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Proofreading Anna Knight

Aprender Caminando
interview with the Research Group in Art and Politics

by Pietro Della Giustina

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Natalia Arcos is a Chilean, Mexican-based researcher and curator. She holds a degree in Theory and Art History from the University of Chile and a Master in Contemporary Art from Paris IV-Sorbonne University. In addition to organizing exhibitions in Spain, France, Chile, Argentina and Italy, she worked as Programming Director of ARTV, a Chilean television channel specialized in art and culture. Alessandro Zagato is Latin America’s regional representative for the Artists at Risk Connection program of PEN America. He has a PhD in Sociology from Maynooth University, Ireland. He has worked as a researcher for the European Research Council project “Egalitarianism: Forms, Processes, Comparisons” at the University of Bergen, Norway. He is author of “After the Pink Tide. Corporate State Formation and New Egalitarianisms in Latin America” (Berghahn Books, 2020), and “The Event of Charlie Hebdo: Imaginaries of Freedom and Control” (Berghahn Books, 2015) among several other publications.

Pietro Della Giustina:

In 2013 you created the Research Group in Art and Politics (GIAP) together, a collective project based in San Cristóbal de las Casas (Mexico), questioning notions linked to art, aesthetics and autonomy through publications, exhibitions, presentations and cultural activities. You also founded CASA GIAP, a working and living space where you welcome scholars and researchers interested in developing research in Chiapas context. Which stakes are at the base of GIAP and why did you decide to locate the project in San Cristobal de las Casas?


GIAP is an independent collective that was born in 2013 under the impulse of the new political sequence that the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) opened at that time with a series of cultural and political initiatives1, and a series of communiques under the title “Ellos y Nosotros” (Them and Us) available on their official website2. As a collective we are committed to transformative/engaged art – and in general, with Zapatista aesthetics as an element "organic" to the politics of this revolutionary movement.

On the one hand, our experience provides an account of the practical challenges involved in collaborating with an indigenous movement that has centred its activity on the development of its own autonomy, which implies a very strong moderation of what we could define as "external" influences. Zapatismo is also a radically collectivist movement, which rejects individualism and is reluctant to make visible the personal opinions of its militants (as long as they are not the result of a collective discussion process). On the other hand, our political interest in Zapatista and (more generally) peasant-indigenous art has to do with our commitment in stimulating a diffuse popular intellectuality in a social context like Chiapas, where colonial and post-colonial forms of oppression have limited the flourishing of the people from below. Thus, our activity is aimed at supporting and potentiating a growing artistic/political movement that (even beyond Zapatismo) challenges a contemporary art model completely subjected to the logics of global capitalism. The main tendencies of this challenge are decentralization, that is, the construction of micro-artistic/political devices in marginalized places – totally removed and excluded by the trajectories of contemporary art (like for example a curated art exhibition in a Zapatista Caracol, or an art gallery in a small Tseltal town like Tenejapa3); and the production of new concepts and aesthetics from local worldviews (but rejecting forms of identitarianism) and in contradiction with the universalism of contemporary art.


Since the beginning of GIAP, you have been collaborating with and standing alongside the Zapatista communities of San Cristóbal de las Casa. You recently organised “Un Mundo Donde Quepan Muchos Mundos”, an exhibition dedicated to Zapatista’s art in Havana and in 2018 you co-edited in collaboration with COTRIC (Colectivo Transdisciplinario de Investigaciones Críticas), the book « LOS LATIDOS DEL CORAZÓN NUNCA CALLAN. Poesías y canciones rebeldes zapatistas ». How did you begin your dialogue with the Zapatista movement, and how do you relate your research activities, methodology and educational function of GIAP with those of the movement?


