Narsiso Martinez, 43, immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 20 and worked for nine seasons in the fields, raising money to be able to afford to go to college at California State University, Long Beach.
Martinez, pursuing a fine arts major, drew about farm laborers and their working conditions in the industrial agricultural complex while in school, inspired by his experience in the fields and the various farmworkers he met along the way.
While in graduate school, Martinez said he faced difficulty with art critics who didn’t understand the messages he was attempting to convey in his pieces.
Through this frustration came inspiration, as Martinez revisited an old art medium which he enjoyed and eventually became famous for: drawing on cardboard.
“All my critics would focus on the technicality of it and not on the subject on the concept; the idea that I wanted to talk about. It was kind of frustrating. I stopped painting at one point, and I went back to what I liked to do, which was painting and drawing on cardboard,” Martinez said.
“I picked this cardboard box from Costco, and I drew a banana man on this banana box, but this time I didn’t cut the labels. So when I presented that to my class, all my classmates, my committee and professors were agreeing that what I wanted to talk about became more focused, but at the same time universal,” Martinez said.
Martinez’s work, alongside other Oaxacan artists, is now on display at the Arte Américas studios in a celebration of Oaxacan culture through music and art.
Hundreds flocked to Downtown Fresno on March 5 to celebrate Oaxacan culture in full display at Arte Américas’ “Boom Oaxaca” (wuh-HAH’-kuh) art exhibition.
“Boom Oaxaca” also featured the works from the Oaxacan art collective Tlacolulokos and artist Hoja Santa.
Tlacolulokos is an art collective of self-taught artists from the Mexico state of Oaxaca. It was formed during the 2006 Oaxaca uprising, with an emphasis on anarchy and political rebellion.
Hoja Santa is a workshop that produces and features the graphic art of women. It came about due to a need for a space that featured female graphic artists in printmaking, which traditionally lacked women.
The exhibit seeks to bring attention to the indigenous and Oaxacan culture residing in the Central Valley and give a voice to a traditionally underrepresented group of people often described as invisible through the medium art according to curate Lilia Chavez.
The exhibit conveys issues of transnationalism about Oaxacan people in Fresno and in the state of Oaxaca, alongside indigenous sovereignty and the invisibility indigenous Oaxacans feel in both Hispanic culture in Mexico and in the U.S.
“The exhibition promotes and recognizes a very important segment of our community which is the Oaxacan community who has migrated from Mexico to the United States and over the years who have struggled as farm laborers but also has advanced in its time here,” Chavez said.
“The Oaxacan diaspora is an issue that is rarely recognized and acknowledged, so this is important, but it’s also important because this is a first-voice account of a part of Fresno’s community. It’s about the Latino community, by Latinos,” Chavez said.
Tlacolulokos art collective developed a unique art style that breaks away from traditional Neo-muralist in Mexico to offer a reflection of local realities, predominantly featuring indigenous Oaxacan people and those who migrated to the U.S.
Originally, the Tlacolulokos Los Angeles art exhibition was supposed to be featured in the studio. However, due to the size and quantity of art pieces in the exhibition, the Tlacolulokos commissioned new artworks reflective of the Oaxacan community in the Central Valley.
“We were going to actually bring that show here, but it’s so massive. Meaning height-wise… it wasn’t going to fit here. So we pivoted to change it and to show a new show. Their show at the LA Museum [was] very LA centric, which is great for the city, but we wanted something kind of reflecting our community,” said creative director Tony Carranza.
Tlacolulokos collaborated with Arte Américas to help produce art pieces for the exhibit following an intensive interview process with the Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities (CBDIO).
Fresno State alum and Arte Américas intern, Jesus Pelayo, 34, was drawn to Martinez’s art, as Pelayo also worked in the fields in his 20s. He noted how he often drank energy drinks to stay awake while working long hours to make ends meet, a detail featured in Martinez’s art.
“That’s an essential, and it speaks to, like, all the very unhealthy things that farmworkers have to go through to kind of get through the day, because it’s very physical, grueling labor,” Pelayo said.
“Just speaking of myself, I would go through four [energy drinks] just to keep up, and sometimes take little caffeine pills, and just stuff that’s really harmful to get by through the day and didn’t make it to work the next day,” Pelayo said.
Fresno State Chicano Latino Studies major Edwardo De Leon, 25, said he appreciated Martinez’s work as it highlighted the treatment of farm laborers in agribusiness and spoke to the need for both food and land sovereignty.
“What this showcase is trying to highlight is how industrial agronomy in agriculture actually comes at a cost. It comes at a pretty big cost in terms of our CO2 emissions, greenhouse gas and a lot of the food they can’t sell. They just throw it away because they won’t donate it because they won’t make money on it,” De Leon said.
The idea for a new art exhibition in Arte Américas first began around three years ago, after several brainstorming sessions. It took many different shapes and directions until eventually becoming the exhibit now known as “Boom Oaxaca.”
“We were going to do something around Cuba, or my part was going to be around Cuba. The project kind of shifted and stuff, and then we ended up kind of getting a new team for it. You know, myself and then some other folks jumped on board, too,” Carranza said.
Initially, “Boom Oaxaca” was slated to open in the summer of 2021. However, COVID-19 caused Arte Américas to postpone the exhibition until spring 2022.
“The exhibition took three years because of COVID-19. It should have taken four, but we kind of welcomed the extra year because it allowed us to put some flourishes on the exhibition that otherwise may not have happened,” Chavez said.
During the March 4 soft opening, the staff of Arte Américas could be seen making final preparations for various art pieces throughout the studio for the public grand opening on March 5.
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Arte Américas latest exhibit ‘Boom Oaxaca’ honors Oaxacan artists – The Collegian