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“Boom Oaxaca,” a new art exhibition by Oaxacan artists, to open at Arte Americas

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Courtesy of Narsiso Martinez
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A new exhibit and programming series that showcases Oaxacan culture is launching next week at Arte Americas in Fresno. KVPR spoke with Oaxacan artist Narsiso Martinez to learn more about the event. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Q: Hi Narsiso. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me. Can you explain the goal behind Boom Oaxaca?

A: My understanding is that Boom Oaxaca will highlight the contribution of the Oaxacan community in the Central Valley in terms of food sovereignty, indigenous sovereignty, and many other subjects that are going to come out of the exhibition.

Q: The Boom Oaxaca website says this exhibition is not just about representation, but about acknowledging communities that are reimagining their own futures. Can you tell me a little more about what that means?

A: Well, for me, as an artist, when it comes to our future, it means “what else can we do? What do we want for our future?” I work with the subject matter of farmworkers, because I worked in fields. But when I read Boom Oaxaca’s statement, I immediately thought of the new generations of indigenous people in the Valley. From my perspective and from my own experiences, I feel that we can do as much as anybody else in this country. We can go to college, we can get degrees, we can get into politics, we can organize, we can be artists, musicians and movie producers.

Q: I understand that you emigrated from Oaxaca and have worked in the fields. How does your experience as a farmworker influence your art?

A: It has everything to do with my art. Before I became serious about the idea of bringing farmworkers into my art, I managed to go to school to learn [English] and to get a college degree. When we had to do research, that’s when I really understood myself as an indigenous person, as a minority, as someone who was struggling like everyone else in the fields and in the farmworker community. So I decided to take on that struggle, and to highlight the struggles of my co-workers. I was doing the research while working in the fields so I call them my co-workers. I thought it was important to highlight these struggles because through those struggles, they are contributing to our economy and to the country.

Q: Fresno is one of the most agriculturally productive regions in the country and it’s home to a large Oaxacan community. What does it mean to be presenting this exhibit here?

A: Well, it's really significant. I feel like I'm usually showing my art at institutions, like colleges, or going to galleries and museums. I'm bringing these visuals to people who probably have never worked in fields, right? And the goal was for them to realize, educate, or maybe at least acknowledge that there are farmworkers in the fields that are working hard behind the food that we produce every day. So to be here at Boom Oaxaca, it has a different significance because Fresno has a super large population of us, the Oaxaca community, and also farmworkers. I'm hoping that a lot of these people will go to the show and will see themselves in the work. I want them to feel represented. I want them to feel proud of what they do because what they do is important.

Q: A lot of your work features portraits of farmworkers, painted on produce boxes. Why produce boxes?

A: When I was a kid, I almost never painted. I was always drawing, because it was the easiest, the least expensive. You get charcoal, pencils, and any paper. So when I went to [undergraduate] school, they taught me how to paint on different kinds of media. But in graduate school, all the knowledge that I acquired during my undergrad became sort of like secondary. It was more about what we can say with the art, and not so much like whether I knew how to paint.

I was having a hard time trying to say what I wanted to say, in my art, with oil painting. It was kind of frustrating for me. So I stopped painting and I went back to what I knew, what would make me feel good. Before going to graduate school I had worked on cardboard. I was inspired by one professor. He had an exhibition, and he had a piece on cardboard. I thought it was beautiful to use the tone of the cardboard as the tone of the skin of the subject. And so when I went to graduate school, and I was going through this little hard time I went back to that.

It was winter break and I found a box at Costco, a banana box. I took it with me and drew a banana man. I took the box to my class and everyone was excited to see that all my points were coming together. The fact that there was this overlap with the drawing and the labels of the box was really significant. I was trying to talk about the differences of lifestyles between the ranch owners and the farmworkers. When I was in the fields, I saw those differences and I wanted to bring that into the art.

The idea was that the ranch owners were represented by the labels and by the prints on the boxes and my drawings represented the farmworkers. But what I was trying to say became more universal, because I was not only talking about the ranch owners, where I work, but also the corporations, the fact that they were hand in hand with the farmworkers, and whether the lifestyles of the of the companies versus the farmworkers was fair. All that was not literally there, but people could ask questions. They could speculate.

Q: And will this work be on display at Arte Americas?

Q: Yeah, we have two sculptures. And we have other drawings, large size drawings that include farmworkers. And obviously, there are produce cardboard boxes, specifically. You’ll see some of the labels. And also this last piece that I created specifically for Boom Oaxaca, which represents what we want for our future and what is possible for our future.

Q: This exhibit is opening more than two years into the pandemic. Has the pandemic influenced your art or the messages that you’re hoping to convey through your work?

A: It hasn’t changed but it has created new ways of creating art. Luckily I’m still in contact with a lot of my co-workers. And many times they share their stories through phone calls, images. And I use those images. And at least a few times I have actually created a piece specifically speaking about the pandemic and how these communities are still in the same struggle as before, even though they have been deemed essential workers. And it's kind of sad, no? There was a lot of buzz around the farmworkers, throughout the pandemic, and my biggest fears or concern was that after the whole pandemic was over, business was going to be as usual. And it seems like it is because now I'm seeing that nothing has changed. I'm talking about at the state policy level. And even at a local level, I feel like many times, farm workers are still unprotected. There's still rules to protect farmworkers but they're not as enforced.

Q: What do you hope people will take away from the Boom Oaxaca exhibit?

A: I think the acknowledgement of these individuals who work really hard in fields to produce the food that we consume, their contributions to the economy. The fact that they are humans, and they have families, they have struggles and they have dreams. I want them to feel represented in those images. I want the people who are not in the fields to acknowledge them as humans and to contribute to policies that would better their life.