Art that goes deeper than the paintwork

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One doesn’t have to be in Mexico for long to discover that her stories can be found on her walls: lining the poorly signposted calles and jam-packed metro stations; from humble casas to Government buildings, the ‘mural’ is a long-standing tradition here. And one taken seriously by its practitioners. From Diego Riviera’s epic historical depictions dotted around Mexico City, to the multiple faces of Zapata splattered across the country (which leave you with no doubt about the enduring importance of the dandy revolutionary in the modern Mexican psych, nor about the size of his moustache!), the mural is kinda what they do here.

But nowhere in Mexico has the power of the mural been more effectively demonstrated than on the narrow, unassuming streets of a small, impoverished barrio in city of Puebla: Xanenetla. And none of it would have been possible without the hard work of a social-artistic collective by the name of ‘Tomate’.

The Community

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Xanenetla is recognised as a Unesco Heritage Site. Yet despite this prestigious title it is one of the most deprived barrio’s in Puebla. Before the arrival of Collective Tomate, Puebla Municipality’s amnesia for the barrio (which the more cynically-minded amongst us might hazard to guess had something to do with the largely indigenous identity of the barrio) was evident both on the surface and underneath: facades were crumbling, and basic amenities such as proper drainage and street lighting were in serious disrepair. The only time Xanenetla received any attention was election time, when the government needed her votes.

When Collective Tomate decided to start a project with the Xanenetla community, their intention was to transform the surface, yet their impact eventually proved to be deeper than even the running water that now (finally) reaches every house. In its four years working on the project, the Collective has supported the creation of 55 murals, “depicting stories, dreams, concerns and anecdotes; creating an explosion of colors, shapes, characters and symbolism that represents the identity of Xanenetla” (Puebla Mural City Publication).

Process

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Whilst the scale and the aesthetic impact of Collective Tomate’s Mural City project is impressive (none of the group describe themselves as artists), it is the methodology, coupled with the success in engaging and facilitating the genuine empowerment of the local community, which is, I feel, of most significance. As Vica of the Collective explains:

Our whole project is based on six moments, that we believe are really important for the correct achievement of the goals and the involvement of everybody who is part of the project. These are: 1. Always Smile, 2. Don’t Hear… Listen, 3. Acknowledge what Surrounds You (These three we call Inspiration) 4. Get Your Hands Dirty, 5. Dare to Create 6. Celebrate (These three we call Creation)”.

In this spirit, long before any paint brushes emerged, or even talks of mural designs began, the members of Collective Tomate could be found on the streets of Xanenetla; for six months, they visited the community twice a week, going from house to house, introducing themselves and their idea to the families. Some doors were closed on them, but many were opened and over time they were able to gain the trust of the local community. This is something a lot of us working with communities know we should be doing: we know it could make all the difference to the work we do, if we put in the hours actually getting to know our communities and gaining their trust, but how often do we actually do it?

After establishing a relationship with the community, the collective then had to prove that they were willing and able to follow through on the aims of the project. Using social media, they invited people from all over Puebla to join them for a ‘clean up party’, in which they cleaned up the facades of the buildings in preparation for the painting. The event brought over 200 people from outside of Xanenetla into the community to help out, yet the message was clear: ‘you do not clean unless someone from the community is beside you’. The activity was not about charity, but about solidarity.

The next stage was to find artists who could help the community to realize their visions. Whilst the guidelines for artists were strict in terms of their task, people came from far and wide, including Europe, to participate in the project. Once the artists were selected, it was time to go back to the community. But still no paint brushes. A few other things had to be addressed before any paint could touch wall.

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Each corn kernel represents a member of the community in this epic mural created by world-famous Spanish Graffiti Artist, Liqen

Firstly, the artists were introduced to the community and to to the spaces they would be working within. Artists were blindfolded for this act, with the aim of encouraging them to form an impression of this new environment whilst being deprived of its visual aesthetic. By smelling, hearing, tasting feeling this new place, the artists gained a first impression quite different from the traditional one It was only upon removing the blindfolds that the artists were able to experience the neglect apparent within the community.

Following this unconventional introduction to Xanenetla, the collective facilitated a number of workshops – themes included conflict resolution and forum theatre – aimed at creating bonds between the artists and the community members, as much as at developing skills.

