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Galería MUY

The Joy of Making Art By-For-With the Native Peoples


by John Burstein

and Martha Alejandro

Founded in 2014, Galería MUY (GaleMUY) is an arts space formed by a collective of Mayan and Zoque creatives of Chiapas, Mexico. Based in San Cristóbal de las Casas, the GaleMUY has temporary and permanent exhibits and disseminates art in communities in Indigenous territories of the state. Here are collectivized and personalized reflections produced by P.T'ul (Pedro Gómez), Darwin Cruz, PH Joel (Joel Pérez Hernández), together with coordinator Martha Alejandro and US-Mexican binational founder John Burstein surrounding art by-for-with the Native Peoples, concentrating on a series of workshops that have been a continuing artistic practice since 2020.

Galería MUY: Maruch Méndez painting. Photo: Darwin Cruz. Courtesy: Galería MUY.



Our collective project is motivated by the need to respect and self-represent our voices in the arts beyond the interests of government institutions, where our perspective of artistic expressions has no place. Working collectively strengthens our practice and also enriches it in the constant dialogues that exist between the artists that are part of GaleMUY.


Given that classes were cancelled as a consequence of the pandemic, contingency measures were taken for meeting, carefully, outside of schools. Of course, the reliance on smartphones was greater than ever. These were some of the conditions that inspired us at the GaleMUY to dive into the project we call art by-for-with Native Peoples. This is a project consisting of workshops in our villages with the aim of influencing the education that the children of these communities were receiving—an education that implements knowledge alien to the interests of the population, rejecting the city as the ideal lifestyle (and further promoting youth migration).

The activities we carry out are meant to be meaningful for the target audience: primarily the Indigenous communities. We emphasize this distinction because our intention is to democratize access to the arts and not continue its distribution only in established spaces such as galleries, museums, art fairs, houses of culture, among others.

To call the activities we carry out in our native villages "workshops" is fine generally, though our work includes disseminating art in the form of documentary and film screenings, performances and processions, art exhibitions and installations, among others. For the GaleMUY artists, taking our practices to the villages of origin becomes an act of resistance, and recasting our way of teaching, thinking and perceiving our environment. Also, it allows us to discover veins of knowledge in the memory of the inhabitants in order to rescue and preserve them. The themes to be taken up artistically are chosen collectively, often relating to the natural-spiritual territory we inhabited, with the intention of vindicating and remaking the lifestyle that gives us our identity. As our philosophy of implementation, we eschew imposing knowledge on those participating in workshops, rather wishing to share the experiences around the artistic practices present in the villages, as well as to reintegrate those who may have distanced themselves geographically or epistemologically from home.

We start with experimentation, sparking curiosity in the people, so that they can explore on their own when we don’t go to the villages.

P.T´ul: Little by little, the workshops have been growing. The children know more about the material and also question what can be done, and how to prepare the earth for use as clay. They consult their grandfathers and grandmothers about their knowledge of existing techniques. They are also more confident, allowing themselves to be photographed and videotaped, answering the questions we ask them. At the beginning, the project seemed strange to them, which is why we shared with them how the gallery works, mentioning that it is a project designed for the people where the children can approach to experiment and grow their skills. They comment a lot about the natural dyes in the textiles; I see that they value it because there are more people using them, also influenced by Cecilia Gómez, a Tsotsil artist from San Andrés Larráinzar.

PH Joel: Always enthusiastic about the activities [his workshops in Francisco Villa, Ocosingo], the workshop participants are curious about the treatment we give to the materials that are in fact common to find: mud, leaves, bones, stones, roots, and moss.

It fills me with joy to recognize how their excitement grows. For example, when the children take home a clay work or a painting, in a family where only one member attends the workshops, the curiosity spreads within it, motivating them to continue with these practices. Another example is the children who cannot collect clay because it is far from home, and so their father, when he goes to the cornfield, picks up a little bit of earth so that they can continue with the workshops. I notice an accompaniment based on spreading the desire to learn, to be curious. Parents are very grateful because this is knowledge that the school does not provide; although the teachers may have this knowledge, they are not interested in teaching it, because they are not paid to do so.

Another aspect I appreciate is the beautiful coexistence: it doesn't matter what religion you profess or if there are family conflicts. It fascinates me that when we do our activities, even for a moment, they forget about those differences that are part of any population, however small or large it may be.


PH Joel: The workshops allow me to learn about the criteria and languages in our communities, to observe how the inhabitants interact with the works that we create at the Gallery MUY.

Attending the workshops is an opportunity to question and diversify both my materials and my idioms; it allows me to get my messages across and capture the anecdotes and thoughts of the population to express them through my pieces. Because of that, I no longer feel dependence neither on clay—my main media—nor on painting. [The art is properly relational.]

People' perspectives of artistic expressions are guiding one. I had never thought of doing a performance, but suddenly I found myself involved in the performance and video Näwayomo, with Saúl Kak. One always has to be attentive and open-minded.

