Volume 19 Number 2
Making Life An Art
01 April 2006

Francisco Toledo is not just one of Mexico's best known artists: he is also a philanthropist. He talks to Andrea Cabrera Luna.

After a couple of weeks of chasing the Mexican artist, Francisco Toledo, via telephone and e-mail I was feeling desperate. I had delayed my return to London so that I could interview him. 'You can find him walking around the centre of the city,' many people told me. So, in the end, I gott on the bus for the five-hou ride to Oaxaca City. I arrived at the Institute of Graphic Arts of Oaxaca (IAGO) just before the sunset, after a thirsty journey through a landscape of mountains and cacti.

When I stepped through the door I found the Maestro surrounded by three young assistants who resembled Greek Furies more than Muses. They were informing, confirming or reminding him of different things; people wanted to make a documentary about him, bills had to be paid and he had to attend such and such an appointment. 'Maestro Toledo,' I said, 'I came to see if I can interview you.' 'About what?' he asked. 'About your work,' I replied. 'What work?' he asked. Eventually, he admitted he knew who I was: 'Yes, you are that girl from Puebla, right?'

We talked on the patio at the back of the Institute, which he founded. All around us there were young people taking advantage of this welcoming space, talking, doing homework or taking French lessons. 'Many people say they've seen you walking around the city. Why do you like to walk?' I asked. ‘I think it's because I can't be still,' he said. As he talked he opened and closed his hands, and I realised they were covered with clay-he had clearly come straight from sculpting.

Toledo has explored a wide range of work possibilities such as painting, sculpture, engraving, photography and ceramics. Many people see him as the archetypal Mexican artist but he resists this, saying that different artists such as Edvard Munch, James Ensor, William Blake, Rembrandt and Durer have all influenced his work. He poses questions of identity often by representing metamorphosed figures that convey an idea of transformation, renewal, and camouflage. By giving animal figures human features, he humanises the animal world. At the same time, he reminds us of evolution, which is the undeniable point where the human and the animal world encounter each other.

The artist is a man of contrasts, harsh and sweet, indigenous and cosmopolitan, traditional and contemporary. Although his art has put him in a privileged social position, he has used his money and fame to benefit his people. He was born in 1940 in Juchitan, which is part of a region called Istmo, in Oaxaca, that separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Pacific Ocean. Juchitan is a controversial area since it has several times attempted to secede from Mexico.

His parents belonged to Juchitan's indigenous group, the Zapotec. 'My father and my mother were from different social backgrounds. My father's family were shoemakers and my mother's were pig farmers. My grandmother didn't like my father because he was from Juchitan, and people from Juchitan were seen as cattle thieves. When we moved to Veracruz, my father proved to be a very skilled businessman and my grandmother finally realised he was a good hard-working man,' he said. Toledo won the Right Livelihood Award (better known as the Alternative Nobel Prize) in November 2005. According to the jury, he was given the award 'due to his commitment to the preservation, development and renewal of the architectural and cultural inheritance, the environment and community life of his native Oaxaca'.

This quote summarises a long list of initiatives in which the painter has collaborated, such as the foundation of El Pochote film centre, the Manuel Alvarez Bravo photographic centre and the Jorge Luis Borges library for blind people. He is also an active participant in Pro-Oax, an organisation that fights for the freedom of political prisoners, the reclamation of a former convent (which is a national treasure) occupied by a luxury hotel, and the reforestation of arid zones.

A story that has defined and influenced Toledo's life and work is that of 'Che' Gomez, with whom he has family connections. Gomez was a rebel that led a separatist revolt in Juchitan in 1911. He was killed by Mexican troops under the orders of Benito Mata Juarez, the son of President Benito Juarez, a Zapotec shepherd who became President of Mexico and whose great achievement was the separation of State and Church. In general terms, President Juarez is remembered as a positive figure in Mexico, but not in Juchitan; there he is seen as an enemy of his own people's bid for independence. Toledo has painted Juarez represented by a grasshopper-as a play on his static iconic image.

When Toledo was 12 he left his parents' house and went to study art in Oaxaca. Later he went to Paris and became friends with such renowned Mexican artists and writers as Rufino Tamayo and Octavio Paz. He has also lived in Barcelona and New York.

After many years away from Mexico, Toledo went back to live in Juchitan: ‘I tried to have a Juchitecan family. But I failed.' He is embarrassed by the fact that his Zapotec is not good. As the language has different intonations, the slightest mistake changes the whole meaning of a word. ‘It saddens me to think I could not speak this language with the people I most loved, my grandparents, and my parents. I could say things, yes, but something was lost. It was a broken Zapotec that I spoke,' he says.

His children are all involved in the preservation of their native culture in one way or another. His son Jeronimo, is a famous tattoo artist. ‘You may think he's crazy, because he has all those tattoos, but he's a very tender man,' he says. Toledo confesses there was a certain distance between them in the past, when he decided to remarry; but now that Jeronimo is a father himself, they are very good friends. 'Did you have a good relationship with your father?' I ask, and he tells me that he certainly did. ‘My father was very brown and I was the brownest of my brothers and sisters. I think that is why he protected me. He also gave me his father's name, Benjamin, as my second name.' In his hometown he has the affectionate name of Tamin, after his second name.

When he was a young boy a friend of his father owned the local library: ‘We could go whenever we wanted to. I used to spend many hours there.' This left him with a passion for books and poetry. He has supported the creation of several public libraries, whether in small communities or in big cities and founded the Ediciones Toledo publishing house. He illustrated a book called A Tale about the Rabbit and the Coyote (Didxaguca'sti' Lexu ne Gueu'), based on an old Zapotec story. Today, he and his daughter Natalia, who is a poet, are finishing work on a bilingual book that is about to be published.

A woman comes to interrupt our conversation, since other people want to talk to him. Now we have started he does not want to stop, but he concludes with a simple affirmation: ‘I like to come to IAGO to see if there's something needed. I like to make sure that everything's all right'. There is a lot of work to do, but with a mentor like him, of course everything is more than all right.