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The Beehive Collective: Building Solidarity through Storytelling and Art

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Just a few weeks ago, Mandy Skinner was ringing in the new year in the foggy, muddy town of Oventic, Mexico, a community located in the heart of the country’s rural, southern state of Chiapas. Mandy had reached Oventic, travelling from Austin, Texas, and arriving in time to celebrate not only the new year, but also, more importantly, the 20th anniversary of the revolutionary 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas.

Mandy made the journey with fellow members of the Beehive Design Collective, a self-described “art activism collective” based in the north-eastern United States and with connections throughout the Americas. The collective produces intricate portable murals and posters, which Mandy describes as “huge cartoons that tell stories” about complex issues, connecting environmental and social challenges with ongoing socio-political processes.

Members of an indigenous, Zapatista community in Chiapas, Mexico, look at a banner displaying the Beehive Design Collective’s Mesoamérica Resiste graphic. (Photo Courtesy of the Beehive Design Collective)

Members of an indigenous, Zapatista community in Chiapas, Mexico, look at a banner displaying the Beehive Design Collective’s Mesoamérica Resiste graphic. (Photo courtesy of the Beehive Design Collective)

For Mandy and her fellow “bees”, spending New Years in Oventic was a full-circle experience. The three of them were delivering copies of their latest completed graphic, entitled ‘Mesoamérica Resiste’, a project that began in Chiapas ten years earlier at the Zapatista’s tenth anniversary. The 1994 uprising rewrote the narrative of globalisation when Zapatista communities took up arms to resist the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in their territories.

The Beehive Collective’s Mesoamérica Resiste graphic, which tells the story of such resistance, was first envisioned in 2004 when an initial team of “bees” made a research trip through Mexico and Central America – a journey that took them to Chiapas. It was here that they heard from the indigenous communities in Zapatista territory about the dangers of a regional development plan, the Plan Puebla Panama (PPP). The PPP, which was later re-branded as Project Mesoamérica, included large scale transportation, energy, and communications infrastructure which Mandy says would “literally pave the way” for free trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA.

The year before, in 2003, Mandy was studying in Mexico at the height of the organising against the PPP, which had been announced two years earlier. It was in Mexico that Mandy learned the dangers of the PPP and the destructive infrastructure and transportation projects associated with it.

Mandy returned to the US unsure of how she could take part in the mounting resistance to the PPP. It just so happened, however, that one of the Beehive Collective’s touring teams of educators was passing through her town. When Mandy learned that the group was in the early stages of planning a PPP graphic and subsequent education campaign, she knew she had to become involved.

“I thought, ‘This is what I want to do with my life right now – getting this poster out in the world that will share these stories that I just learned so much about while in Mexico’,” reflects Mandy.

Later that summer, Mandy headed to the Beehive Collective’s home in rural Maine, where she remembers seeing the first drafts of what would slowly, but surely, become the Mesoamérica Resiste graphic. She began touring as a Beehive educator, giving presentations using other Beehive graphics and splitting her time between travelling and working in Maine.

Beehive-ants

Above is an example of just one section of the Mesoamérica Resiste graphic. The Beehive Design Collective describes it:A giant swarm of ants…working tirelessly…embody the phrase, la revolución es el trabajo de las hormigas (the revolution is ant’s work)… Their collective work…reminds us that together, we can create tremendous changes in the world around us. Some of the ants carry messages from Indigenous communities in southern Mexico who have been slowly and steadily building autonomy for several decades. These sayings are Zapatista principles: “work from below, without seeking to rise to power”; “walk by asking questions”. Each ant is a different species, reminding us that the beauty of the world lies in its diversity… “we are the same because we are different”; “a world where many worlds fit”. 

 

After nearly a decade of stops and starts, the Mesoamérica Resiste graphic was recently finished and is in the distribution process due largely to an incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign this past December. The campaign, which asked for donations to cover printing and distribution expenses, raised US$118,000 from nearly 3,000 backers – more than three times its goal of US$36,000.

“It’s been years of anticipating the moment where we are be able to bring the graphic to communities that are actively organising and facing these issues, whose stories are in the graphic,” Mandy tells me of the excitement in finally being able to take the graphic to Mexico.

