Francisco Toledo (1940–2019)

Francisco Toledo, Monkeys in the Jungle, 2006, etching, aquatint, and drypoint, 12 x 16".

WE FELT IT IMMEDIATELY: the profound sense of orphanhood following the news of Francisco Toledo’s death. One of Mexico’s greatest artists, Toledo took up his mother’s last name and his parents’ Zapotec culture from the Oaxacan isthmus of Juchitán, on the country’s southernmost edge. After spending his youth in 1960s Paris, where he befriended Rufino Tamayo and Stanley William Hayter, Toledo went on to make a body of work that infused indigenous Zapotec traditions with Western mythology, eroticism, and avant-garde aesthetics. His practice drew from a hybrid of fluid references, not only in the animals, bodies, and symbols his oeuvre portrayed but also in the wide range of media and materials employed: stone, animal skins, ceramics, paper, and traditional objects including hair combs, ironwork, and felt.

The combination of irreverence and beauty that can be found in his work extended to his life, for the entirety of which he maintained a generosity and commitment to grassroots activism rarely seen in such famous and successful figures. He refused to let the golden arches of McDonald’s befoul downtown Oaxaca and engaged in fervent dialogue with lawmakers that resulted in the ban of GMO corn from the Oaxaca statedialogue that always placed the local communities, their traditions, and their natural resources at the forefront, even after he received more than one death threat for his community organizing and defense of political prisoners. In 2015 he sold his collection of more than 180,000 objects, comprising prints, sculptures, books, and paintings by Goya, Picasso, and many others, to the Mexican government for one peso, or fifty cents; twelve thousand volumes from his library are now housed in the Oaxaca Graphic Arts Institute (IAGO), which contains one of Latin America’s foremost art-book collections. It is one of the many essential cultural institutions in the region he helped establish, including the Oaxaca Ethnobotanical Garden, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Oaxaca (MACO), the San Agustín Center for the Arts (CASA), the Jorge Luis Borges Library for the Blind, the Álvarez Bravo Center for Photography, the Pochote Cinematheque and organic market, the Eduardo Mata Audio Library . . . The list goes on.

This was the same man who, in 2000, decided to pay his taxes in shit: The Mexican government, you see, allows artists to pay their taxes in work, and he responded by submitting hundreds of drawings of anuses and defecating animals, a mixture of scatology and alchemy. Toledo refused to sit for interviews, but his actions and work speak for him. He published Zapotec authors, formed dozens of soup kitchens after the 2017 Chiapas earthquake, and fed more than five thousand people in the isthmus region daily. In 2014 he mourned the forty-three disappeared students from Ayotzinapa by flying kites displaying their portraits—echoing an isthmus Day of the Dead tradition that facilitates visits from departed souls, who can come down on the strings to visit their altars. A hero, a master, a multitasker, a fighter, he lives on in his family and in the many students, activists, and artists who fly his kite high.

Gabriela Jauregui is a writer, editor, and translator who lives and works in Mexico City.