The comic artist Peter Kuper has captured the colourful defiance of Oaxaca in the midst of its 2006 rebellion
Diario de Oaxaca: A Sketchbook Journal of Two Years in Mexico
2009, PM Press
209 pages, hardback, colour plates
Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole
WHEN the itinerant US alternative cartoonist Peter Kuper travelled to Oaxaca in Mexico in 2006, it was to settle down and escape the Bush regime and his own routine.
But a political artist with a pencil is like a car without brakes – and the illustrator soon began dissecting the momentous events that were turning this picturesque yet picante Mexican state on its head and recording them in images.
2006 was the year in which a teachers’ strike in Oaxaca escalated into a broad insurgency against the state’s PRI governor after police opened fire on non-violent protests. The confrontation achieved international attention with the deaths of activists and a US journalist, and accusations were levelled against Mexican authorities of death-squad activity and summary executions.
Kuper – creator of numerous graphic novels, co-founder of the inspiring World War 3 Illustrated New York-based political comic, and the incumbent artist for Mad’s Spy vs. Spy comic strip – has travelled extensively throughout Latin America and other developing regions, often documenting what he has encountered.
He recounts in text accompanying the images of Diario de Oaxaca how, as the teachers strike reached boiling point, he decided to confront the misinformation about what was going on that he found in the international press. As he points out, telling Oaxaca’s story transformed from an art exercise into a responsibility.
Diario de Oaxaca is Kuper’s detailed contemplation on the shadows and the light that the people of Oaxaca live within. The book combines images in a range of styles – collages, sketches and portraits in colour pencils, paint and ink. Monarch butterflies and ants alternate with graffiti and snapshot drawings of confrontations between protesters and what passes for a police force.
The artist recreates a diverse range of flora and flora, from a chrysalis on a milkweed to El Tule, the 2,000-year-old Cypress tree that is one of the largest in Latin America. The vibrant markets and colours of Oaxaca are portrayed alongside its skulls and pyramids. Beetles scurry across pages pricked by nopales. All the while, images of indolent police with truncheons at the ready, armoured cars and angry political gatherings, punctuate the life that is captured here in art.
The explosive coded messages in Kuper’s work illustrate the many dangers that obstruct Mexico’s winding paths, yet the defiant continuity that its people display. He is often able to relay these messages through the expression of an animal – a dog’s growl, a scorpion being devoured.
But ultimately it is humour, empathy with the people of Oaxaca, and the colour of hope that emerge from this graphic book, which can be inserted into a rich tradition of illustrated travel writing in Mexico that goes back to Alexander von Humboldt