One sleepy Saturday in February of 2008, I departed my tiny student flat, nestled into a windy hill above Telegraph Avenue, to begin my shift at the Berkeley Art Museum’s bookshop. Not anticipating any permutation of this routine haze of the mind’s eye (which makes the fog across the Bay seem ever more vincinal), I trotted distractedly into the main building.
Let me rephrase that. I emerged in a temple of transformations.
Down the wide corridor, a newly installed exhibition’s paintings and prints blasted a palimpsest of pop and mythological imagery as I passed, some fat with subdued black and sepia tones, but detailed in petrol-bomb oranges and iron-oxide reds that rendered them hot and hallucinatory. As the subjects focused on my retina, it was like seeing familiar faces in the wrong place, like a taxi driver on the beach, lifted from their original context, stymied, and then re-familiarized. Bulging out of their large canvases, comic-book superheroes collided with Aztec deities, “restless natives” feasted on Mickey Mouse (smartly plattered in the vein of nouvelle cuisine) (The Governor’s Nightmare, 1994), and re-imagined Amerindian landscapes transformed into theatres of war where cultural icons dueled for aesthetic domination. Cannibals digested and regurgitated the colonizer’s exoticizing plumages, spitting back both futuristic and pre-Columbian forms with an almost improvisational buoyancy, though never settling for the thin assurance of re-appropriation simply attained. I was only twenty, then—the first person in my family to go to university, the first to hold down a job that necessitated being surrounded by art. In this cool, concrete vacuum of a museum, for the first time I stopped and thought that I could put my hand into a canvas and pull out . . . something, something important that took on a bittersweet new relevance.
Art bound to politics has come to feel more urgent in recent months, but Enrique Chagoya has always saluted political satire with a secret engine of postcolonial cunning. Borderlandia (2008), at the Berkeley Art Museum, was the first major retrospective of Chagoya’s work. Born in Mexico, for the last thirty years Chagoya has resided in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he is a full professor at Stanford University’s Department of Art and Art History. One of his defining strengths is the capacity to turn the symbols that usually disempower the conquered, or the commodified, to their own advantage. But any semblance of a detractor’s sour brand of fuck-you
retaliation is swapped for the mischievous wink of someone who has re-written the story of conquest while purposely revealing his own appropriation of the means to do so. Chagoya writes:
For a while, I wondered how the world would have been if instead the Native Americans had conquered (or “discovered”) Europe, and arrived to the “old world” equipped with superior technology. My guess is that it would not have been very different, or less brutal, and the genocide and culturicide would have been simply different, but not better or worse. (Instead of building churches on top of pyramids, like the Spaniards did in Mexico, it would have been pyramids on top of destroyed cathedrals, using the stones from the cathedrals to build the pyramids).
In 1992, Chagoya created his first codex to commemorate the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus’ supposed discovery of the new world. His now extensive oeuvre of codices handles European oppression and genocide, and US cultural and economic imperialism, with an almost impossibly deft touch. The screen print, Lo que la apropiacion me ha dado (“What appropriation has given me”), an example from the portfolio
Beyond 1992, riffs Frida Kahlo’s painting, What the Water Gave Me (1938). Images of Kahlo and Diego Rivera are reduced to popular American snacks: Fritos have become Fritas, and Doritos, Dieguitos. Hands of the elite and neocapitalist forces (Mickey Mouse’s iconic gloved paw) pluck them from above. As a bowl of salsa drips like blood onto an in-painting frame spattered with more carnal red, what remains on the table are the ravaged spoils of plunder. But the comedy, despite its darkening shades of black, is still there. Plutocrats are humorless. Here, visual satire is a superior way to tell the truth—it means freedom for everyone willing to look on.
Times of political upheaval pitch artists back on reconsidering their purpose and on deciding whether to address social issues, or to retreat from them. Last January, Chagoya chaired an artist reception for an exhibition at the Chanda Cerrito Contemporary in Oakland, California. The mission of Turbulence was to highlight “past and present times filled with turmoil, uncertainty, and unrest,” though the works—featuring images of war and police brutality—were selected before last year’s American presidential election. While the near future promises surprising adaptations to the new world disorder, for Chagoya, the empathy, rage, action, and reflection conveyed by the artists behind Turbulence reaffirm that a larger coming together is possible: “I think that during difficult times, we may find many people among us who express the best of human qualities to support each other . . . That is what I will be looking forward to.”
