Reflections on CompARTE

Ruby Zajac, Scotland

8/08/16, Mexico City

mural Mural, Oventik – Brigada sin Fronteras

The first week of CompARTE was a beautiful chaos. I never knew what experiences I would be taking away from the autonomous, Zapatista University of the Earth (CIDECI) of a day, when, sated with art and ideas, I joined the throng heading back to the centre of San Cristóbal de las Casas. The fluidity of the programme wasn’t intentional; the confusion unleashed by the first communique, which as participants we received in an email with the subject heading ‘CompARTE is suspended’, meant many artists cancelled their plane tickets, or made other commitments. One member of the organisation and support team estimated an absence of around 40% of the artists intending to participate. The improvised nature of the first couple of days especially led to a lot of slots being filled last minute: participants giving extra performances and others who had only registered as attendees adding their skills and knowledge to the melting pot – borrowing a guitar for a bit of open mic, planning a workshop overnight, joining a circus show.

And it was wonderful; I want to stress that when I say chaos, I mean to convey some essence of the bursting cornucopia that CompARTE was; where the programme changed last minute, and the title info tended to be brief and enigmatic. I wandered around the (mostly) sunny CIDECI seeing what I could find, sticking my head into something that looked intriguing and almost always coming out impressed and delighted, or moved, as with several powerful pieces of theatre. It could have been maddening, especially as, with overlapping and simultaneous events in over a dozen spaces, it was impossible to see everything. But it wasn’t, because every intervention was special, you knew it wouldn’t be repeated quite like that again, and it was a privilege and honour to be there. Sometimes I followed the crowd – a big audience always suggests you’re in for something good -but generally, it was the exact opposite of the kind of over-publicised art in the mainstream media where trailers give away the whole plot; at CompARTE you dedicated an hour of your time to a workshop or poetry recital in good faith but without precise expectations, and the ‘risk’ almost always bore fruit.

pitchMixanteña on the Football Pitch – traditional music from the Guerrero coast performed by musicians from Guerrero, Oaxaca, Veracrruz, Tlaxcala and DF.

Even if, on occasion, it wasn’t what you had in mind, you could slip out and into something else – a dance performance on the basketball field, or one of the ‘Palapaz’, filled with visual art. As I said, it was fluid. Once I thought I was joining the beginning of a yoga class in the dressmaking room where murals were painted and caricatures drawn, ‘real hero’ action men like Che Guevara were carved and T-shirts printed. It turned out to be a joyful, energetic West African dance workshop! I went to the chapel to see some Brazilian music, at the request of my compañero, with no idea what it would be like, and it turned out to be Tonho Crocco, a heartfelt, militant singer-songwriter who moved and inspired me, in spite of my lack of Portuguese.

The atmosphere buzzed with positive energy, and such was the spirit of welcome and enthusiasm for this unique opportunity to share creative projects and learning with people from all over Mexico and the world, that I ended up increasing my participation four-fold; helping out on the music stages by playing some of my songs when a performer hadn’t appeared, and throwing together a storytelling version of one of our childrens’ shows, Molly Whuppie – I’m part of Scottish Early Years theatre company Licketyspit and originally came to give a video-presentation about one of our projects, Licketyleap. Performing was a dream because I knew the reception would be warm and supportive. It just so happened that the morning slot I filled in the auditorium was meant to be for a Son Jarocho performance by a group of children from a cultural centre, who couldn’t arrive until the afternoon. But in fact they arrived just before I started and all of them came to watch and drew dozens of wonderful pictures inspired by the story!

I learnt so much, in practice and in exchange, exactly the kind of dynamic horizontal sharing of ideas that the word ‘comparte’ implies. I’m hopeful some of the connections I made will lead to further sharing of our art and practice in the coming months and years and for me this symbolises the importance of CompARTE: a chance for us to come together, stoke the fires of our creative passion with solidarity and new ideas, with inspiring, open people. And from within the hubbub of the long days of the festival, one could always escape into the forest, or take a coffee break in the Palapaz with the delicious sweet breads made in the university’s bakery. About half way through the week, in a seminar, I met Pedro, a mechanics student at the CIDECI, who offered to guide me up the hill behind the buildings. As we went up the hill through the peace and quiet of the trees, the music from the football pitch faded away and he told me about life at the autonomous Zapatista school; he described it as a family, told me they have three or four parties a year, and that he sees his parents, who live deep in the Lacandon Jungle, every 5 or 6 months. His brother is also at the school, learning to be a baker.

palapazExhibition in one of the ‘Palapaz’ – 43 weaves made with natural dyes.

Every day, there was something new to eat, as locals and travellers from around the world set up alongside the artisanal stalls selling revolutionary t-shirts and indigenous blouses, posters, books, jewelry, honey, handwoven purses, hand-knitted jumpers and more. To give you a taste of what went on: I went to a seminar hosted by Mexican activist hip hop video team ‘Videoclip y discurso’; active meditation and theatre of the oppressed workshops; a Chiapanecan video-illustration made using audio from last year’s conference Against the Capitalist Hydra; a Uruguayan dance-performance that used plagiarism to challenge the capitalist concept of ownership; a Jaranero dance group who act to reclaim folkloric dance from nationalist agendas; a two-woman play from Puebla about Desaparecidas; an experimental writing workshop lead by a young people’s collective from Recife, Brazil; a play about organisation and self-defense performed by young Guatemaltecans; and a discussion about the particularities of translating Tsotsil into Spanish, by the Poetas Invisibles.

poetryPoetry and discussion about translating Tsotsil-Español – the Poetas Invisibles in the audio-visual/seminar area.

