April 2015

Lucia Cowles

nonfiction

Portrait of a Young Painter: Pepe Ziga and Mexico City's Rebel Generation by Mary Kay Vaughan

Ten years ago, historian Mary Kay Vaughan set out to research the learning experiences of youth who became involved in the 1960s student demonstrations in Mexico City. These were the same demonstrations that culminated in the infamous 1968 Tlateleloc Massacre. Then she met Pepe Ziga, and the subject -- if the not the broader focus -- of her research changed. Ziga is a Mexican painter whose work received particular acclaim during the 1970s and 1980s. Born in Oaxaca, he moved with his family to Colonia Guerrero in Mexico City as a child, in 1943. There he grew up, worked as a radio technician and took night classes in drawing and painting, then switched his vocation to paint full time.

Portrait of a Young Painter: Pepe Ziga and Mexico City's Rebel Generation is Ziga's biography, though biography, by Vaughan's description, is a shifting form. "Unlike traditional biography," she explains, "new biography is less interested in a person for his or her unique contribution to history or the arts and more interested in how an individual life reflects and illuminates historical processes." Vaughan uses Ziga's life as a narrative through-line to structure a wide-ranging recreation of twentieth-century life in Mexico City. The book explores how Pepe's education formed his subjectivity -- "the cognitive, active, feeling, experiencing self." Vaughan uses his story as a case study for what she posits were shared trends in subject-formation within the Mexico City youth of his generation.

In practice, the biography reads as a vivid, exhaustively detailed, and charismatic re-telling of an artist's formation. Vaughan records political, social, economic, and artistic shifts as they occurred within, or touched upon, the lives of the Ziga family, Pepe, and his many friends. The sum product is a feeling, personal history of nearly a century's span of time.

Structurally, the narrative takes place within ten chapters that progress chronologically one to the next, but which remain tightly fixed to their own thematic interrogations. Theories of phenomenology, discourse, and affect subtlely frame the book's perspective without overwhelming the narrative with analytic commentary.

The story begins in Oaxaca with the marriage of Pepe's parents, then chronicles the family's move to Colonia Guerrero and the various struggles of Pepe's parents, aunts, and uncles to create a stable life there. Meanwhile Pepe and his brothers absorb moral lessons from children's radio shows, Pepe discusses popular cinema with his father, and Pepe's mother pulls him from the trappings of adolescence spent in the street to an apprenticeship with a radio technician.

Vaughan has chosen her principle subject well. Pepe rapidly traverses social and cultural scenes, gathering and departing from groups of friends, acquiring new mentors and job opportunities, and absorbing the cultural preferences of each environment. Pepe's sense of self and possibility expand as he encounters film icons (Gene Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean), new music (Joan Baez, folkloric music from across South America, Bach, Vivaldi, and the Beatles), and as he becomes confident in his artistic skill. He seems to undergo a complete revolution in self-understanding every three to five years.

Even so, during his many stages of personal growth Pepe is rarely apart from his community or family. This is another great gift of the book -- Vaughan allows seemingly disjointed realities to exist in the same timeframe. Multiple generations of the Ziga family live in the same house, and Vaughan successfully documents Pepe's discovery of Marilyn Monroe and Kandinsky's color theory as concordant with his father's violent masculinity, his grandmother's habit of begging in the Martnez del Alatorre market, and his Ta Antonia's rudimentary hygiene. The city does not affect all of its inhabitants in the same way at the same time, and Vaughan carefully depicts the very different habits and worldviews of the Ziga family, allowing each character to develop into a singular personality.

Portrait of a Young Painter also performs a subtle pushback against an academic tendency to produce commentary exclusively on elite (vs. pop) culture and higher (vs. vocational) education. Pepe never attended university, but received a robust education nonetheless, one which exposed him to intellectual thought from around the world. In the classroom, Pepe and his peers developed a professional, artisanal skill set via discipline and repetition. But much of the education that formed Pepe's subjectivity occurred outside of a traditional class setting. Pepe learned to define his ambitions, his masculinity, and his personal morality through the movies, radio shows, music, and dance. Painter and mentor Benito Messeguer took him to Ingmar Bergman's films and reintroduced him to Oaxacan history. Friends took him to avant-garde theater/performance art; he read Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, danced the cancan with renowned, openly gay painter Juan Soriano, and came to support the anti-imperialistic ideals behind the Cuban Revolution through discussion with Cuban painter Garca Robledo.

Vaughan is careful to admit that Ziga's story cannot be taken as an authoritative account, even on his own life. She acknowledges the falsities and embellishments of memory, and includes the perspectives of Pepe's siblings and friends in part to add dimension to his singular point of view. Nonetheless, Vaughan claims that Pepe's story reflects a common humanism -- one that emphasized ternura (tenderness) -- that was shared by a significant sector of his generation, and those just younger than him. From within this culture of humanism, a critical public of youth emerged, and with it a more democratic forum for political and artistic expression. This dialogue would escalate into the protests in the late 1960s that demanded a fundamental change to repressive and corrupt government policies.

Mexican politics have not changed -- if anything state and police corruption have worsened (consider the Ayotzinapa 43). But, Vaughan would argue, we might learn from the conditions that formed the hearts and minds of the 1960s demonstrators, and that formed individuals like Pepe Ziga. Certainly, the reader of Portrait of a Young Painter witnesses, by Vaughan's diligent crafting, how an individual's subjectivity might transform via encounters with popular culture, how these transformations might be shared across a collective, and how that collective might form a public, one whose members' enhanced understanding of themselves and of their political and historical context might cause them to rise and protest.

Portrait of a Young Painter: Pepe Ziga and Mexico City's Rebel Generation by Mary Kay Vaughan
Duke University Press
ISBN: 978-0822357810
304 pages