Of Libraries, Philanthropy, and Graphic Art in Oaxaca

This Atlas Oscura piece on “wonderfully specific libraries” reviews libraries around the world devoted to collecting and archiving very particular materials, from ice to unpublished manuscripts, or to documenting single subjects, like the history of activism or dogs.  For the voracious reader or the devoted student, there is nothing quite like walking into a library. These public spaces, whether privately owned or state sponsored, offer privacy (most of the time), silence (usually), and access to resources not otherwise accessible. And, in addition, as Oaxaca’s specific libraries and collections remind us,  these spaces play a critical role in supporting community life.  Particularly at a time when the interest of the rich in funding educational and artistic projects is rapidly decreasing, they are proof of how carefully wrought philanthropic projects can keep alive traditions and knowledge (specific and general), and fill in significant gaps left by a not always consistent or committed government.

Books at the Biblioteca Burgoa.

Libraries, general or specific, are not usually on the Oaxaca traveler’s list of places to visit. But they should be. With 365 libraries, Oaxaca is actually the second state with the most libraries in the country, and many of them are wonderfully specific. A key example is the Biblioteca Burgoa, housed in the World Heritage site, Templo de Sto. Domingo de Guzmán,  once a thriving Dominican convent, today the library’s collection holds more than 30,000 books and manuscripts collected from the many convents that were established by Dominican, Franciscan, Agustine, and several other orders in charge of evangelizing indigenous Oaxacans from the sixteenth century onwards. The collection allows scholars of history, literature, religion, and law insight into what monks colonizing this part of Mesoamerica were reading.

While the Biblioteca Burgoa is run by the  Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca, many of Oaxaca City’s libraries were founded and are funded  by Oaxacan-born philanthropists, and the collection’s specificity can be traced to the interests and causes of, for instance, the financier, Alfredo Harp Helú, or the renowned painter and graphic artist, Francisco Toledo. Even though these libraries are privately owned, as part of a commitment to providing public spaces and education to Oaxacans of every socio-economic level, they are free and open to the public year round. In addition, both spaces are beautiful and offer a quiet respite for students who wish to do homework, for scholars working on research projects, for whomever simply wishes to browse their collections, or to sit down and write away from the honking, music, and conversation of the lively centro streets.

Two spaces I have visited repeatedly in the past four months are the Biblioteca de la Filatelia (The Philately Library), founded by Harp Helú which is housed in his Philately Museum (MUFI), and the graphic arts library at the Instituto de las Artes Gráficas Oaxaca (IAGO), founded by Francisco Toledo. At each of these sites, Helú and Toledo have made accessible their own collections for public use.

This pathway leads from MUFI’s stamp collection to one of its exhibition halls.

Covering two centuries of postage stamps, MUFI offers access to an amazing collection that visitors can easily browse through for a few minutes  or for hours (given that the museum is free and open from 10:00am to 6:00pm every day). Doing just this, I rediscovered a series of post stamps that were released in 1975 and ran through 1993, titled “México Exporta.” These were the stamps of my childhood and adolescence. Everything from bills to personal letters we received at my parents’ came stamped with one of these memorable examples of the sophistication of Mexican graphic art. The series, which represents the manifold products Mexico exports, is also a testament to how consistently Mexico has developed its national identity projects by way of graphic art since the latter half of the nineteenth century (other examples include the commercialization of José Guadalupe Posada’s satirical calaveras in the early-to-mid 20th century and the 1968 Olympics).

México Exporta stamps. Photo Credit: Fermín Tellez.

A reading room in the IAGO (Alcalá).

The importance of  graphic art in Mexico, and specifically in Oaxaca, is at the center of Toledo’s Oaxacan Institute for Graphic Art, which has two sites: the headquarters are located on one of the historic center’s main streets, Alcalá, and just a few steps away from Sto. Domingo and the Biblioteca Burgoa; a second site is located on Pino Suárez.  The Alcalá site is home to Toledo’s extensive collection of art books that cover genres from caricature to protest art, and disciplines from sculpture to architecture. It is one of Latin America’s largest collections of this kind. It also houses the graphic art workshop, El Alacrán, where interns and art students from Oaxaca and all over the world can participate in free workshops, such as the weekly two-hour drawing session that one of my students has been attending. And the Institute’s three exhibition rooms showcase work by Mexican and international artists year round. The Pino Suárez collection is focused on literature, film, and theory. Browsing through both collections I found materials pertinent to my current research projects that I wish I had more time to study before leaving, but which I have found thanks to the helpful staff of each location.

Mosaics at one of the IAGO (Pino Suárez) reading rooms.

Francisco Toledo’s own art and creations by local artisans and art students decorate the Institute’s walls and doors. The floors of the Pino Suárez site are tiled with Casa IAGO Design mosaics, as are the restrooms at both sites. The windows and doorways are decorated with ironwork designed by Toledo. Therefore, the Institute’s commitment to art is exemplified both in the collection and the buildings that house each collection.

Doorway at IAGO (Alcalá). Ironwork by Toledo with alacranes (scorpions).

Questions about the politics of philanthropy arise, of course, as do questions about how the voids filled by Helú’s and Toledo’s endeavors would be filled without their commitment to Oaxaca. Not all states have such philanthropists, and there the absence of a governmental commitment to art, culture, and education is sorely felt. MUFI and IAGO are a testament to the central role that carefully developed and sustained philanthropy can play in any society, and how the productive use of these spaces keeps alive traditions, inspires artistry, and fosters curiosity, collaboration, and conversation. Their commitment to access is also a testament to a culture of hospitality that does not distinguish between Oaxacans and visitors just passing through as it gives equal access to both.

Kites designed by Toledo in memory of the 43 disappeared students at the entrance of IAGO (Alcalá).

Hombre-Coyote y Maíz

An example of the detailed graphic art that captivates pedestrians on the streets of Oaxaca. Note how a narrative unfolds from left to right: the corn stalk on the window frame leads to the mesmerized coyote-man holding the sacred grain, then, if you’re paying attention, the rooster peeking down from the doorframe comes into sight, and finally leads to the two corn cobs (mazorcas) resting on the bottom right corner of the door.  The scene is probably a homage to the fundamental role that maize plays, to this day, in Mesoamerican cultures and identities. Oaxaca prides itself in its resistance to GMOs and fiercely defends the indigenous variety known as maíz criollo from contamination by GM varieties.