Francisco Toledo

Awarded 2005


For devoting himself and his art to the protection and enhancement of the heritage, environment and community life of his native Oaxaca.

Francisco Toledo (1940-2019) was one of the most important painters, potters and engravers in Mexico. As a Zapotec artist, he was an active promoter, sponsor and disseminator of the cultural values of his native state, turning its main town into a dynamic centre for the visual arts and literature.

Toledo was concerned with the well-being of the Oaxacan community and devoted much of his wealth to this purpose. He loudly supported agrarian reform, the claims of students and indigenous people. He also worked to resist McDonald’s expansion in Mexico and the spread of genetically modified corn. Because of his activism, he suffered attacks and death threats several times during his life.

In an excluding world, globalized and chaotic, we can be neither indifferent nor optimistic.

Francisco Toledo, 2005 Laureate

The protectionist artist

Francisco Toledo's art is imbued with his Mexican heritage of history and mythology. In 1960 he moved to Paris from where he travelled through Europe. When he returned to Mexico, in 1965,  he started to promote and protect the arts and crafts in Oaxaca. He exhibited in many galleries in Mexico, Europe, South and North America and Asia. His work is represented in public and private collections worldwide.

He founded several important artistic and cultural institutions in Oaxaca, involving local actors. He created children's libraries in indigenous communities, and a number of important artistic and cultural institutions, like the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca or the Graphic Arts Institute of Oaxaca, which holds some 100,000 books on art and architecture. After watching a group of blind people visit a nearby art museum, he created the Jorge Luis Borges Library for the Blind, with the name of the prestigious Argentine blind writer. It is thanks to his initiative that the Centro Fotográfico Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Ediciones Toledo, a printing house which for example published translations of poets John Ashbery and Seamus Heaney, exist. It is also the case of the botanical garden, art restoration centre and library Centro Cultural Santo Domingo.

In 1993 Toledo was instrumental in founding Pro-OAX (the Endorsement for the Defense and Conservation of the Cultural and National Heritage of Oaxaca) dedicated to the protection and promotion of art, culture and the built and natural environment of Oaxaca. Through Pro-OAX, he led efforts to protect the architectural and cultural heritage of Oaxaca's city centre. By turning his own private aesthetic activism into a groundswell of popular civic awareness, he prevented the construction of luxury hotels, four-lane road expansions and asphalt parking lots.

He is also credited with stopping the construction of a cable car to the sacred Monte Alban, and avoiding the establishment of a McDonald's outlet in the town's main square. Far from preventing Oaxaca's development, through this activism, the town has been transformed into one of Mexico's major cultural, artistic and political hubs.

In 2014, after the forced disappearance of students in Ayotzinapa, Toledo gave renewed visibility to the tragic case. He put up 43 kites with the faces of each one of the missing students and flew them with children from primary school: “We are looking for them from the sky”, he said then.

Local culture, high art

According to the commentator Christian Viveros-Faune: "Toledo's work is a seamless meshing of global and local culture and high art. Dream images from his childhood are fused with pre-Colombian symbolism and myriad references to the work of Dubuffet, Miro, Tapies, Klee, Tamayo, Blake, Goya, Ensor and Dürer, among other artists, and also to the writing of figures like Kafka and Borges.

Snakes and turtles abound, as do rabbits and coyotes, bats and toads, crickets and dogs, as well as human figures from Mexican history, cycling from one work to another in a dizzying bestiary that is part ancient codex, part intensely modern graffiti. Toledo's work is based in part on the largely misunderstood shamanistic notion of the nagual, the belief that each human's fate is intertwined with that of an Aztec spirit in animal form."


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