Zapantera Negra: Fashion as a Language for Subtle Revolution
by Tamara Leacock
I had been in San Cristóbal de las Casas for only a few days, and I was already yearning for the familiar. As a designer, fashion aficionado and woman of African descent, I yearned for a cultural and aesthetic familiarity in the public signage, billboards, and posters, a practice that I had mastered in the United States, a place evolving through its own image politics where I continue to search for familiarity.
Led on a walking tour of the city from Na Bolom, I found what I was looking for: a wall of highly stylized posters that, from my initial perception, appeared to be of an indigenous woman with a red bandana masking her face below the eyes juxtaposed with an African-descendent man donning a black beret. The words “Zapatismo” and “Black Panther Party” were written in each side, and the title “Zapantera Negra” and sub title, “Encuentro” were centered in the frame. This poster recalled in my mind the etchings of Emory Douglas juxtaposed with the print art that I had seen around town. My gendered and ethnic identities were immediately engaged.
Upon further research, I discovered that the poster represented “Zapantera Negra,” an artistic exchange between the former minister of culture of the Black Panther Party, Emory Douglas, a number of other hemispheric-American based artists such as Rigo 23 and Regina Galindo, and artists from among the Zapatista caracoles participating in the artistic encounter, all curated by Caleb Duarte, artist and co-founder of EDELO. EDELO is an artist residency, art gallery and multi purpose space located within the former location of the Organización de las Naciones Unidas (ONU) in Chiapas. The ONU after they were occupied in 2009 by over 100 displaced indigenous community members, decided to just find another space. En Donde Estaban La Onu (EDELO) has since taken over that space. The goal of EDELO is “a part of an investigation of how art, in all its disciplines and contradictions, can take the supposed role of such institutional bodies: in creating understanding, empathy, and to serve as a tool for imagining alternatives to what seem to be a harmful and violent system that we have come to accept.” And thus Zapantera Negra as one of its most prominent projects, serves as an extension of that mission.
What intrigued me about Zapantera Negra was the way both movements symbolized by the project have had a long tradition of using aesthetics and particular the aesthetics of dress to highlight their movements, create a distinct sense of identity and attract others, sartorially, to their cause. The goal of this paper is not to provide a summary of what “Zapantera Negra” as an artistic project is, but rather to explore how we may begin to use the language of “fashion” alongside the vocabulary of “art” so repeatedly used by EDELO to highlight how it has and can continue to be used in the project of global social movement building.
There is something very distinct about the vocabulary of fashion that can enhance and better articulate the interdisciplinary nature how Zapantera Negra is trying to implement art into their efforts of movement building. Both Zapatismo and the Black Panther Party, further emphasized in the poster representing their respective movement’s aesthetics, articulate much of their movement through garments and articles of refashioned embodiment.
Fashion relies upon symbols to communicate its message. Additionally, fashion, by its definition as a “popular trend,” is uniquely positioned for populist movement building. And so Zapantera Negra arguably is a production of art that is re-creating in the form of murals, paintings and embroidered textile art people dressed in their politicized garments while invoking movements that have become distinct partially because their use of dress in crafting their political image. This paper thus seeks to propose how a more intentional interrogation of fashion can garner greater support for this work.
The Black Panthers were recognized as the creators of a “revolutionary chic.” In the larger context of the Black Power movement and the counter culture fervor of the 1960s, the Black Panther Party had developed a uniform that consisted of a leather jacket, blue collar shirt, black pants and shoes, a style that even Caleb Duarte makes note of. In an interview with Zoe Clara Dutka, curator Caleb Duarte remarked, “The Zapatistas cover their faces with masks, and the Black Panthers used their leather jackets, but both are using their bodies to challenge what appears to be society’s unshakable system.”
Nevertheless the garment, fashion item and stylistic distinction markedly noted in Emory Douglas’ illustrations and in the Zapantera Negra poster is the black beret. According to scholar Jeffrey Ogbar, “inspired by a film on the French resistance during World War II, Newton and Seale adopted the beret soon after the party’s founding in 1966. The beret signified paramilitary action and serious militancy.” Ironically enough the group defined by black empowerment became noted for its use of European sartorial activism. Nonetheless, this subtle hybridization reflects the ways in which Black bodies as non Eurocentric western bodies fought to demonstrate their westernization. Some Black Panther leaders went as so far as to condemn sartorial activism that was rooted in explicitly African-descended garments, namely, Kente cloth, dashikis and the garb of African nationalists, which Panther leader Fred Hampton condemned as “‘opportunistic cultural practitioners [operating] as front men’ to ‘further exploit’ black people and impede real ‘revolutionary struggle.’”
The other side of the Zapantera Negra’s black beret wearer is a face of Zapatismo, clad in a red bandana. The Zapatista uniform was mostly a covering of the face. Similar to the Black Panthers, what the Zapatistas wore was a reflection of their community and culture, and the mask is what refined the movement, a breaking of the status quo and a challenging to the hegemonic culture that sought to make invisible their social presence. The Zapatista mask, whether in the form of a ski mask or a bandana, alone has come to represent a number of connotations. Subcomandante Marcos, the movement’s most mediatized leader, once remarked, “...I will take off my ski mask when Mexican society takes off its own mask, the one it uses to cover up the real Mexico...And once they [Mexicans] have seen the real Mexico- as we have seen it- they will be more determined to change it”. This article of clothing served as a metaphor within the poetics of their revolution.