Doing these workshops in the villages always requires teamwork: the partner who leads the workshop (and the team), the one who records the event, the one who publishes on social networks, and the one who makes and reflections that will be taken up by all those doing art by-for-with. We are a multidisciplinary team; each member contributes with her or his energy, knowledge and experience.

Feliciana Ramírez: "Mujer mazorca" (2015). Photo: Darwin Cruz. Courtesy: Galería MUY.



GaleMUY’s “collectivity” is based (not just on group shows but) on active and searching dialogue among the artists. (The ceramics workshops in the communities is another version of this.) When we share a meal, it becomes an opportunity for reflection. During these regular get-togethers, we’re reviewing progress and new needs, we then share ideas with the larger group of artists, to analyze if something is feasible, also thinking about the time available to our colleagues. Having more opinions and seeing an idea from different angles allows us to question it, concretize it or develop it and practice it in a better way.


As a team, we are always reaching out to create new territories of action. We like to explore based on decisions we make as a collective, whether it's holding talks or participating in exhibitions and art fairs. It is common for complications to arise in the process, but by paying attention to those mistakes, we are left with experiences that help us overcome them in the future.

John: A major “doubt” in the GaleMUY project has to do with showing Indigenous art in non-Indigenous settings. We don’t want to fall into the trap of exoticism. Otros mundos son posibles [Other worlds are possible] is a Zapatista slogan we wholly identify with. There is no squaring the circle of the universal/particular conundrum of identity-marked art, be it feminist, LGBTQ, black, regionalist or Native American. Those “others” (non-indigenous, in this context) will naturally lean toward universalizing, even moving into pure aestheticism or art-for-art’s-sake.

Valid enough! But since contemporary art is highly ideological or idea-full, whether contemporary art-“sophisticated” or the unstudied art-lover, they join in the (sometimes rather hysterical) querying: “What does it mean?” And the artists are perfectly happy to gloss and parse symbol-by-symbol, because it is a great way to engage, though of course it can easily become a crutch for (not) looking. The best way forward is to emphasize the context, talk about the social-political-cultural realities in which the artwork is embedded, and partially square the universal-particular circle through aesthetic solidarity—communicative aesthetics.


Coming from various peoples of the Mayan and Zoque (language and cultural) families, in the state of Chiapas—P.T'ul, from San Andrés Larráinzar; Darwin Cruz, from Sabanilla; PH Joel from Ocosingo, and Martha Alejandro, from Rayón—we represent different ways of organizing, as well as different Indigenous languages. Based on the knowledge and experience of each member with their people, we contribute to the search for solutions and respond to the needs that are presented to us in each project. This is enriched in some cases by the experience now of being part of the urban and even globalized scene in San Cristóbal and beyond. We take on different tasks to do with making and promoting Indigenous art dividing the work according to each of our skills and responsibilities.


We’re few in number and limited in a way in scope, so we rely on allies and friends of GaleMUY, who form a support network sometimes linked to specific projects. Critics, curators, other artists, musicians, researchers, carpenters, transporters collectors, and financial supporters are all involved. These are people who are familiar with our objectives and, therefore, have the time, knowledge and resources to contribute to activities that involve them.


In Progress

As artists, we are constantly creating our individual obras, in addition to the project art by-for-with the Native Peoples, which is the topic here, and about which we are passionate.

Darwin: Due to different situations, many of my fellow artists from GaleMUY migrate to the city, an action that generates physical and emotional detachment from their community, and leaves us in the dark about things we later find when we return. In the city, there is an ideal (stereotype) of what Indigenous people are like (that also invades our consciousness). Returning to give workshops, these stereotypes are kind of broken down, because those who left recognize a community that is different from what they knew when they were still living there. The workshops help to create this rapprochement, breaking the distances.

Martha: When you do something that involves a tradition in danger of being lost, you remember the elders. I think of Joel's or P.T'ul's pottery workshops, where the children have been appreciating knowledge that perhaps even their parents did not consider important, but their grandparents still might. The invasion of Capitalism discourages the traditional artisan. The reigning notion is to sell, and fine craftship is not cheap. But with the community by-for-with workshops, an awareness of the true value of these works is generated.

What I like most is how my women colleagues have been strengthened. Women's opinions are not much taken into account. Even those of us who are mothers, or even heads of family, should have to leave the home to work, permission or approval has to be sought from their husbands or maybe other menfolk. But in our workshops, the women feel confident to talk and they realize they can do new sorts of activities.
There are always criticisms, questioning what we are doing, why we are meeting. “They are probably making money,” they say—it’s distrust or envy. The goal is for us to feel more confident as women, to be able to do things no matter what the community thinks. In fact, an exhibition of women’s artwork, curated by ourselves, is planned for later this year.

We also consider it important to participate in art fairs, for example, as there is some interest now in talking about Indigenous art. Still, the spaces that allow us to speak for ourselves are always very limited.

Procession with artworks made by children from Francisco Villa, Ocosingo, Chiapas. Photo: Darwin Cruz. Courtesy: Galería MUY.

