Taller Tupac Amaru
May 4, 2013
In 2003, Jesus Barraza and Favianna Rodriguez founded Taller Tupac Amaru (TTA), a Bay Area screen-printing collective. Four years later, the artist and activist Melanie Cervantes joined the group. Since their inception, TTA has sought to use printmaking as a catalyst for political change locally and across the globe. TTA’s work deals with many contemporary political issues but especially with immigration and Chicano rights. During the ten years since the collective’s founding, such issues have dominated much of the national political stage, but TTA is committed to a philosophy attuned to the intersection of many political struggles. The pathogenesis of these injustices is ultimately racism, hate, and economic exploitation that transcend lines on maps or demographic classifications. For this reason, TTA has worked with artists, activists, and organizations on actions against climate change, sexism, and the killing of Oscar Grant, among other issues.
From May 7 to June 20, 2013, Empujando Tinta, a ten-year retrospective of TAA’s work, will be on exhibit at Galería de la Raza, in San Francisco. This exhibit brings together both posters and fine-art prints from the collective’s strident and tenacious oeuvre. It also pays homage to many of the group’s predecessors with whom they have been able to work. I recently spoke with Barraza about this exhibit and the intellectual underpinnings that have propelled the group for the past decade.
Matthew Harrison Tedford: What’s the significance behind the collective’s name? Why “Tupac Amaru”?
Jesus Barraza: The studio came out of the collaboration between me and Favianna. We had a design firm at the time, Tumis. She and her partner started it and chose the name because it was Peruvian; Favianna is Peruvian and they wanted to have that heritage. For us, when Tumis helped start the studio, we wanted to come up with a cool name, so we chose Túpac Amaru, a Peruvian leader who helped to steer one of the last insurrections against the Spanish in the 1500s. We take [on the name of] Túpac Amaru because he embodies the history of rebellion as well as that Peruvian lineage. Also, being in Oakland, there’s Tupac Shakur—that [history] was another thing we were thinking about when we came up with the name [for our collective].
Taller translates as studio. The Chicano printmaking world and Chicano art making of the late 1960s and early ’70s centered around the idea of the taller, which was like a studio and a workshop. It was a place where people could come together to make art. For us, it was continuing in that tradition of the taller. And that was something that was really big in the Oakland area in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
MHT: Why did you decide to start working together as a collective?
JB: Favianna and I started working together in the mid ’90s when we were in college. She was at the University of California, Berkeley, and I was at San Francisco State. We became friends and started working together on a lot of different projects—a lot of stuff that was going on at UC Berkeley, like California Proposition 187, Proposition 209, and, later on, Proposition 21. We started working on artwork around all these different issues and things that were going on at the university.
We had this techie collaboration in the late ’90s, which evolved into the design firm that eventually became Tumis. At Tumis, we had the idea to come up with a studio and start a taller so that we would be able to publish our own print work.
Even though we had been doing a lot of graphic design, it wasn’t until I started working at the Mission Cultural Center, in 2001, that I learned how to print. I worked there for a couple years until I went to work at Tumis, where I no longer had access to the sorts of resources I had at the Mission Cultural Center. [Starting Taller Tupac Amaru] came out of necessity—we started printing our own work, and I was printing a lot at the time.
MHT: You seem to imbue printmaking with some political power. What is it about the medium that you find conducive to political action?
JB: We’re really continuing a tradition. In printmaking, even going back to the ’50s and ’60s, there’s always been a presence of beautiful posters throughout the Bay Area. Working within the design industry and being artists, we really picked up on that. Both Favianna and I have done a lot of political organizing, and [working in printmaking] was a way to keep working within the political arena. We’re not only making art; we’re also working with different people—a lot of the stuff we do as Taller Tupac Amaru really comes from the work that we’re doing outside of our work. That’s where the politics comes from: the work we do in our daily lives. We really try to reflect the world that we live in. What drew me into screen printing was the fact that you can make a lot of something. There have been times that I’ve done runs of a few hundred prints over certain political issues. Starting the studio was a way for us to self-publish our work, so we would print all our own artwork. The really great thing about screen printing is that you’re able to distribute it to a lot wider [audience] than if you have just one painting. In the summer of 2010, the studio helped send something like three thousand posters to Arizona when there were a lot of protests around SB 1070. That’s the kind of thing we can do with these multiples.
MHT: You have described your work as being influenced by Zapatismo. What does Zapatismo mean to you, and how does it show up in your work?
JB: I think, for a lot of Chicanos and Chicanas in the 1990s, the Zapatistas’ first uprising had a really big effect on people’s consciousness of what was going on. We were a part of that generation, and we looked to the Zapatistas to give us a different way of looking at the world. I think that’s how Zapatismo is manifested in the work of Taller Tupac Amaru.
With our work, we’re trying to show all the different worlds that can exist, and we have a very unique point of view that comes from not just politics but also a worldview. I think that’s one of the things that Zapatistas really come from: they’re not just coming out of politics; they’re not [saying], “Write this bill,” or “Elect this president.” They’re coming out and saying, “Hey, there’s this other worldview that we could have.”
When we create our artwork, that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re trying to show this worldview that we have shaped for ourselves. That’s been a part of Zapatismo, which has a lot to do with indigenous people’s rights. That kind of shows in the different ways we try to present solidarity across different struggles, for example, by connecting indigenous people’s rights here in the Americas to Palestinian land rights. We try to make those connections around the world. Because we are indigenous people, we should be thinking about it like that.
MHT: Does your work more often appear in the streets or in galleries?
JB: Our artwork is really all over the place. We show in galleries, like Galería de la Raza, in cultural centers, in small café galleries, in museums, and in universities. We’ve been able to exhibit all over the place, and that’s been a really great thing. So our artwork is found in all of these places, but it also ends up on the streets, and that’s important. Over the past years, through the studio, we’ve been able to print all these posters. Instead of going out there and selling T-shirts, we’re out there giving away posters to people.
MHT: How did your current exhibition at Galería de la Raza come about?
JB: One of the unique things is that, although some of the work that we do does end up on the street and is something like a protest poster, we also do a lot of printing that is more in the fine-arts form. And that’s some of the artwork that we’re exhibiting [at Galería de al Raza]. We work with guest artists, and so a lot of the work that you see in this exhibit is also part of that. It’s showing all the different artists we’ve worked with, which has been quite a number over the years.
A lot of artists who are part of the exhibit have really inspired us, like Ester Hernandez, Rupert Garcia, Malaquias Montoya, and Juan Fuentes. These are artists who were responsible for starting this movement of art that we do. Working and printing all these different artists’ work has just been amazing. Being able to have that inspiration from all these different artists and to work with them has been the really cool thing about exhibiting all this work, especially because most of this work has not been exhibited as a group or even partially. This is the first time that these works are being brought together.