PREFACE TO THE SECOND EDITION
(Introduction written for new edition of Zapantera Negra Negra. 2022)
“Revolutionary art is a ceremony of freedom; it is larger than life. Oppressed and empowered communities worldwide practice its magic and hold secrets to its vibrance, using ceremonial ingredients as political weapons. As in ceremony, we relinquish our attachment to physical reality in order to gain enlightened foresight and knowledge; the Black and EZLN resistance create, as if they are living in a paradox, lucid dream acting outside the confines of what we normally perceive to be possible. This type of detached perspective from the indoctrinated mindset is vital in order to see clearly: liberated vision. It is a theme that is uniquely and potently found in the people’s art.”
—Mia Eve Rollow
Since the first encounter of Zapantera Negra at the end of 2012, the world has experienced an ongoing momentum of cultural and political changes that provide us with the evidence of how cultural shifts precede political change via strategic mass uprisings and an “aesthetics of revolt.” Both loud and soft images, actions and public interventions, emerge from popular art. This last decade has given rise to white supremacist ideology, to white nationalism, neonazism, and fascism. We have witnessed the Muslim ban; the separation of families and the imprisonment of children in cages along the US-Mexican border; a global pandemic that has unnecessarily killed millions of people across the world; the Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock protests; the Syrian Civil War and the Afghan refugee crises. But here, we do not focus on the polarization that transpired between 2016 and 2021, particularly within the political arena, but rather, we focus on the beautiful proof of how a significant cultural shift was sparked by poetic acts of disturbance.
On October 5th, 2020, the EZLN published their communiqué in which they announced an “invasion” of the European continent via land, sea, and air. Their voyage began on April 10, 2021, on a sailboat named “La Montania” and with their maritime delegation named “Escuadrón 421” [Squadron 421] composed of four cis women, two cis men, and one transgender nonbinary person: Lupita, Carolina, Ximena, Yuli, Bernal, Felipe, and Marijose. After a forty-seven-day trek across the Atlantic, they set foot on European soil and renamed the continent “Slumil K’ajxemk’op,” meaning “Rebel Land” in Tzotzil Mayan. They were later joined by a larger Zapatista delegation arriving by plane and would travel to over thirty places across Europe.
This voyage to Europe was seen as a reversed process of conquest. The idea of an inverse invasion aims to unlock a parallel universe in order to imagine new and exciting forms of social and economic structures, far from the violent capitalist legacies and arrangements based on the accumulation of wealth, conquest, and exploitation. But the intent of the Zapatistas was not to pillage, claim victim, or repeat the tired narrative of classifying the West as “evil.” On the contrary, the Zapatistas set foot in Europe to let it be known that, as Subcomandante Galeano states, “they have not conquered us, that we continue to resist, and we are in fact in open rebellion.” The Zapatistas planned meetings with groups throughout Europe that share the movement’s anticapitalist and environmental values. These groups included feminist collectives, migrant support initiatives, and climate justice movements.
This form of “theater” is not new to Zapatismo. In fact, the Zapatistas remain one of the most effective storytellers and myth creators of our time. They have created the most astonishing piece of theater, employing surrealism, poetry, and a rich visual language in order to illustrate the construction of their own realities, where the body is centered, not through an individualistic lens, but through a collective understanding of the body’s relationship with the earth. This language dismantles the logic of capitalism and presents theatrical acts as evidence for other ways of being.
The Aesthetics of Revolt
A movement like no other took hold of peoples’ imaginations in the summer of 2020, inflaming major cities across the United States. The 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson sparked a week of protests that catapulted the Movement for Black Lives into the national spotlight, which was reignited in the summer of 2020 when George Floyd was publicly executed by Minneapolis police, raising awareness of the anti-Blackness that undergirds policing in the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and so many others.
