Last week, the Oaxaca Times sat down for an interview with legendary Oaxacan artist and activist Francisco Toledo. At first, he was reluctant, complaining that “they always ask me the same things.” But he eventually agreed, adding that “this is going to be the last interview I do.” To express our gratitude for the exclusive opportunity he granted us, we promised to try to come up with interesting questions he (hopefully) hasn’t heard before.
When we arrived at the door of his home in central Oaxaca, he emerged looking pensive and perhaps a bit confused. His long disheveled hair, piercing eyes, and generally unkempt appearance cut the figure one might expect from a famed but eccentric artistic genius. He suggested we conduct the interview at a local coffee shop, and as we began chatting with him along the way, he seemed somewhat shy and guarded. But it quickly became clear that this impression didn’t tell the whole story; he warmly greeted a woman on the street who seemed very pleased to see El Maestro out and about. Beneath the reserved and elusive veneer was a playful, generous, and insightful man.
Once we sat down, he graciously answered all of our questions, speaking at some length about what he sees as his greatest accomplishments and frustrations. We began with a few broad questions to get him talking, and then tried to zoom in on some of his more recent work, as well as his political activities. We hope that these questions were somewhat unique and more interesting for him to answer, and that they yielded responses that our readers will find illuminating and worthwhile (for a more general overview of Toledo’s biography, style, and development as an artist, see here).
Below is a copy of the interview transcript, which was conducted in Spanish. It has been translated and lightly edited for clarity.
Oaxaca Times (OT): In your work, you have experimented with many different materials such as glass, stone, clay, wood, and metal. With which new material would you like to experiment? Why?
Francisco Toledo (FT): I don’t know. I think all the materials I’ve worked with are materials that artists traditionally use. I don’t know if now, via a computer I could do something else, but I think it’s a ways away.
OT: Of all the works that you have done, which has been the most complicated, and why?
FT: All of [my] work has certain complications, there are techniques that are easier for me than others. So to work on paper over paper, or watercolors, perhaps is less complicated than working with oil paints, where you have to wait for them to dry, the process takes longer. I would say I’m an artist who follows my first impulse and original intention.
OT: You seem to really care about children. You’ve designed chairs and tables for your school. What moves you to do this kind of work?
FT: In reality, the idea was not just to design for children but for adults as well. I designed gates for houses, floors, and textiles. I started in Teotitlan del valle making tapestries to be hung on the walls of peoples’ homes. As far as children are concerned, this project came about because El CaSa (Center for the Arts of San Agustin) adopted a school, a school that was in ruins. We rebuilt it and then thought we could make improvements to the floors, the gates, the chairs, the tables and the uniforms.
OT: What has been your greatest satisfaction as an artist?
(Editor’s note: PRO-OAX is an organisation founded by Francisco Toledo, focused on protecting the natural, historical, and culture and heritage of Oaxaca. In the following response, Toledo discusses his involvement with the organisation and some of its successes and failures.)
FT: I don’t know… to have created PRO-OAX is something I’m very satisfied with because it’s had a clear positive influence on Oaxacan society, of course we have had some failures as well. Among the good things include: the botanical gardens in Santo Domingo, land the government wanted to turn into a hotel and parking lot, but we successfully blocked them. On the other hand, it was sort of a failure because even though we blocked the sale of the building on camino real, now called La Quinta Real, we learned that it had already been sold. That sale was nullified thanks to pressure from PRO-OAX, but we were still unable to get that building certified as a center of historical significance.
It continued to be private property, in reality we don’t know who the owner is. But we actually heard that the government of Mexico gave money to create a spa and a gym. It really bothered us because there had just been a big earthquake that caused significant damage in the isthmus and in the sierra, where there are now no houses, no schools, people sleeping on the street, debris everywhere which contaminated rivers, the laguna, and the ocean. Why give all this money to a business owner, a company, which I believe is transnational… why give this money to a business that is supposedly doing very well?
OT: Did the money come from the state or federal government?
FT: The National Tourism Ministry decides.
(Editor’s note: The State Government had plans to build a convention center and a large parking lot on the Fortin hill. PRO-OAX opposed these plans because of the historical significance of the hill to Oaxaca: it was designated as a protected ecological area during the tenure of former Mayor of Oaxaca Pablo Arnaud, as part of the Partial Plan for the Conservation of the Historical Center of Oaxaca. PRO-OAX believed the proposed convention center and parking lot violated the Partial Plan and the protected ecological area designation. PRO-OAX successfully blocked the construction of the Convention Center. The following responses given by Toledo convey his views on this conflict.)
FT: One triumph was to block the planned convention center.
OT: But they still built the parking lot.
FT: But it doesn’t work. For us at PRO-OAX, it made clear to the society that it was a poor use of money [building the parking lot].
OT: We came across a Twitter account bearing your name which claims that you support Jose Antonio Meade in Mexico’s upcoming presidential election. Is this true?
(Editor’s note: the account has since been suspended.)
FT: No. Meade was here on a visit not long ago. I was invited to go to a breakfast with him, and I didn’t go because I don’t want to have any relationships with any candidate in the presidential elections. Other artists like Sergio Hernandez, Zarate Andreacci were with him showing off. No, I don’t know who decided to post this tweet, but we will look into it.