Similar to the Black Panther Party, the Zapatistas wanted to be recognized as a “belligerent force” and thus their ski masks and bandana face coverings reflected that. However, unlike the Black Panthers, their face coverings were also for protection, bodily protection as well as image protection. Of their media image, Douglas remarked, “The purpose of not taking photographs...that’s more for protection. They are still in opposition with the government fighting for their basic human rights. They have to protect themselves. So they don’t want you to take pictures- they live among those who despise them. That is what covering their face is for, and then they become a curiosity….living among extremists, not knowing who you are...Once they find out who you are, if you are high profile…[it’s dangerous].” The Black Panther Party, and the dangers experiences by those who were prominent within the Party and the greater Black Power movement, know the dangers of too high a profile and not protecting one’s image.
Moreover, the Mayan dress that many Zapatistas wear is highly charged with meaning that further communicates the ideals important in their movements. For instance, as explained by shop owner and textile historian, Mercedes Osuna, the Mayan huipiles, both those created for ceremonial and everyday usage, are charged with meaning- spiritual, cultural and aesthetic.
The garments, highly charged with meaning, was an element that even Douglas observed as both integral in the communication of their broader cultural message and a strategy to attract foreigners to their movement. In response to being asked how aesthetics help in struggles for autonomy and from where these aesthetics emerge, Douglas responded, “It comes from the movement of people. It comes from grassroots movements, and from those it inspires style and dress. If you look at a lot of folks who are drawn to Chiapas...artists...photographers...they are the ones who are so inspired and impressed and curious and mystified by the styles and dress...and they begin to reflect those in their artwork...in relation to their culture...the universe and the flowers and in the trees and in the corn, symbols. I think these are intriguing and become a life of their own and become an inspiration, especially for the leaders, who are inspired by the struggles and what they do. You begin to see a lot of that come out in relation to the community, and so it takes on a life of its own.” Even in the introduction of the Zapantera Negra exhibition, the first words that the the leader of the opening ceremonies uttered were remarks on the symbolic significance of the clothes they were wearing. Garments already play such an important role in both movements. But how is the manner in which both movements engage on the level of an image further highlighted through the language of fashion and the understanding of fashion as a system of semiotics?
Fashion operates on the level of the symbolic. It is a sophisticated language that will allow us to navigate through a plethora of images. Thus, evoking the terminology of fashion invokes the practice of semiotics, drawing further attention to the importance of the caracol, the panther and the host of iconography used with the communication of each movement, which has the power to not only better articulate the movements and the social issues that emerged as a result but inspire a greater poetic and artistic sophistication in the emerging social movements of today. Zapantera Negra’s program description states, “Today we tweet, text, and browse through myriad contexts, occasionally gaining a glimpse into the exterior world but more frequently losing ourselves in the internet’s echo chamber of opinions and perspectives.” Fashion, with its inherent symbolism, is perhaps a strategy to navigate the cacophony. It is a strategy that the family of Chamula de Gallo utilized to welcome the international visitors to the Zapantera Negra exhibition and thus connect on a level that is universally familiar, through clothing.
Fashion represents the quotidien. Fashion also represents lifestyle, and it is the lifestyle reflected in the Zapatista caracoles is quite revolutionary. In reflecting on the ideologies of revolution that had emerged through his artistic exchange with the Zapatista artists, Emory Douglas remarked, “There is a lot stuff we can learn from the Zapatistas in terms of their enlightenment and their universe and their planet...They had to make changes and adapt and evolve...They are connected with the ancestors of their country...They have a foundation they are still linked to.” While part of that ancestry has been communicated through the ark work, much of it is retained through the embroidered tejidos, huipiles, and the symbolism embedded with the garments and clothes.
Fashion is also a vehicle to better understand political and social hybridization, something essential to understanding the Zapatista movement- in all of its inconsistencies. Of the Zapatista movement, and its lesser known hybrid political beginnings, scholar M. Clint McCowan remarks, “... the ideological underpinnings of the EZLN emerged as a complex hybrid of traditional Marxism with distinctive indigenous political overtones.” How does an analysis of fashion inform the idea of appropriation that was important in the development of this hybrid political movement? According to Subcomandante Marcos, “So when they ask me: ‘What are you people? Marxists, Leninists, Castroites, Maoists, or what? I answer that I don’t know. I really don’t know. We are the product of a hybrid, of a confrontation, of a collision in which, luckily I believe, we lost.” Fashion is a system of production that consistently engages with the practice of appropriation, adaptation and cultural hybridization, from all the myriad sources of inspiration that go into the production of a fashioned image, and thus can provide a model that, when informed by the goal of justice and social equilibrium, can assist in the project of positive social change..