Small businesses and large corporations protected their windows from unrest and potential looting by installing temporary plywood skins, illustrating a moment of “closure” due to a global pandemic that emerged alongside the ongoing Black Lives Matter Movement. The boarded-up windows exposed the myths of a capitalist culture pertaining to stability, opportunity, prosperity, social mobility, and progress. Yet the plywood shields became canvases for local artists and community members whose images displayed the diversity, cultural richness, and poetry of the movement. The “aesthetics of revolt” emerged, presenting an emblazoned celebration of resistance, endurance, and of communities’ self-determination, empowerment, and hope.
In addition, we saw a transvaluation of American mythology around its honored public figures. Statues, such as those of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee or America’s “discoverer,” Christopher Columbus and Father Junipero Serra, were ignominiously toppled. Video projections, paintings, poetic texts, altars, and processions, were employed by revisionist artists to dismantle the false, whitewashed version of American history, promulgated in textbooks shaped by the tastes of southern school boards. The physical body was also used in direct action over the objects that proclaimed to hold our collective memories; the body in rage, the body in protest, in mourning, was used to create a new memory in public view, echoing the aesthetics of the Black Panther Party as if time had folded and unified these two distinct moments in US history.
A few years earlier, in April 2016, an Indigenous movement centering its struggle on the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation began with an encampment on LaDonna Brave Bull Allard’s land. The movement was inspired by elders such as Josephine Mandamin, who was a survivor of the Canadian Indian residential school system and founder of the Mother Earth Water Walkers (Water Protectors). Throughout her life, she walked over 25,000 miles around bodies of water in North America while carrying a bucket of water. This lifelong ritual, among others, served to create the momentum at Standing Rock where occupation, protest, art, ritual and ceremony, inspired a new generation of water protectors.
As the moral and ecological bankruptcy of the capitalist class becomes evident, Indigenous peoples who have challenged the colonial paradigm of resource extraction and plunder are being vindicated. Movements of resistance in the Brazilian Amazon, Ecuador, Canada, and New Zealand, have played an important role in protecting the land in which they live. According to a 2021 joint study conducted by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) and the International Labour Organization, Indigenous peoples are responsible for protecting 22 percent of the earth’s surface and 80 percent of its biodiversity.
“The people’s power is harnessed from an Indigenous-rooted, enlightened viewpoint derived from our intrinsic rights to be a flourishing species; this is the heart of Zapantera Negra’s inspired look at the use of artistic power seen within the select happenings above. Our dreams have been the greatest threat to the security of the colonizer’s regime, the power of our ability to create a better world is palpable and real, because only with liberated vision can we both imagine and garner the wisdom and strength to get there. Our medicine is within every discipline and culture, the secret within the flower. Zapantera Negra is one small speck of dust in the great vistas of people’s art, showing us the beauty we have and can attain.” —Mia Eve Rollow
By closely looking at the Black Panthers party and the Zapatista’s understanding of art, as well as other political and social movements of today, such as Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock, we pose these questions:
How can simple acts using the body and objects, such as walking and carrying water for endless miles, inspire social transformation?
How does the painting of plywood and the poetic dismantling of monuments set in motion the restructuring of a nation’s memory?
How does the renaming of an entire continent bring ideas of alternative realities into existence?
And when does the “absurd,” the theatrical, and the poetic challenge the hard evidence of economic and military power?
As artists and the EDLEO collective, we continue to use objects, either fabricated or found, as sculpture; and we situate the body in ceremony, and sights of social and political conflict as stage. We have created cardboard houses and burned them at the feet of the US-Mexican border in collaboration with families seeking asylum living in makeshift refugee camps in Tijuana Mexico. We have carried long exaggerated pink ladders across urban areas in Oakland created by unaccompanied minors who arrived at the US Mexico border. We have imagined fictional space as the “Embassy of the Refugee” as a moving nomadic creative space for asylum seekers.
Within this work, we do not create for the purpose of exhibiting, nor are we directing a film, or acting. We are creating sculptural public interventions through a shared authorship. Our documentation is simply the residue of a shared experience that begins to shape our reality. With this art making, we are free from formats and categories of cultural production to reimagine the political and social organizing of our laws and social behaviors. We are providing physical evidence of resistance and survival that is manifested in the US-Mexico border and other areas of conflict. Our memories are fragile and can be deceiving. If we do not exercise a living memory through artistic cultural acts and initiatives, we lose our collective strength. That is what Zapatismo and the Black Panther legacy gives us. Zapantera Negra gathers the residue of these encounters and presents them to the world, to propose, to give seed to seemingly unattainable realities.