Collaboration with the Zapatista movement, or participation in collective events organized by them, depends principally from their “open calls” – for activities like arts festivals, science forums, women meetings, critical theory forums, and so on. However, if you want to develop a specific project with them, the conventional way is to get in touch with one of their Good Government Boards (Juntas de Buen Gobierno) that are present in each of their Caracoles (political and institutional hubs) and discuss with them your proposal. This is more or less what we did with the two initiatives that you are mentioning above. Since for the exhibition we borrowed artworks from the movement, we were assigned a person in charge for communication and coordination of the logistics with us. During the process, we received constant feedbacks, but we were let free to operate, based on agreements and trust that we built over time4. One thing that the movement does not really want to happen is that one external person or group gives the impression to “represent” or speak for them. As we said, this does not happen even with the voice of individuals who are members of the EZLN, since every official communication, intervention, opinion, etc. is the result of a process of internal consultation. Thus, whenever we produce something related to the EZLN, our work never speaks for them. When it comes to collaborating with them, what we try and do is to give more visibility (through the use of heterogeneous spaces and media) of processes or ideas that were already initiated by the movement itself.


The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) was founded in 1983 when a group of six people from different parts of Mexico went to the Lacandon Jungle with the objective to start a dialogue and a revolutionary movement in collaboration with the indigenous people of the area. January 1, 1994, the EZLN officially declared war on the Mexican State and forcibly occupied seven municipalities of the state of Chiapas. The federal state replied with a violent, massive counter-offensive which provoked deaths both within the EZLN and the Federal Army. How did the revolutionary Marxist and Castro-Guevarist ideology merge with the cosmologies of indigenous populations? In your opinion, which are the main tendencies that occurred in the development of Zapatismo identity from a movement based on a revolutionary army to an autonomous political society aiming to the pacification and to the creation of an alternative society?


In our analysis, among the contemporary revolutionary movements, Zapatismo stands out for its singular ability to articulate discourse and political praxis with a highly developed aesthetics. This inclination is manifested both in the being/appearing of the movement (even of its army, frequently displayed as a performative and communicative tool), and in its artistic production. In previous publications5, we have highlighted how this ability developed “organically” to the movement itself and not only as an accessory or purely instrumental feature. One of the historical reasons for this articulation has to do with the “encounter of cosmologies” that marks the evolution of Zapatismo since its origins. We refer to the encounter of the revolutionaries who arrived to the Lacandon Jungle in 1983, with the ancestral forms of resistance, organization, and knowledge of the indigenous groups inhabiting this region. This encounter constituted a real event, a powerful disruption of the original plans, as well as the opening of unprecedented possibilities around which a new political, social, ideological subjectivity – including a new aesthetics – started to take shape and express itself. This was – and still is – a dynamic and multiform process, which cannot be reduced to a specific element, and which has holistic implications on the development of the movement. However, an investigation of this cultural overlap might start from the analysis of the Zapatista communiqués, a large body of literature that really breaks with previous standards of political discourse. The movement’s vocabulary is also illustrative. Think for example about the idea of “ruling by obeying” (mandar obedeciendo), an oxymoron reflecting the ambivalent nature of power, which they strictly apply to the running of their autonomous government structures. “Ruling by obeying” is a concept that cannot be co-opted and applied to hierarchical/bureaucratic structures. Moreover, it constantly confronts the movement’s collective organisation efforts with issues of horizontality and equality.

Thinking about the relation of the EZLN with the Mexican state, and the development of a basically peaceful and non-belligerent attitude from the EZLN, we could argue that a decisive event was the rupture of the San Andrés agreements, and that a vital tendency was the practical and theoretical development of “Autonomy”.

After the 1994 uprising and war, among the dialogue attempts between the Mexican government – at that time headed by President Ernesto Zedillo – and the EZLN6, stands out the 1995 process that took place in San Andrés Larráinzar, an indigenous Tsotsil town close to San Cristobal de Las Casas. Discussions was based on four different subjects, including: Indigenous rights and culture; Democracy and justice; Welfare and development, and Women's rights. However, the only commission that managed to work effectively was the first, and resulting from this debate the two parts signed the so-called “San Andres Agreements on Indigenous Rights and Culture” in February 1996, granting autonomy, recognition, and rights to the indigenous population of Mexico.