In Retrospect

Back in 2016, we offered special community arts tours, with the objective of sharing art spots in our villages nearest the city of San Cristobal de las Casas that of course are outside the gallery (murals, churches, places that gave rise to legends, etc.), in order to observe how the art is displayed, the place they occupy and how they are integrated into society. This activity, too, involved creating ties with the communities as well as showing the work of colleagues wanting to share their art with their communities of origin.

Also, GaleMUY initiated a residency program in 2017 with the aim of promoting arts projects in the region. This allowed some local youth committed to art, to make artworks within the gallery space, provide accompaniment, materials and tools to the artists, and culminate in an exhibition. With the success of the first stage, of these scholarships or residencies for local creators, we branched out to involve Indigenous, particularly Mayan, artists from Guatemala, seeking to generate an approximation between the different practices, resulting in the initiative Proyecto Maya Transfronterizo.

Other non-indigenous artists, usually international, manifested their desire to be part of the residency program, so we opened up a lot to non-Indigenous artists who wanted to dialogue with the Mayan or Zoque creators of the spaces of the Gallery. As a finale to this (informal educational) residency, they presented their work and shared their experience with the people they worked with, as well as the materials and techniques they used in their works (influenced by Mayan/Zoque art).

These activities motivated us to deepen our reflection on what it means to make art and be artists from our position as Indigenous, living with people who have a different perspective, as well as the interaction with critics and art scholars who have included us in discussions and publications about our practice.


John: The project that we call art by-for-with the Mayan and Zoques, is conducted by the artists involved in their communities of origin (and in their own languages), according to rules self-generated by the process itself. That is, these artists are inspired to be in their communities, as creatives, interacting according to community customs and projects immediately making sense through community logics.

The MUY project has revolved around open-air workshops playing with clay or paint, and sometimes making murals. Both are familiar in their way: the arts workshops are like school, somewhat, and the murals are like the political “graffiti” which has come to be quite popular, not to mention the wonderful hand-painted signs common in the communities. But the real inspiration is the classic artisans’ workshops, for woodworking or even weaving cooperatives. In most cases, these are part of the family house-complex. (The campesino dwelling is a living-working unit.) And so what we call the art by-for-with workshops are socially-constructed, time-dependent immaterial “artworks” themselves!

Further Reflections

I’ve been reading Claire Bishop’s book, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, written after 2000, with the heady sentence:

«This expanded field of post-studio practices currently goes under a variety of names: socially-engaged art, community-based art, experimental communities, dialogic art, littoral art, interventionist art, participatory art, collaborative art, contextual art and (most recently) social practice.»

Kayum Ma´ax: "La imagen de los abuelos" (2019). Photo: Darwin Cruz. Courtesy: Galería MUY.

She does not mention in this list: processual art, political art and decoloniality, nor relational aesthetics. They are all relevant for what is going on at GaleMUY! (Maybe “participatory art” is the best catch-all for this contemporary art, as she suggests.) So, the MUY is a hinge, swinging between the two: contemporary art and Indigenous art.

Another major point, copying Bishop and various others, is the importance of applying reception theory in a communications model of Mayan/Zoque art-experiencing. How others from the community register or receive, actively, the artwork, that matters. That’s participatory art. That’s also community, dialogic, collaborative, social, and political art. And I’d say that it is at the essence of the GaleMUY project, because the promotion of “indigenous art” is at least twice-over problematic, depending on the audience. First, we know that showing in non-Indigenous art spaces involves all that’s implicit in being “othered,” being conscious of the manifold meanings of what Maya-Indian means in an urban, mestizo, capitalist context.

The second tall order is that MUY cultural producers have the big job to construct their identity as artists in their home collectives and native worlds.

And when I say “construct,” that is from the foundation up. To begin with, the word ‘art’ has no immediate translation in Tsotsil nor other Mayan or Zoque languages. On the other hand, the function does! At least as an outsider, I’m struck by how everyone is a cultural producer; most are actually masters of various traditional cultural media—weaving, etc.—and the fiesta, for example, is a collective performance of the first order.

The leap to “fine” art becomes underwhelming, in the sense that the pleasure—or ‘joy’, which is what the word muy means in Tsotsil—from regarding a beautiful jaguar painting of Kayum Ma’ax, say, emerges from the respect for the technique, combined with the pleasure of a favorite trope, producing identarian pride as a cultural-political experience. It comes together and works as experiencing art by-for-with the Mayan/Zoque. So we’re aiming for a de-hierarchization of audiences, to enjoy heterogeneity, appreciate that the traditionally traditionalist Indigenous public is also free to participate in art-world universalism, rather like nomadic contemporary artists seek out particular subaltern exoticism, each with a certain desire to convert themselves into the other.

‘School’ is a good handle for thinking through how art is coming to mean in contemporary traditionalist communities. Technical learning, group socializing, citizen politicizing, are, after all, the functions of the educational system. Of course, campesino training occurs in an active mode—learning by doing—which is why the arts workshops work. They work to form a dynamic public based on creative production which educates the senses and opens up the mind to perceive meaningfully the works of artists, in a generative producing-receiving dialectic. The workshops in themselves are art, public relational art.