There was a real mix of locals, internationals and Mexicans from elsewhere in the country and the atmosphere was friendly, safe and liberating, although dancing cumbia on the first day, I became very aware of the different customs of the local community who watched from the sides while the foreigners danced away in the middle. Nevertheless, over the course of the week I found myself greeting more and more people I’d met in workshops, seminars or just browsing the artisanal stalls.

seventeenOventik

This familiarity was harder to recreate in the two days we joined, and were joined by the Zapatistas. In Oventik, a new setting, the dynamic was different. With just one stage area, on and behind the basketball court at the foot of the steep hill that leads up to the road, and a non-stop programme of music, dancing, poetry and theatre, I was more keen to stay put than wander, although I did pop into a couple of the shops and grab a bowl of hot potato soup further up the hill. There was no stopping them; in spite of the rain, and even when a thick mist swooped in over us, and from our spots on the grassy verge around the central basin it became impossible to see the basketball court, let alone the raised stage behind it, the performances continued. In his speech at the end of the day, before the final band, the Tercio Compas, took to the stage, Sub Moisés told us that this was but a small selection of the work they had planned to present to us; they certainly packed as much in as they could. Inevitably, there were a couple of technical hitches, microphones needing readjusting, and the like, but these were dealt with extremely efficiently and it could be said that the programme ran like clockwork. Just one of the many differences between CompARTE at the University of the Earth and at Oventik. Again, I am not criticising, just reflecting. In fact the points of contrast are a testament to the diversity celebrated at CompARTE.

There wasn’t a great deal of evident integration of the Zapatista groups and the rest of the artists and participants in Oventik or the following day at CIDECI. However, when it started to rain, I and the lovely Californian muralists I was staying with took refuge under a tent, which turned out to belong to a group of Zapatistas from San Andrés, who’d performed a dance in which the Capitalist Hydra appeared with a wolf mask and six or seven monstrous extra heads. Seventeen year old Magdalena started chatting to us, and we began sharing perspectives and learning about one another’s cultures. After a little persuasion (she said she’d never danced before and didn’t know how – but as i pointed out, neither did we really and it didn’t matter!) the four of us were dancing away in the diminished crowd watching the Tercios Compas. Not, of course, before Magdalena donned her balaclava. Suddenly we realised most people were leaving and had to say a hasty goodbye and rush off to find the friend of a friend who was giving us a lift back to San Cris, which we did just as it started to pour with rain. The next day in the CIDECI I looked for Magdalena, especially during the mad dancing to Panteón Rococó who closed the festival, but I only found her for an instant when a group of Zapatista women were filing past me to go to an event in one of the audio-visual rooms, and she greeted me warmly, squeezing my hand before the movement of the group carried her away. I feel sorry the encounter was so brief, but in a way it echoes my whole experience of CompARTE; there was something intangible, almost ephemeral about it. Of course the material evidence of it is vast – dozens of murals were painted, t-shirts were printed, paper and notebooks were made – but I also felt a strong, life-giving energy there that was somewhat ephemeral. I don’t think I’d ever been surrounded by so many like minds, but which were at the same time, so diverse. I feel like I’ve taken this energy with me, it throbs, gently in my chest.

oventikPoetry in Oventik

I couldn’t change my bus ticket back to Mexico City to stay on for the extended festival in the other caracoles, and although I was disappointed I also felt quite overwhelmed by the richness of the experience I’d already had. I felt a need to stop, reflect and absorb the brilliant light of the last eight days. La Realidad, Roberto Barrios and the other caracoles will have to wait for the next time I’m in Chiapas – or the next CompARTE? I feel sure it will happen.

This is but a short reflection on my experience of CompARTE, which I hope will add images and sounds, feelings and sensations to other texts you may have read about the event. I looked, listened and discussed the festival with others throughout the week and I hope I have managed to recreate what my senses absorbed as fully as possible, with the natural limitations of a piece of reflective writing. My feeling is that my experience was both communal and unique, but it will definitely differ from that of the organisers who worked so hard to make the festival happen and ensure the environment was safe and secure and must have been exhausted by the end of the eight days. Huge thanks must go out to them and to everyone involved in the different stages of organisation. I’m grateful to the Zapatistas of the Altos de Chiapas who welcomed us into Oventik and shared their art with us all. And most of all I think we must be grateful to each other, for we were all CompARTE. From my initial excitement at the announcement of the festival to the deep disappointment I felt when I thought it was cancelled, the joy of performing for the children and the anxiety about whether I could extend my stay, CompARTE has taught me to be patient, flexible and accepting of the bumps and turns on the winding road; lessons I think we all need for the long journey ahead.

Ruby Zazac is a member of the UK Zapatista Translation Service. She wrote this report for Dorset Chiapas Solidarity

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