once being only one of three students, so sometimes the classes would get cancelled. And there is the question of economics. Now at the East Side Arts Alliance, we have a big debate because we started a mural arts program and so we get all these youth, and even if we train them really good, they need jobs and we don't have a way to plug them into an infrastructure for jobs. And sadly at times the only viable thing to do is to try to send them to art school, but we didn't go to art school. We would have them for four or five years and at some point they'd be like, "What's up, Favi, give me a job!" and there's nowhere to plug them in. That's a problem arts organizations have, there's not a job market for youth, unless you teach them how to be entrepreneurs, which is a whole other task. I think we can do that, but how do we tell them to go into our field of work when you know they're not going to be able to get jobs?
MC: At all these talks we give, we say, "This is what we do after we work a full day doing something else." Then they're like, "Oh shit." I worry that they're not gonna want to do it. It takes a real commitment.
FR: And actually Jesus and I don't work full time, so that's something that we're able to do because we work for ourselves, so we can be very very flexible. But it's very hard, cause if we're not making money at Tumis, we cut the money from our paychecks. I feel like we're saying we have to work eighty-hour weeks. But that's the wrong message to tell people when we're trying to fight capitalism! We need to rethink this.
JB: We can't just expect people to be artists. For a lot of people in our communities, it's hard to just be an artist. You can't just do it that easily. It's complex. It makes me feel kinda contradictory to the stuff that we preach.
How do you feel like this ties back into the politics in your work? In many ways the root of this problem is economic; none of us can actually grow up and do the things we aspire to do under capitalism. Now the idea of "community education" is being used to change the definition of an artist to be someone who teaches kids to become entrepreneurs. But we all know that if every kid on this block tried to start a business, they're all gonna fail; the system doesn't work. How do you struggle against this?
MC: It's interesting because the fortieth anniversary of the Third World Liberation Front happened last week, Favi and Jesus were on a panel with someone from 1969 and someone from the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the '80s. It's a trajectory of folks over many years who were fighting and using the framework of Third World Liberation. When I think of all the liberatory movements that I represent in my art, they're just specific examples of resistance to the multiple oppressions entwined in capitalism, right? What does it mean to imagine a society that looks differently?
I could be doing a million other things in terms of content, but making that conscious decision every time is about thinking of a future where young people might look back on this as their history and hopefully be living in an economic system that is not going to destroy the world.
JB: A long time ago I figured out that shit is not gonna get better for Indigenous people on this continent in my lifetime. 1992 was the quin-centennial of the beginning of the cultural invasion where our people have gone through cultural genocide. It's taken us 500 years to get to this point, our lineages, our histories, and the things that have been passed down to us. So after the first 500 years, there's gonna be the next 500 years. I see myself as part of that first generation of that next 500 years coming up. A lot of this stuff is throwing stones. The art we're creating is like throwing little stones at a wall, and as we keep going it's gonna weaken and it's gonna break. Were not trying to be the solution, it's a multi-generational movement that we're a part of. It's not that much, but we are able to pass this on and get a few more kids throwing stones. Eventually it's all going to tumble down.
Excerpted from Signal: 01 by Alec Dunn, Josh MacPhee. Copyright © 2010 PM Press. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
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Meet the Author
Alec Dunn is an illustrator and a printer who has designed book and record covers, political graphics, and punk fliers. His work can be seen at www.blackoutprint.com. He lives in Portland, Oregon. Josh MacPhee is an artist and an activist whose work focuses on social movements, history, and public space. He is the author of Paper Politics: Socially Engaged Printmaking Today, Realizing the Impossible: Art Against Authority, and Reproduce and Revolt. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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