35th Bienal de São Paulo
6 Set to 10 Dec 2023
Free Admission
35th Bienal de
São Paulo
6 Set to 10 Dec
Exhibition view of John Woodrow Wilson's work The Trial (left) and Margareth Taylor Goss Burroughs's work Bessie Smith, Queen of the Blues (right), during the 35th Bienal de São Paulo – choreographies of the impossible © Levi Fanan / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo

John Woodrow Wilson

“I am black, a woman, a sculptor, and a printmaker. I am also married, the mother of three sons, and the grandmother of five little girls (now seven girls and one boy) […] all of these states of being have influenced my work and made it what you see today.”
– elizabeth catlett

Collaborative processes have a rich tradition in Mexico, and one of the initiatives whose imprint is widespread is that of the Taller de Gráfica Popular (People’s Graphic Workshop), better known as the TGP, which dates back to 1937. Several of the founding members came from another group called the Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists). Reverberating precepts promoted by Muralism, they continued to encourage visual production committed to struggles and social justice, denouncing situations in which peasants and workers lived, and especially resisting and questioning messages, effects or practices linked to prevailing fascism.

The TGP’s graphics – in the spirit of agitation and propaganda – also circulated through posters, flyers, and calendars, appealed to a visual militancy and also to a critique of production models focused on the individual artist.

The TGP promoted instead organizational resources of a collective nature through meetings and assemblies, as can be seen in the photographs. In them they discussed what to represent, how to form the group of volunteers who would produce the image, taking care that the agent in charge was recognized, and at the same time, the collective exercise through the TGP’s distinctive seal/logo.

In March 1938 the TGP approved a document which contained its interests and objectives, a kind of manifesto or statement in which they agreed to work in lithography, metal and wood printmaking and linoleum.

This workshop is created in order to stimulate the production graph in order to benefit the interests of the people of Mexico, and for that objective is proposed to bring together the largest number of artists through the method of collective production.

Although this document was not published, years later, in March 1945, they published their Declaration of Principles in which they reaffirmed themselves as a center of collective work for functional promotion, as well as their vision of art at the service of the people, so that their production should reflect the social realities of their time.

Like other collective strategies over time, the TGP had various moments of cohesion and internal tension, its participants varied in number and geographical origin at different times. Among its members were artists such as Leopoldo Méndez, Pablo O’Higgins, Luis Arenal and Adolfo Mexiac, also had an important participation of women artists such as Mariana Yampolski, Rini Templeton, Elizabeth Catlett and Margaret Taylor, whose work, in the context of the new feminisms and the depatriarchalizing of history, is being revalued and situated.

Given the great artistic performance and the profuse political activity of the TGP, various foreign artists (mainly American) temporarily joined the workshop to contribute their work to the production of socio-political prints; these artists were called guest artists and some of them were: John Wilson, Hannes Meyer, Lena Bergner, Charles White, Eleanor Coen, Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs, Rini Templeton, Elizabeth Catlett, among others. These links consolidated the international character of the TGP and in a way stimulated the development of other related projects such as Workshops of Graphic Art in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York.

In the case of John Woodrow Wilson, the African-American artist went to Mexico with the interest of getting to know one of the main representatives of Mexican muralism, José Clemente Orozco, whose exhibitions he had visited and whose way of representing the situation of the oppressed classes in Mexico he identified with. Although Orozco had died, Wilson joined the TGP, where he found a collective context of widely distributed image production through printmaking. At the TGP he coincided and produced concomitantly with Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White, with whom he shared an interest in making visible and working with and for the Afric–an-American community.

An example of this is the work The Trial (1951), a lithograph in which a young man of African-American origin stands (proportionally diminished) before three white judges who loom menacingly over him, making visible the unequal and vertical treatment to which they were subjected. During his production in Mexico, Woodrow painted a mural that was later destroyed called The Incident (1952), which pictorially narrates the violence and terror of the lynching of an African American by the Ku Klux Klan. It seems that the title operates more as a terrible sarcasm in the face of normalized xenophobic and supremacist violence.

getsemaní guevara and sol henaro
translated from Spanish by ana laura borro

John Woodrow Wilson (Roxbury, MA, USA,1922 – Brookline, MA, USA 2015) was a lithographer, sculptor, painter, muralist, and art teacher, best known for his powerful portraits of Black men, with a distinct interest in both politically and socially conscious art. After studying abroad in Europe and Mexico, Wilson returned to the United States and became deeply involved in the American Civil Rights movement. He used lithography and sculpture to convey powerful messages about racial justice and black dignity. Wilson’s work has been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions, and his pieces can be found in prestigious museum collections.