Mesoamérica Resiste was conceived as part of a trilogy of graphics that began with two previous graphics, one about the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas in 2001 and the other on the Plan Colombia agreement in 2002.

“The three plans, the FTAA, Plan Colombia, and the Plan Puebla Panama, were all very important aspects of neoliberalism, free trade policies, and militarisation,” says Mandy. The trilogy, which is now complete, is tied together by “a focus on Latin American solidarity and the big picture of free trade and globalisation on the continent.”

A detail of the Mesoamerica Resiste graphic, depicting 500 years since the Spanish 'discovery' of the Americas. Photo courtesy of the Beehive Collective.

A detail of the Mesoamérica Resiste graphic, depicting 500 years since the Spanish ‘discovery’ of the Americas. (Image courtesy of the Beehive Design Collective)

While the first two graphics were completed relatively quickly, Mesoamérica Resiste’s completion was never guaranteed, Mandy tells me.

“There were definitely times we thought the poster would never be finished,” Mandy says. “It was on its own timeline. Any timeline we tried to set for it never worked. It had a life of its own.”

The massive, detailed graphic was reworked numerous times, and even had to be re-sketched onto larger sheets of paper, delaying the process. The Collective’s reliance on voluntary labour did not help speed things up, though Mandy believes that the reliance on a diversity of partnerships is what made the graphic possible.

“We counted that, at different points, 26 collective members had worked to create the graphic, including 13 illustrators,” Mandy says. “However, that’s kind of a misleading number because we really worked with hundreds of people and talked to so many people over the years, down to really specific references for a specific species of ant or a plant species that we needed feedback on how to draw. There are so many collaborators, roles, and skills that go into making a graphic like this.”

The graphic will now be printed onto posters and fabric banners that touring teams of “bees” will use to educate others on the historic and modern realities of globalisation.

One current development that Beehive educators are using Mesoamérica Resiste to bring up is the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an Asian-Pacific free trade agreement that, if signed, would become the largest international trade agreement since the creation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1995.

“This fall and winter we’ve been making connections to the TPP and generally using the Mesoamérica Resiste graphic as a way to bring up the TPP and tell people that this is the next massive free trade agreement on the table and is part of the same story our graphics are telling.”

Mandy also talked about some of the ways the Collective’s artistic approaches parallel its education strategy.

“A mural puts many stories on one surface or page and, as educators, we connect the dots. We are able to zoom into the little picture or on local stories and then show the big picture as well.”

A detail of the Mesoamérica Resiste graphic, depicting a community assembly. (Image courtesy of the Beehive Design Collective).

A detail of the Mesoamérica Resiste graphic, depicting a community assembly. (Image courtesy of the Beehive Design Collective)

Looking at the Beehive Collective’s graphics, one sees a collection of lived experiences illustrated without the actual inclusion of people. In an effort to blur the division between human society and natural ecology, the Collective’s illustrators only depict animals, plants, and insects endemic to the communities they are depicting. This helps achieve what Mandy describes as “a storybook or fable style of telling stories”.

“Kids really connect to it and get it right away,” Mandy says. “They’re used to reading storybooks that are full of animals, but sometimes grown ups just don’t get it right away.”

The way the Beehive Collective releases their work is also very intentional and in line with their goals. Each one of the Collective’s graphics, whether those in the globalisation trilogy or their large-scale piece on mountain-top removal, is released under Creative Commons and is free of any copyright restrictions. Mandy says this is integral to the Beehive Collective’s mission.

“Everything we do is very collaborative, and we credit everything to the collective, and I think that definitely models the world we want to live in. Also, in terms of the art world, we do that to take the focus away from any individual artist and to put the focus on the collective process,” Mandy says. “All of our projects are collaborations with frontline communities and organisations that are organising around the issues we’re depicting.”

These moments of cross-border, cross-cultural connection are how the Beehive Collective lives out its model of “cross-pollinating the grassroots”.

Carefully working to maintain a balance between its local and global work, perhaps the Beehive Design Collective’s greatest strength is its ability to use society’s most traditional forms of art and storytelling to create innovative networks of solidarity and resistance, redefining what community and activism has come to look like in our complex, globalised world.

For more information on the Beehive Design Collective, visit their website: beehivecollective.org

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