However, afterwards, the agreements were ignored by the Federal government, and dialogue between the two parts was abruptly interrupted. The Mexican Federal Government betrayed the agreements by creating and presenting a legislation that substantially altered the main principles approved in San Andres. The EZLN refused to sign the proposal, arguing that it made the indigenous people look like uncivilized and not interested in dialogue. At that point the Government also started a media campaign against the EZLN, and gave impulse to counterinsurgent warfare culminating with the Acteal massacre where 45 indigenous people (mainly women and children) were slaughtered by paramilitaries in Acteal (Chenaló). As a consequence of this rupture the Zapatistas started developing autonomously in each sphere of their collective existence, including labour, justice, healthcare, education, and so on.


After the failure of San Andreas Agreements in 1996, the Zapatista communities started to experiment with their own education, considering it as a crucial step to autonomy. From 1996 to 2003 they began several pedagogical projects such as the Zapatista Primary Autonomous Education (EPAZ), the Organisation of the New Autonomous Indigenous Education (ONEAI), and the Zapatista Autonomous Secondary Education (ESAZ), alongside other collaborative initiatives such as Schools for Chiapas with the aim of financially promoting Zapatista education and training teachers. How is the Zapatista educational system structured? How does this alternative educational approach contribute, on the one hand, to the decolonization of Zapatista society, and on the other hand, to the construction of a cultural emancipation of indigenous people?


Zapatista education is shaped by ideas of indigenous autonomy, horizontal relations, gender equality, resistance, democratization of school management, democratization of labour relations. It develops contents that relate to the social, ethnic and political identities of the students. It is not a static model or a set of techniques and tools, but one in constant evolution and construction. Indeed knowledge and learning demands/needs/strategies are collectively discussed in communitarian and municipal assemblies. The relationship in the classroom is horizontal and participative. It develops a theoretical-practical approach combining school with work, and participation in collective organizational processes.

We could argue that a Zapatista autonomous education project started already in clandestinity (from 1983) and that it responded to a literacy necessity of many of the initial members of the EZLN. Indeed, many of the indigenous peasants who joined the organization were not schooled, some were illiterate, and did not speak Spanish. One should also consider that the clandestine Zapatista army produced some of the main forms of institutionality that the movement would then further develop – including the first autonomous clinic serving military requirements and necessities.

Having said that, the Zapatista educational project links ancestral knowledge with contemporary forms of thought. Its aim is to prepare the younger generations to their full engagement in the movement’s autonomous life and self-government. Although there is no specific ideology shaping autonomous pedagogy, we would argue that anti-capitalist and de-colonial ideas are important starting points to understand Zapatista education, which is not governed by market logics and contents. On the contrary, young people are educated to serve their communities, and to be active players in the movement’s broad revolutionary project. They learn history from the point of view of the colonized and not the colonizers. One main aim of Zapatista education is the reproduction of the movement itself – also considering the fact that people born after 1994 do not have a direct experience of the armed uprising and its preparation – but also of the condition of oppression that the indigenous people endured before it.

The education system includes elementary and secondary school (until approximately 18 years). After that, people can develop professionally as educators, health promoters, communicators, and so on, within the movement’s autonomous institutions. However alongside initiatives like the arts and science festivals, the Zapatistas are planning to create an autonomous university, which still does not exist. This constitutes a very important development, since members of the EZLN are not allowed to attending public/governmental institutions – unless they leave the movement. There are many young Zapatistas manifesting educational needs that go beyond high school and that the movement is currently trying to respond to. Therefore, we think that the decolonial and resistant nature of Zapatista education, necessarily needs to take in consideration the deep generational transformations that the movement is experiencing. Including that fact that, through the expansion of the telecommunications and Internet availability, young people living in rural areas are exposed to contents and imaginaries that go far beyond their reality.


Paulo Freire, in a conversation about indigenous education, asserts that “there is no pedagogical practice that does not start from the concrete cultural and historical background of the group with whom we worked”,7 highlighting the importance of original knowledge in the conception of the educational system, its administration and the training of teachers. Does it exist a general coordination of the Zapatista educational system? How do autonomous Zapatista communities affect the training of the promotores (educational promoters), the conception and the evaluation of the educational program?


