Some background notes to our participation in Nottingham Contemporary’s “Rights of Nature: Art and Ecology in the Americas”. OME


By Alessandro Zagato & Natalia Arcos


“The earth is that from which we were born, that gave us life, and in which we will rest eternally. That is why we are all the colours that we are, all of the languages that our hearts speak; that is why we are peoples, tribes, and nations. We are the guardians of these lands, of this country Mexico, of this continent and of the world.” (EZLN, August 2014)


Between the 24th of January and the 15th of March, UIB Egalitarianism researcher Alessandro Zagato and Chilean art historian Natalia Arcos will participate in “Rights of Nature: Art and Ecology in the Americas”. This is an exhibition hosted by Nottingham Contemporary art centre in England, which will gather fifteen artists confronting the environmental crisis as it is plays out across the Americas, from the Andes to the Arctic.

Our participation, titled “Autonomy is Life” (Autonomia es Vida), won’t consist in the display of a conventional artwork. Rather it will present an organisation of a Space, which recreates a sort of “archive of Zapatismo”. This space will display various pieces of visual art and literature tightly related to (or produced by) the contemporary Zapatista movement of Chiapas, Mexico. On the 11th of March we will be present at the exhibition to give a workshop and a guided tour of the installation. For updated information on the schedule please visit


Zapatismo, Art, and Ecology

The links between Zapatismo and aesthetics are fairly evident in our view[1]. Many artists (some even very popular like French musician Manu Chao) have adopted elements of the Zapatista imaginary in their art production. However the Zapatista political process has since its beginning been deeply shaped by singular forms of aesthetics and poetics. These have been decisive in producing subversive content, communicating with the civil society, generating affinity of views and cohesion among activists, and stimulating their subjective flourishing – imagining (and experimenting with) ideas of equality for possible better worlds. This particular synthesis of politics and aesthetics has been vital to the process of constructing a real historical alternative, subverting what Jacques Ranciere (2006) has described as “distribution of the sensible”, the regime of conditions of possibility to perceive, think and act in a given social-historical situation.

The Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) was born clandestinely in 1983 out of the encounter between left-wing political traditions and the ancestral indigenous Mayan culture of the people living in the Lacandon Forrest, a remote and extremely poor mountain region of the south east of Chiapas. From this encounter, novel ideas, concepts, and languages have evolved, contributing to the production of a politics experimenting with innovative notions of equality and social justice, which, to some extent, go beyond the failure of earlier 20th century’s attempts. Within their territories the Zapatistas have shown an extraordinary capacity to organize social/political spaces separated from – or “asymmetrical” (John Holloway 2014:32) to the state and its forms (this is what they mean with “autonomy”). They have further produced concepts, neologisms, verbal twists, symbolisms, poetic/aesthetic tendencies and imaginaries expressing the contradictions, ambiguities and infinite possibilities of being asymmetrical to power, and which have opened new strategic perspectives.


Researcher Alessandro Zagato in middle.

Think for example about the idea of “ruling by obeying” (mandar obedeciendo), an oxymoron reflecting the ambivalent nature of power, and which they strictly apply to the administration of their autonomous communities. Today these include local Juntas de Buen Gobierno (collective and rotating government boards), healthcare system (including autonomously managed clinics and hospitals), education system, a collectively organised system of production, and an independent legal system. “Ruling by obeying” is a concept which can hardly be co-opted by the state and applied to hierarchical/bureaucratic structures. Moreover, it constantly confronts the movement’s collective organisational efforts with issues of horizontality and equality. An example is the recent (26-05-2014) surprised farewell of Subcomandante Marcos, the movement’s leading and iconic figure and who appealed to the educated middle classes and the mass media.

farewell marcosSubcomandante Marcos

Marcos was a prominent personality capable of dialogue with intellectuals from around the world. Now he was revealed as a “hologram”, a “complex manoeuvre of distraction, a malicious move from the indigenous heart stating they were challenging one of the bastions of modernity: the media” (EZLN 2014). The Zapatistas tells us that the“ construction of the figure of Marcos”, begun straight after the uprising of the 1st of January 1994 , when they emerged from being clandestine, because “we noticed that those from outside did not see us”. Being used to looking down on the indigenous from above, they didn’t lift their gaze to look at us. Being used to seeing us humiliated, their heart did not understand our dignified rebellion. Their gaze had stopped on the only mestizo wearing a ski mask [i.e. Marcos], that is, they didn’t see” (EZLN 2014). The metaphorical death of Marcos, which took place in a highly performative event organised by the Zapatistas in La Realidad, where he appeared for the last time, officially decrees the end of vanguardism within the movement. As such this was a complete rupture with mainstream aesthetics, and moved the attention to the “bases” and the process of constructing a real egalitarian alternative from below. Uruguayan sociologist Raul Zibechi (2014) has argued that with this spectacular step “the Zapatistas set the bar very high, higher than it has ever been set by any political force”.