Fashion is also a lens to better understand modernity, a temporal and philosophical lens through which Zapatismo is often measured. Of the movement, scholar M. Clint McCowan argues, “The Zapatistas’ creative figuring of Mexican popular cultural straddles tradition and modernity. While their preferred communicative tools- the international press and the Internet- place them in the modern (perhaps postmodern) world, they also play up images of the Mexican past and call for age-old demands...Among other things, this refashioning of Mexican popular culture has made quite an impact on the Mexican state project.” Similar to the 1960s countercultural movement of the United States, a movement that has revolution as its aesthetic and social language, the Zapatistas, through their way of life, demonstrated the ways in which popular culture- in the sense of quotidian culture- was their revolution.
Furthermore, if Zapatismo is the world’s “post modern revolution,” it may be considered as such because of its use of the postmodernist sensibilities of fashion. Fashion scholar Elizabeth Wilson once remarked, “Postmodernism, with its eclectic approach to style might seem especially compatible with fashion; for fashion, with its constant change and pursuit of glamour enacts symbolically the most hallucinatory aspects of our culture, the confusions between the real and the not-real, the aesthetic obsessions, the vein of morbidity without tragedy, of irony without merriment, and the nihilistic critical stance towards authority, empty rebellion almost without political content.” The poetics of Zapatismo, through its use of performance, reenactment, and transformation of garments as metaphors challenge the notion of what is “real” and “unreal” in Mexican society and, as Caleb Duarte stated earlier, “challenges what appears to be society’s unshakable system.”
Although primarily defined in the context of art, Zapantera Negra operated on the level of fashion on multiple platforms. It operated through the politics of embodiment, highlighting people whose aesthetics were a liability yet whose corporeal stylings made them both hypervisible and distinct as movements. The juxtaposition of the two faces highlighted stylistic differences that distinguished both movements. The strategy of a poster spoke to the advertising strategies that propel images into public eye in an effort to gain support from the people, otherwise make them popular, thus operating on the level of fashion as popular trend. Built upon the premise that art can be a powerful tool for revolutionary discourse, Zapantera Negra operated on the level of fashion, where fashion was not only prominent in the poster that initially led me to the project, and evoked from the movements of “Zapatismo” and the “Black Panther Party.” but also in renderings of fashion and dress in Douglas’ work and the work produced by the Zapatista artists who collaborated with him. Both movements highlighted the power that garments and clothing has in speaking to specific political, cultural, ethnic, and gendered affiliations, and illuminated the specificity of these fashioned details in relation to one another.
Perhaps a resistance to validating the role of fashion is how fashion is often seen as a tool of distraction by hegemonic society. In an interview with Medea Benjamin, and in response to being asked what the uprising helped to reveal, Subcomandante Marcos remarked, “The government has tried to portray Mexico as a First World country. ...They want to show the tourists the lovely Mexican culture- the mariachis, the folkloric dancing, the beautiful clothing and crafts of the indigenous people. But behind this picture is the real Mexico, the Mexico of the millions of Indians who live in extreme poverty.”
Fashion can support populist movements while in it of itself is a system of exclusion.
“Once we are all in fashion, no one can be, so the hallmark of both bourgeois democracy and socialism is said to be uniformity of dress, that ‘grey sameness’ by which all fashion writers are haunted,” asserts Elizabeth Wilson. Even though fashion is popular culture, the stifling of fashion under the realm of elitism and elitist art history prevents it from being a tool for populist movements: “Once we are all in fashion, no one can be, so the hallmark of both bourgeois democracy and socialism is said to be uniformity of dress, that ‘grey sameness’ by which all fashion writers are haunted.”
However, if we explore Zapantera Negra as a meeting place of varied fashion practices, from fashioned strategies to fashioned aesthetics, we can create another Encuentro of aesthetic strategies that can build upon the foundation that the art focus as made. Moreover, what makes Zapantera Negra so profound is that it eludes the realm of the commercial- it is a poster not selling anything but merely communicating a collaboration, an ideal, and demonstrating the ways in which highly fashioned images can be used in the project of disseminating revolutionary inspiration. Of the marketing strategies used in the project, Douglas remarked, “These things take on a life of their own. And it becomes a branding process...Marketing in revolution is for education, not for the purposes of profit...it’s not the same the marketing as exploitation. Marketing to enlighten and to educate.” While the core of the Zapantera Negra project was an art exhibit, magazine, the poster, what remains of this multifaceted transcultural artistic collaboration and residency, are these two fashioned faces, reflecting the aesthetics of branding to enlighten, educate, and illuminate not only two revolutionary movements but the stylistic differences and similarities between them. And the commonalities are what can inspire change. When asked what contemporary viewers should take away from this project, Douglas finally remarked, “To be learned and informed and enlightened by what they [the Zapatistas] do...To [explore] how...you apply that to an urban environment to transform society.” Forever with the image of two those juxtaposed revolutionaries etched in my memory and armed with my love in fashion and image, I intend to do just that.
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Tamara Leacock is a M.A. degree candidate at NYU, studying the role of fashion in political and social movements, and the designer and creative director of her own New York-based independent fashion label, ReciclaGEM by Tamara Leacock.