CALEB DUARTE WITH EDELO
IN 1994 THE ZAPATISTA UPRISING, a Mexican Indigenous movement from the southern state of Chiapas, produced and leveraged a new form of revolutionary communication through the Internet. The distribution of information, actions, images, and video spread throughout the world in real time, bringing awareness while building solidarity for what the New York Times called “the first postmodern revolution.” Positioning itself as a struggle against neoliberalism and waged against five hundred years of oppression, Zapatismo has employed new technologies of information distribution in order to articulate its wants and beliefs to a global audience.
In the fall of 2009, over one hundred displaced Indigenous community members occupied the offices of the United Nations, located in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. The offices were taken over in the hope of gaining international attention from humanitarian organizations. After a few months of the occupation, the United Nations simply decided to find another building and moved.
A few months later, Mia Eve Rollow and I, disillusioned with institutional art and wishing to believe that art can be a radical form of communication, moved into the building and established an experimental art space and international artist residency for diverse practices. We invited artists, activists, cultural workers, inventors, gardeners, PhDs, jugglers, and educators to take part in creating an experiment in art and social change. Disenchanted with the linear path of art history, these artists came to EDELO (En Donde Era la ONU [Where the United Nations Used to Be]) in favor of art as a vehicle for social transformation. Inspired by the Zapatista uprising, where words and poetry are used to inspire a generation to imagine ‘other’ possible worlds, EDELO retained the name of the UN office as part of an investigation into how art, in all its disciplines and contradictions, can take the supposed role of such institutional bodies to create understanding, empathy, and to serve as a tool for imagining alternatives to a harmful and violent system that we do not have to accept.
Zapantera Negra gathered the visual results of four encounters, between 2012 and 2014, between the Black Panthers and Zapatistas and guided by the works and presence of Emory Douglas, the former Minister of Culture of the Black Panther Party. For this encounter, Emory teamed up with Zapatista women embroidery collectives, Zapatista farmers and painters, and with local artists, activists, and musicians to create new works that reflect and celebrate these two powerful movements. Although each movement presents a distinct position in terms of cultural and political milieus, they both build on a shared understanding of the power of art. After a series of public interventions, installations, video art, performances, mural paintings, lectures, and after living and working with Zapatista families, Zapantera Negra presents a collection of works that were ignited collectively by the public’s desire and need to demonstrate, protest, and create. In times of much revolutionary fever and economic inequality, we feel it is important to share what art can do, and has already done, to create change.
Such a radical break is represented by the creation of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in 1966 and the artworks created by Emory Douglas for its newspaper. At its peak in 1970, four hundred thousand copies of The Black Panther newspaper were distributed weekly throughout the United States. Within its pages, Emory published his artworks in an effort to “illustrate conditions that made revolution seem necessary [and to] construct a visual mythology of power for people who felt powerless and victimized.” The newspaper and its accompanying illustrations played a central role in the articulation of the “What We Want, What We Believe” portion of the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program. The Black Panther Party newspaper helped to establish a Black Panther aesthetic of Black Power and Revolution.
Although the Black Panther and the Zapatista movements occurred in distinct cultural, political, and historical milieus, the two share a common appreciation of the power of the image and the written word to translate their respective social movements into personal, collective, transformative, and public experiences. In contrast to the strong self-definition established and disseminated by these two movements via media channels, today’s multimedia, plugged-in landscape seems to promote social indifference. In opposition to this ambient apathy as well as the ‘high art’ practices taught by leading institutions, Zapantera Negra is a project that demonstrates how contemporary art can sidestep conventional political and conceptual performance practices by working in communities of struggle from the ground up. Zapantera Negra is a grassroots effort to bring together two very powerful visual and political social movements.