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Oaxaca is an oasis of wild beauty, a mecca for artists drawn to the colour and ancient Zapotec culture of Southern Mexico that celebrates life at one with a natural world frequented with animal spirits and a heritage that goes back for more than three thousand years. The Aztecs built a culture
founded on gold while colonial Oaxaca drew wealth specifically from cochineal, the red dye that is made from insects that live on the Nopal Cactus. This fusion of cultural influences, a mythology of Gods and Creatures, underpins all that is at the heart of contemporary Mexican art.

Cactus & Creatures features artwork by nineteen young emerging and established artists from both the UK and Mexico, hosted by ‘First Foods’ a reciprocal, residency-based initiative for UK and Mexican artists responding to the integrity of native foods: corn, cacao, cactus, milk and honey. Painting, sculpture, printmaking, film and photography come together this year in an exhibition that captures the vibrant essence of Oaxaca and its relationship to cactus and edible insects.

Cactus is a staple food farmed across Mexico, particularly in Oaxaca where the prickly pear Nopal, thrives in the rugged, arid terrain, and is sliced, grilled, or juiced as part of the daily diet. The Agave cactus is farmed widely and distilled to make Mezcal, syrups and also Aloe Vera, used for beauty products, and a range of medications – more recently to suppress symptoms of Diabetes. Cochineal provides the edible reds for your lipstick and strawberry ice cream, and a spectrum of hues woven
into cloths worn by indigenous Mexicans for hundreds of years and exported worldwide since the 1600s.

The UK/MEX comparison affords the perfect platform for the First Foods Project. The UK has a highly industrialised and processed food industry, which distances us from food cultivation, production, and even preparation, whereas Mexico - a country in transition- retains a ritualistic and life-affirming engagement with food and nature.

“For me, the cactus defines the landscape, and symbolises the liquid spirit of Oaxaca –fiestas,street food, Mezcal and cochineal, the source of the ‘red gold’ that the city was built on”

Antonia Bruce 2017

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