On the other hand however, what does the Zapatismo have to do with “ecology”, the main theme of Nottingham Contemporary’s exhibition? Although the Zapatistas have rarely used this concept, and neither would they define themselves as “ecologists” or “eco-activists”, their struggle might be intended as “ecologically relevant” since they have from the beginning focused on the problem of the ownership and use of the land, including its preservation against destruction by forces induced through neoliberal ideas and practices.

Indeed, a way in which Capital constantly expands is through primitive accumulation, described by Marx as the enclosure of land and natural resources which are released into the privatized mainstream of capital accumulation, and the consequent expulsion of the resident population, thus creating a landless proletariat. This is at the very least the case of many rural Mexican populations (mainly indigenous) who have had to deal with constant aggressions perpetrated by multinational corporations interested in exploiting the plentiful resources[2] of this country, with the support of the neoliberal State and its military and paramilitary apparatuses.

Since the Spanish conquest the indigenous populations inhabiting these lands have been treated as sub-humans, and abandoned to a state of complete poverty in what may be described as a highly racist society. Still this has not stopped them from entertaining a vital and mystical relation with the territory and its resources. Further, they have since colonisation five centuries ago carried out a resistance struggle to defend their land and traditions from colonial arrogance and a later capitalists induced transformation and standardisation. Their mystical relationship with land and nature inspires local folktales and myths constituting some of the main conceptual axes of the politics of the EZLN. Many of these stories are collected in “Relatos del Viejo Antonio” a book authored by Subcomandante Marcos and published in 1998.

The ground-breaking developments of the Zapatista autonomous project show us how engaging it can be to achieve popular control over a territory, and be able to produce creatively a viable and real alternative to what there is. Today for example, the role of agro-ecology, a holistic model for designing sustainable and bio-diverse agro-ecosystems, has assumed an enormous importance for these populations. On the one hand the movement’s entire agricultural production is sustainable and free from GMOs and agrochemicals, which protects biodiversity. Further the land is managed collectively. Particularly important is the struggle to preserve the varieties of corn (the primary and daily food, which also has a sacred connotation) present in Chiapas from being contaminated by trans-genetic corn patented by multinational agro-chemical companies. On the other hand, since the communities lack resources, and are also extremely marginalized, they strategically use agro-ecology to achieve self-sufficiency on food production, which constitutes one of the economic grounds of their autonomous project.

The Zapatista example can stimulate the development of critical ideas of “ecology” as organic to the broader struggle for equality, and not just as a separate instance, or a technocratic problem of administration.


The Exhibition

Ecology, here seen as the struggle for a just, ethical and egalitarian management of the land and its resources is a theme which resonates in each one of the works that we will be presenting at Nottingham Contemporary. Our Archive includes:

A series of 20 paintings by Beatriz Aurora, a Chilean artist based in Chiapas, Mexico. Daughter of the Spanish historian Leopoldo Castedo, her life has been deeply shaped by radical activism, since she was a member of the MIR. Her paintings are aesthetically associated with the EZLN since the early stages of the uprising.

A series of 10 original serigraphs by the Escuela de Cultura Popolar Martires de ’68 (School of Popular Culture Martyrs of 1968) a militant artists’ collective based in Mexico FD, who have played a decisive role in promoting Zapatista political views in urban context.

A mural by Camilo, an indigenous Zapatista Artist based in San Andres, Chiapas, whose paintings are usually displayed and sold by the Zapatista crafts cooperatives of San Cristobal de las Casas. Camilo is a full time peasant whose activity benefits the rebel indigenous Zapatista communities.

A video by Russian documentarists Elena Korykhalova and Oleg Anatolievich, produced under the supervision of Natalia and myself. Elena and Oleg have been collaborating and entertaining an inspiring debate with us as we were all living and carrying out research in Chiapas. The video puts together moments of collective work in the Zapatista communal fields, revealing the symbolic and material importance that corn plays in the rebel communities.

A selection of 8 communiqués by the EZLN where the themes of nature, land and environmental justice are central.


EZLN. 2014. Between Light and Shadow. (consulted the 27-05-2014)

Holloway, John. 2014. “Poesía y Revolución”. Rufián Revista, 13, pp.30-36

Ranciere, Jacques. 2006. The Distribution of the Sensible. London: Continuum

Zibechi, Raul. 2014. The Death Of SupMarcos. A Blow To Revolutionary Pride. (consulted the 20/06/2014)

[1] Please see our blog and the issue 17 of Rufian Revista entirely edited by GIAP

[2] The state of Chiapas, for example, owns almost one third of the republic’s surface waters, and its dams supply between one-third and one-half of the country’s hydroelectric power. Chiapas also owns still unexploited petroleum reserves, one of the highest percentages of forest, and it has the highest rate of deforestation in Mexico.