Art and Community against Extractivism

Since 2011, Colectivo Cherani (Cherani Collective) has been building its own system, which could be exemplary of a different way of living together, a more communal, more responsible, less capitalistic, non-expropriating way, in which, at the same time, collective memory is preserved. Its work is interdisciplinary and derives from the deep roots of the Purhépecha culture.

This development and the indignation it produced led to a spontaneous popular uprising on April 15, 2011, marking the beginning of a nearly year-long state of siege, followed by the formation of a citizen militia group responsible for guaranteeing that no arms enter the territory. The fireplaces, where people cook, discuss and coordinate, have been central components of community organization. There are just under 200 hearths. A Council of Elders was also established, which replaced he municipal president and has even been recognized by the Federal Electoral Tribunal of Mexico. The Council of Elders consists of twelve members, called K’eris, who play an active political role for three years. The second article of the Mexican Constitution theoretically guarantees indigenous communities the collective right to political self-determination, however the Purépechas of Cherán are the first to put it into practice.

This innovative political process based on direct democracy went hand in hand with the Colectivo Cherani, an artistic movement whose founding members are Giovanni Fabian Guerrero, Alain Silva Guardian, Betel Cucué, Francisco Huaroco Rosas and Ariel Pañeda. In the very cradle of muralism, it is an artistic movement focused, amidst other techniques, on large-scale mural painting. The work of the collective is based at Cherán’s Casa de la Cultura (Culture Center), illustrating the intimate connection between social movements and artistic work.

The Cherán community, as well as the artists, reject “structures that are not beneficial to them,” as Calveiro says. They have built their own system, which could be exemplary of a different way to live together, a more communal, more responsible, less capitalistic, non-expropriating way. Equally relevant to this system is the fact that art does not function on the basis of known institutions; it does not take shape in museums and galleries. As Néstor García Canclini argued in the 1970s, we need to theorize the relationship between art and society. The art sociologist suggests that art can be “action in space” and the artist an “environmental designer.” But then comes the question: What is an artist? An activist or a militant? The people of Cherán show us that we are wrong to approach their work this way. One possible answer comes from the Purépecha language in which the word “artist” does not exist.

The topics the group addresses are clearly political, for instance, part of the Uinapikua mural shows President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s face opposite the half head of a taré, a patron deity; beneath it we see half of former governor Silvano Aureoles’s face accompanied by words like “people” or “respect” and phrases like “do not expect submission,” a reminder that the president does not have the right to enter Cherán. The giant Uinapikua painting is made up of several smaller panels, alternately printed, woven or constructed with resins and found objects. In another part of the mural the word uri appears, which refers to the hands that work or to the work created. What an apt description: What are artists if not working hands?

In the case of Cherán, they help to represent, understand, and tell its story beyond the state of Michoacán. Between 2022-2024, the Colectivo Cherani have been Jane Lombard Fellows at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics in New York. In this and other ways, they are constructing the stories of a people with the knowledge and wisdom they will not allow to disappear. “They are achieving redemption in their own way,” says Calveiro, “and expressing it with what they need.” Thus showing us a temporal vision in which past and future coincide to form a new possible politics.

The Cherani Collective of Michoacán, Mexico, founded in 2011, is made up of a diverse group of artists, activists and creatives who share a common vision of using art as a tool for social change and community empowerment. The group rose up in revolt with the Cherán community against extractivism and massive deforestation and is committed to highlighting the voices and struggles of marginalized communities, particularly those of indigenous groups.

Hannah Katalin Grimmer is a researcher and curator. She worked on the Gropius Bau (Berlin) curatorial team and served on the faculty and as a research assistant at the University of Kassel’s documenta Institute. She is currently completing her doctoral research on the relationships between visual art, social movements, memory, and resistance in Chile. She lives between Berlin and Santiago de Chile.

Translation: Sara Hanaburgh