Only after the bonds between the artists and the community members had been forged was it time to consider the art. Each artist was ‘placed with a family’ in order to listen and to collect the stories and associations of that family, which would serve as the content/theme of the artwork on their assigned facade; some of the subsequent art work would capture long histories, whilst others would represent a detail or anecdote of a family members life.

With designs created and agreed with their respective (and respected) family, the process of painting the murals began. This process was one in which the community actively participated: artists were relaxed about the outcomes of the painting, and whilst providing guidance where requested, welcomed the active involvement of as many community members as possible.

At the end of allotted two-week time-frames, and with the murals mostly completed, it was time to celebrate. The folks of Tomate swear by the importance of a good knees-up to celebrate new friends and new creations, and the completion of each group of new murals (in multiple two-week periods over several years) is cause for celebration:

We ask all the invitees to wear colorful cloths and hats and we ask the people from the barrio to do something, whatever they want, for the people who will go to visit. Some of them cook, some of them do flavoured water, some put on their typical costumes and dance…the barrio is filled with color, music, dance and laughter: it’s beautiful.”

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Photo courtesy of Vica Amuchastegui

The Result?

With each artist’s style unique and each family’s story different, the project could not fail to create a diversity of results. Yet, as you navigate the narrow streets of the barrio, you cannot help being overwhelmed by the complexity and variety that draws you around, corner after corner. Here are just a few to tempt and tease…

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Yet what is most amazing about this project is not just the physical mark left on the community, but the tangible effect it has had on the lives of the families behind the multi-coloured walls, both relational, and physical.

One of the positive outcomes of the project was to increase solidarity and bring to an end to age-old feuds. The below picture depicts a mural of the Virgin of Juquilita, a religious figure, whose hair grows every time a miracle is done. For many years, the annual party to celebrate the Virgin of Juquilita was celebrated firmly inside the walls of this family home. But inspired by their new mural, the party re-located – out onto the street – and came to include the whole barrio, prompting certain long-standing family disputes to be put aside in favour of unity.

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The project also gave people a sense that they could achieve things themselves, that they could create resources for themselves: some time into the project one of the community members asked for help from the collective to create a library for the community. Tomate agreed to support this in terms of proof-reading funding applications and proposals, but insisted that the work should be the community’s own. A few months later, and with space donated by another community member, Xanenetla had a library, created by the people of Xanenetla, and the space has become a cherished resource for young and old alike.

Alongside this new attitude of solidarity came a new attitude of respect, both for people and for space. One of the key intended effects of the project was to actively counteract the ‘broken-window theory’: the more dilapidated, disrespected and un-cared for a space/community/resource appears, the less respect and care people will give it. Where vandalism or graffiti exists, it is more likely to be (re-)produced. By actively cultivating care, respect and even pride for their public spaces, the community and the collective sought to change the way people behaved towards it.

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For the most part, this has been successful. There has been a visible reduction in the levels of ‘tagging’ and general vandalism in the community. Spaces once considered dangerous, such as alleyways, have been opened up by the presence of art work and been re-incorporated into the labyrinthine story of the barrio.

And it was not only community members, but also the so-called ‘stewards’ of the community – the Puebla Municipality – who began to recognise that they had to respect and care for the community. Becoming aware of the work the community and Collective Tomate were doing through the media, the Municipality began to take an interest. Whilst initially they only showed up for the photo-ops, over time their interest resulted in more valuable action with street lights, running water and proper drainage finally being installed across the barrio.

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Photo courtesy of Vica Amuchastegui

A year after the last murals were created, and with the recent less than careful work done by the Municipality, some of the work has become damaged and dirty. According to Vica, of the collective: “The people in the barrio was really mad, they couldn’t understand why they couldn’t have both, why in order to get one [working facilities] they’d have to lose another [their murals].”

Determined not to let the ‘broken-window theory’ rear it’s ugly head, Collective Tomate along with many extras returned in Spring 2013 to help re-touch the murals and re-connect with the community. I can only imagine it was a fun-filled reunion.

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photo courtesy of Vica @ Collective Tomat

With the clear success of the Ciudad Mural project, it’s no suprise that Collective Tomate have got a very busy year this year. You can follow their work, in Puebla and in other cities @:

www.colectivotomate.com

Huge thanks to Vica of Collective Tomate for meeting with us, taking us to visit the community and for sharing further information and photos.  It was a pleasure to witness the incredible work of the people of Xanenetla and Collective Tomate!

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