When 43 students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa, Mexico, were “disappeared” by police on September 26, it didn’t take long for residents of the town, and then the state of Guerrero, and then the nation at large to head to the streets to express their rage and sorrow and demand answers. Mexico has a long history of protest movements, and despite the horribly violent intimidation tactics used by cartels and their collaborators (the police in this case were believed to be in the employ of the Guerreros Unidos gang) to scare citizens into silence in the wake of the horrific acts they orchestrate, students and others outraged about Ayotzinapa have stayed in the streets — literally taking over highway toll booths, torching government buildings, and organizing solidarity protests around the country.
For some Mexicans, though, street protests aren’t the only way to express anger and agony. Both solo and in groups, artists have been responding to the mass kidnapping with powerful visuals. The image that’s been disseminated most widely, perhaps, is one by the Mexican street artist Saner, who, currently in Berlin, painted a mural in which a burning notebook on a table reads “Ayotzinapa 43” on one page and “Ayotzinapa Vivos” on another. Around the table are three figures, their hands skeletal. Two wear wolf masks, and the third wears a traditional jade mask with a feathered headdress. The latter might represent Mexico itself, which seems passive, watching the wolves — the police and the cartels — negotiate, but its left hand seems to be passing something under the table to the wolf in sheep’s clothing (the police).
But more interesting than Saner’s procovative piece is the multi-artist blog #IlustradoresconAyotzinapa (#IllustratorswithAyotzinapa), the most powerful of the artistic responses to date. As you scroll down, dozens of new portraits appear. Many are created and uploaded by professional illustrators and artists; the quality of the ideas and their technical expression is impressive. There are pen-and-ink drawings, paintings, collages, photos, digitally composed images, woodcut prints, and even sewn assemblages, each representing the likeness of a missing student. Acute attention has been paid to fonts, backgrounds, and even language. One, for instance (pictured at the top of this post), is a poster written in Nahuatl, one of Mexico’s indigenous languages.
What makes the poster-style illustrations so powerful is that while each is unique, all follow a basic format. The illustrator chooses one of the 43 disappeared students, creates a likeness of him (all are male), and then captions the illustration with a stock phrase: “Yo, [nombre de artista], quiero saber dónde está [nombre del estudiante]” — “I, [name of the artist], want to know where [name of the student] is.”
“So much of what helps to make supposedly democratic governments accountable to everyday people who feel their elected politicians are not properly representing them depends on the power of narrative, as well as the power of numbers. Art — visuals — make such a big difference in this respect,” says Celina Su, Marilyn J. Gittell Chair in Urban Studies at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and associate professor of political science, Brooklyn College. “The posters help make sure the missing students don’t turn into statistics,” she continues. “They keep the images of the students on people’s minds and ensure their identities aren’t conflated. And for the artists to join in and render themselves vulnerable by naming themselves is a powerful form of bearing witness.”
Axel Rangel García, a professional illustrator who contributed an image of Jorge Aníbal Cruz Mendoza to the blog, agrees. “An image can be reproduced physically or digitally and can be disseminated to many people,” he says. Rangel adds that he’s surprised by the number of people who’ve shared the images online; social media has, of course, played a vital role in making sure that the blog is seen widely. His hope is that the illustrations will become so impressed on people’s consciousness that they won’t be able to forget the students and the kidnapping. “We can’t forget what happened or we’ll be condemned to repeat it,” he adds.
Bearing witness as an artist is a form of peaceful protest, Rangel notes, but it’s not necessarily emotionally easier than, say, taking a torch to a government building. For Le Yad, another of the blog contributors, getting a sense of who disappeared student Giovanni Galindes Guerrero was “took the most time for me. I was trying to get a sense of his characteristics, to appropriate them, and to try to reflect these in my work: who he is, his strength, and what his surroundings might have been like.” Inhabiting the lives of the 43 students — whose fate is still unknown — is a particularly intimate kind of resistance and response.
Eduardo Moreno Romero, better known by his artistic name, MORED, is a professional illustrator who decided to upload a poster to Tumblr because “each of us has to do what we can from our own trench.
“Art has always been a tool for connecting people,” he says. “And in this case it is a tool to denounce [the kidnappings] and to give voice to the hearts and conscience of the people.”