During the 1968 student conflict, the printmaking workshop of the National School of Visual Arts was taken over by the students, and from there they worked intensively on the production of posters, banners and flyers in support of the student demands and in protest at their repression. It was here that Adolfo Mexiac's engraving Freedom of Expression! originally created in 1954 in response to the US-backed coup d’état in Guatemala, was reused in a poster which included, at the bottom, the Mexico 68 logo designed by Lance Wyman for the Olympic Games. In this way, the poster reminds visitors of the high cost of the Olympic Games and the brutal repression by the Mexican State. In this way, the portrait of the Tzotzil man was transformed into a universal emblem of the repression of freedom of expression, and became an iconic image that synthesizes the voices of the people silenced by force and power. The poster was also adopted by the student movements in Paris and Prague.
This image was so effective that later, the students created a second, more simplified version in a stencil style, which reduces the indigenous face to a high-contrast play of blacks and whites. Its widespread dissemination and reproduction on banners, murals, stickers and in the press in a sense erased its authorship, and from being a denunciation of the coup d’état it became an icon of the student struggle.
People’s Print Workshop)
Adolfo Mexiac joined the People’s Print Workshop (Taller de Gráfica Popular, TGP) in 1950. The TGP is a renowned collective of left-wing artists founded in 1937 which, through its graphic output, mainly of prints and posters, backed the transformative power of art through collective action and an aesthetic of commitment that supported social causes.
In 1953 Alberto Beltrán, a member of the Workshop, invited Mexiac to work at the National Indigenous Institute. As a result the artist moved to San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, to take charge of the publication and printing of bilingual cards in Tzeltal and Tzotzil. In the view of the artist himself, the two and a half years he spent in Los Altos de Chiapas were an experience that defined his artistic life, enriched, among other things, by discussions with anthropologists and ethnologists. It was in this context, and in response to his outrage at the US-backed coup d'état in Guatemala, that Freedom of Expression! emerged.
The artist remembers how he set up the scene to prepare this print: “That day, I took a piece of linoleum and asked a Tzotzil boy to pose, gagged with a handkerchief; then I changed the handkerchief to chains and immediately sent it to the TGP.” Through powerful gestures, Mexiac transmits the strength, contained fury and impotence of the figure in the face of oppression.
PBSUCCESS was the codename of the undercover operation through which in 1954 the United States government orchestrated, through the CIA, a coup d’état in Guatemala, violently overthrowing the democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz for opposing the interests of the United Fruit Company and for implementing policies that US intelligence considered communist. In the conflict 15,000 civilians died and a government came to power that persecuted its political enemies.
Freedom of Expression!, the best-known and most frequently reproduced work by Adolfo Mexiac, was originally created in 1954 in response to this situation. Mexiac recalls: “I was in San Cristobal de las Casas, working at the National Indigenous Institute when they overthrew the government of Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala... Indignant, I thought: What can I do? and Freedom of Expression was the result.”
Made in U.S.A.
The countless reproductions of this image have led to an important detail being lost: the thick links of the chain have the words “Army” and “Police” inscribed on them, and the lock that secures it reads “Made in U.S.A.” In the context of the coup d’état in Guatemala, this image is a clear denunciation of foreign intervention and the use of public force to subject the people to the interests of capital.
Adolfo Mexiac (1927)
¡Libertad de Expresión!, 1968
Linoleum and silkscreen on paper
46.7 x 29.5 cm