Magazine article Geographical

Francisco Toledo, Widely Considered to Be Mexico's Greatest Living Artist, Has Become as Well Known for His Philanthropy as for His Surrealist Paintings. James Blackman Spoke to Him about His Plans to Bolster Prison Libraries and to Establish Mexico's First Environmentally Friendly Art School

Magazine article Geographical

Francisco Toledo, Widely Considered to Be Mexico's Greatest Living Artist, Has Become as Well Known for His Philanthropy as for His Surrealist Paintings. James Blackman Spoke to Him about His Plans to Bolster Prison Libraries and to Establish Mexico's First Environmentally Friendly Art School

Article excerpt

How did the prison-libraries project come about?

Ixcotel jail, in Oaxaca, has a library that my ex-wife and I started 25 years ago, when a priest friend asked me to visit an imprisoned campesino leader there. We got him books and a subscription to [Mexican political magazine] Siempre--the man just wanted to read so we helped him out. After we'd established the Graphic Arts Institute in Oaxaca, we began sending books to different jails. Last week, I visited the jail library to see what books they had, what they needed. They read novels and poetry. There is chess and draughts for those who can't read, and El Pochote [the independent cinema housed in Toledo's for met residence] makes movie cycles specifically for jails.

The reputation of Mexican prisons is shameful. How does the reality compare?

They are overcrowded--when you enter, you can feel the tension because of the number of people. I believe that there are a lot of innocent people in jail, and in Oaxaca many of them don't speak Spanish and don't even know why they are there. They don't have access to translators or things like that. But I think the prisons are making an effort to improve things. The new women's prison on the outskirts is more rational, more modern. They have ovens for baking bread and land to plant vegetables. There are painting workshops organised by galleries, and religious people visit.

What other projects are you involved in?

The only new project at present is the art school in San Agustin Etla [24 kilometres outside Oaxaca], where they're restoring an old Second World War bandage factory. Art schools are, by their nature, environmentally unfriendly because of all the chemicals they use. This school could host 200 or 300 people and will be the first environmentally friendly art school in Mexico. But Etla is a small community too, with its own problems--there is no garbage disposal or basic things like that. And the school is at the highest point in town and sewage flows down, so the environmental aspect is very important.

How are these projects funded?

With the prison project, we have an arrangement where the government pays 50 per cent and I pay 50 per cent. However, I carry the most responsibility because of the administrative expense involved in searching out books and music and films. …

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