The Zapatista education system relates to other forms of autonomous institutionality, and it directly depends on the Good Government Boards, the movement’s main political (civil) institutions. This is both a centralized (necessarily movement-dependent/led) and heterogeneous systems that adapts contents and pedagogic tendencies to the specificities of the different regions and communities composing the Zapatista physical and social geography. We are referring, for example, to the different (Mayan and non-Mayan) languages8 spoken in each region, which correspond to different cultural particularities – including the fact that some regions are more religious than others. But we are also thinking about the different climates, agricultural practices, the difference between living close to a city or in a very remote rural area – all aspects that require distinct educational approaches. Education promoters are basically teachers and they are trained by other ‘senior’ education promoters – the concept of promoter is used because of its more horizontal connotation and to break with the traditional unilateral conception of educator as “teacher”. The autonomous education systems counts with figures who are in charge of monitoring and evaluating the activity of each promoter by engaging in meetings with the students and their families. The fact of subjecting the autonomous educational functions under communitarian and (autonomous) municipal control is contributing to forge a completely new figure of teacher – one that has a strong personal commitment with the community and the movement, and that questions the normativity of the national educational policy.

From this point of view, we would argue that the Zapatistas’ educational approach tends to horizontalism. Definitely, it is based on heterogeneous practices including traditional “lectures”, collective discussions, observation and practice based experiences.

As any other autonomous institution education is bilingual and follows the so-called 7 Zapatista principles of “ruling by obeying” that informs social and political conduct:

1 — Lead By Obeying / Obedecer Y No Mandar
2 — To Represent; Not Replace / Representar Y No Suplantar
3 — To Work From Below And Not Seek To Rise / Bajar Y No Subir
4 — To Serve; Not Self-Serve / Servir Y No Servirse
5 — To Convince; Not Conquer / Convencer Y No Vencer
6 — To Construct; Not Destroy / Construir Y No Destruir
7 — To Propose; Not Impose / Proponer Y No Imponer


The duality between the military organization and the civil society is a crucial aspect of Zapatismo. How does it affect education? How can new generations of Zapatistas continue to choose to become a civil member of the community rather than a fighter?


The EZLN always consulted its bases before acting – even the decision of declaring war to the Mexican State in 1994 was the result of a process of consultation. The idea of “ruling by obeying” is not just a metaphor. It concretely operates in the way things are done. However, one should consider that warfare is not just a “detail” in a community’s day-to-day life, and it ends up shaping all of its aspects. The same can be said about resistance and the necessity of responding to paramilitary groups, provocations, counterinsurgency, and so on. In a context of extreme poverty and conflict, the Zapatistas were able to develop their civil society institutions, which constitute the core of their autonomous project.

There are different ways in which a Zapatista might be involved in the EZLN as a fighter. One can be as a Miliciano (Militia), which is a sort of reservist soldier who lives his or her daily life as a peasant, in his community. Milicianos participate in military calls or operations when they are asked to do so. The Insurgentes compose the professional part of the EZLN. It is a more restricted group that works in the army on a full time basis.


In 2012 the Movement organized the March of Silence, a collective urban performance with almost forty-five thousand Zapatistas peacefully occupying the municipalities that the army took over in 1994. This highly coordinated act highlighted a public re-emergence of Zapatistas aiming at showing the progress of their autonomy. The same year the EZLN launches a new pedagogical program titled “The Freedon according to Zapatistas” inviting scholars, activists, and supporters from around the world to join Zapatista communities for a period. You both attended the program living in a community for 1 week. What is the reason behind the choice of inviting people from outside the movement after a long period of closure? Which kind of activities have you been involved with during your training?


