Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera

Mexico artist's exhibition is vivid protest for missing students

'Primitivo' artist Saner uses paintings, drawings to question the disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa students

On Sept. 26, 2014, 43 students from Ayotzinapa Normal School, a teacher training college in Iguala, Mexico, were preparing for a trip to Mexico City to protest the massacre of hundreds of students in 1968. While the students were organizing in Iguala for an upcoming protest, police opened fire on them, and the students went missing.

The crime has sparked unusual outrage, after decades of deaths and disappearances resulted from the so-called war on drugs and before that, Mexico's dirty war, when dissent against the government was violently repressed. The Mexican artist Edgar Flores, who paints under the name Saner, is among those inspired by Ayotzinapa, and he hopes that an exhibition of his work, in New York City until Feb. 7 will raise awareness about the ongoing fight against corruption and impunity in Mexico. The disappearance of the Aytozinapa students an atrocity, "a terrible event that has stained our country," Flores told Al Jazeera in an email. "We are a voice to not let the 43 students and all those who died in Mexico — reporters, social activists, farmers, children — be forgotten."

A painting by Mexican artist Saner, inspired by the 43 missing students, with the word 'Ayotzinapa' seen in the bottom corner, on display at a New York City gallery on Jan. 31, 2015.
Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera

Visitors walking into the exhibition, "Primitivo", in Manhattan's Jonathan Levine Gallery, are greeted with a stark contrast between colorful portraits and black and white drawings. Traditional Mexican masks covering the faces of modern and historical characters are a common theme, which Flores said represents the mixture of past and present.

"Primitive man is often seen as backwards, but is perhaps more evolved in his environment and with the universe around him," Flores said. "The pieces seek to criticize the modern man — who while materially advanced is so poor in spirit — it refers to all the atrocities experienced by the modern world in the quest for more power."

In a large black and white drawing, figures resembling security forces wearing traditional Mexican masks haul off youths with scarves covering their faces. The scene resembles many protests that have taken place in Mexico in response to the government's handling of the students' disappearance. "I hope people will find out what happened, learn from our mistakes and believe that this can't be repeated," Flores said.

In one painting inspired by the events, the word Ayotzinapa is scrawled across a bright red background. There are three black figures, one standing powerfully in the middle and a skeleton falling to the side. The third floats above the others, emitting yellow flames. 

"When Mexican urban artist, illustrator and graphic designer 'Saner' (Edgar Flores) draws or paints, there is a feeling of humble empowerment, for he has the chance to capture your attention — even just for a minute  to make you think about life, love, society, the government and reassess the world around you," the Latin Post said in a review.

Ann Perez, a 33-year-old property manager from the Bronx, said the colorful paintings brought her to the gallery on Saturday. Perez knew about the Ayotzinapa students, and said some of the drawings were clearly inspired by violence. "These paintings definitely show a type of warfare playing out," Perez told Al Jazeera.

A drawing by Mexican artist Saner, on display in a New York City gallery as part of his 'Primitivo' exhibition, pictured on Jan. 31, 2015.
Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera

That war continues. Parents and supporters of the students, as well as Saner, say they want the students returned alive, even after the government officially declared the students dead last week. As evidence that they haven't given up hope, a familiar refrain — "Alive they were taken, alive we want them back" — can be heard chanted at rallies for the students, which have taken place in cities across Mexico as well as the United States. The United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances in Geneva will hold talks with Mexican officials this week, and the parents of some of the missing students are traveling to Switzerland to make their voices heard.

As protests continued to put pressure on the government, charges of kidnapping were filed against Iguala mayor, José Luis Abarca, who allegedly ordered the Sept. 26 crackdown. According to confessions from police officers and gang members arrested in the aftermath, police rounded up dozens of students and handed them over to a local drug cartel ordering their executions.

Saner, like many parents and classmates of the missing students, questioned the official narrative, and said protests must continue until the truth comes about their disappearance comes out. " 'Alive we want,' " Saner said.

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