The School for Freedom is one of the initiatives that the Zapatistas organized in the sequence opened by the March of Silence and whose main goal is to highlight the construction of autonomy from below, by the movement’s bases. Between December 2012 and February 2013 the EZLN issued a very dense series of communiqués where they also announced the organization of an open school event entitled “Freedom according to the Zapatistas”. Since August 2013 this initiative brought hundreds of invitees, activists, and supporters from Mexico and the world to the autonomous communities of Chiapas. The first level of the “Escuelita” consisted in living and sharing the daily life of a family of indigenous peasants affiliated with the EZLN. The assigned homework was to try to understand and reflect on the idea of "freedom" that the movement is putting in practice, from the point of view of its grassroots militants. This unique educational experiment follows one of the main conceptual lines proposed since the March of Silence, namely the emphasis on the true bearing columns of the Zapatista project, the so-called “support bases”. These bases correspond to the anonymous Zapatista groups and communities that with their daily effort and way of life have developed an independent antagonistic society, at a distance from the Mexican State. The text books that the EZLN bases produced collectively for this event and which were distributed to each of the participants, offer an insight into the main lines of development of the Zapatista politics, including:

“Autonomous government” (2 volumes), “Autonomous resistance” and “Participation of women in the autonomous government”.


“In artistic form, in the art form of the Zapatista compañeros, they were practicing their resistance and rebellion, their autonomous government […] their autonomous education system, their autonomous radio stations, their seven principles of “lead by obeying” in their new system of autonomous government, their democracy as communities, […]. This will all be the basis on which new generations of young women and young men will be formed, the basis for the Zapatista future.9” What is the role of art in Zapatista educational system and its function in the more general development of Zapatista movement? What feeds the Zapatista visual language and imaginary?


Although the contemporary Zapatista movement is internationally known and remembered for the armed uprising of 1994, its trajectory is shaped by an early repudiation of warfare and the switch of the focus towards the construction of an independent, egalitarian and free way of living collectively, which they define as “autonomy”. In an interview of 2001, Subcomandante Marcos affirmed that “the aim of the EZLN is to lose its E”, which is to say “Ejercito”, the military dimension – “this is an army that wants to disappear” he argued. Indeed, over the last twenty-five years, the Zapatistas transformed revolutionary warfare into an imaginative and essentially peaceful political process. Not only the Zapatistas have developed their independent education, health care and justice systems, but they have given an increasing prominence to popular creativity and art.

The production of art in Zapatismo – beyond the aesthetic / political dualism that characterizes the movement – is marked by strong epistemological challenges. These challenges emerge at different levels, inviting the observer of Zapatista visual, scenic, poetic and musical arts to interpret their production in radically different ways or even to give up his or her expectations of critical reading. Also, art presents itself as resisting commercial co-optation. The theory that integrates it and the curatorial praxis that organizes it do not facilitate the institutional-functional “hygenization” of these arts in rebellion. Taking a position in the avant-garde line of the aesthetics of liberation, Zapatista art proposes a collective, anonymous, self-taught, pedagogical, sporadic, and spontaneous approach. With a strong identity held in highly recognizable symbols and icons, Zapatista works of art are not responding to the parameters of the history of Western art or to the spectacular tendencies of contemporary art. In this rests one of the main challenges for art theorists approaching the movement. As the symbolic construction of a confederation of autonomies of indigenous peasants in resistance against capitalism, Zapatista art constantly resorts to the past-future thematic axis to point out the oppression of colonialism, counterinsurgency, and the liberation process.

The prominence of art is due to the fact that according to the Zapatistas the construction of a radically different social configuration also passes through the production of new aesthetics and functions versus those imposed by state and corporate powers.

Thus, in the analysis of the EZLN, art is conceived as a heuristic, imaginative and productive field inseparable from the collective process of emancipation. Indeed artistic expressions have the property of exceeding the social historical context, the cultures, the complexities and in general the materialities in which they are manifested. As philosopher Alain Badiou10 argues, art does not maintain a “homological” relation with the “real of History”. It has rather a “transhistorical and prophetic value”. Meaning that prefiguration of futures is intrinsic to it.

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Alessandra Pomarico, Free Home University