Some of your recent works, including Untitled (After Yves St. Laurent), were featured in the 2017 UNTITLED Art Fair at San Francisco’s Anglim Gilbert Gallery. Previously, you described your method as “reverse anthropology,” where aspects of Western culture are lifted from their original context and reused in ways that are magnified and absurd. How is your commentary on haute couture fashion an expansion of that method, and perhaps even artistic or aesthetic payback?
My concept of reverse anthropology is based on the fact that the science of anthropology was born out of colonialism. It has been said that Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, the first anthropologist, collected cultural information about the Aztecs right after the conquest of Mexico. He published his findings in twelve volumes, or codices, in the second half of the 1500s, under the title Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España (General History of the Things in New Spain). For a while, I wondered how the world would have been if instead the Native Americans had conquered (or “discovered”) Europe, and arrived to the “old world” equipped with superior technology. My guess is that it would not have been very different, or less brutal, and the genocide and culturicide would have been simply different, but not better or worse. (Instead of building churches on top of pyramids, like the Spaniards did in Mexico, it would have been pyramids on top of destroyed cathedrals, using the stones from the cathedrals to build the pyramids). Anthropology was evolved later in England, as an academic field in order to better understand the colonies of the British Empire.
I made my first codex in 1992, in response to the quincentenary of the arrival of Columbus to the Americas in 1492, and I keep doing codices (painted and as lithographic books). This spring, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is exhibiting one of my more recent codices, Dystopian Cannibals, in a group exhibition. This codex portrays a long wall with stereotypes of people from all backgrounds on both sides of the wall, with their eyes covered by the wall or the ground, all of them unable to see each other.
In a subfield of this concept of “reverse anthropology,” I developed the idea of “reverse modernism,” using the opposite strategy that was practiced by the Western modernist artists who appropriated art from former colonies to develop their modernist styles during the first half of the twentieth century. Artists like Picasso, who appropriated African masks and sculpture (which he loved very much) to develop his cubist style in paintings, like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s being inspired by Mayan architecture to develop some of his residences in Los Angeles, or Henry Moore, who did many of his seated nude sculptures after Aztec sculptures, and the surrealists who admired the “primitive artists” because they thought they were like the childhood of humanity in terms of creative freedom. I wondered what it would be like if an artist from a former colony appropriated Western art with the same admiration? I began to do works from that perspective around the time I lived in Paris in 1999.
You have stated that drawing and printmaking are your favorite media. Over the years, have you observed a change in engagement with these art forms from your students? Do they also see them as powerful tools to express political or social dissent?
I am not sure that printmaking or drawing are as popular with students who want to make a political statement. Printmaking and drawing techniques were very popular with artists who wanted to make socially engaged art throughout the last century, but in present contexts that is an exception, not the rule. I think this is due to the digital revolution. Today we may see video and social art practices as the top media used for political statements. These new ways of working seem to be moving away from the preciousness of traditional media, like drawing and printmaking. Perhaps many artists are acting against the tremendous influence of the art market as an indirect form of censorship (art with political content is rarely seen in mainstream galleries or art fairs), and they stay away from making objects, let alone prints or drawings. One could reach more of an audience by posting a video online, or making art projects directly engaged with people outside the art world bubble. Printmaking and drawing can still be used to spark dialogue, although it is more difficult not to fall into exclusive circles (I am speaking of my own experience), but often showing the work in public nonprofit spaces makes great waves of political discussion, like exhibiting in college museums, or community galleries.
Personally, I feel lucky to still get away with my prints and drawings making an impact. For example, one of my codices, The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals, which critiques the Catholic Church on issues such as pedophilia, homophobia, and patriarchy, was vandalized in Colorado in 2010 by a religious fanatic. That incident sparked a lasting friendship with a pastor who understood my codex, resulting in my making a painting for his church. (Even though I am not religious, I was happy to do it.) It was a beautiful experience for me, as I hope it was for the pastor and his congregation, which was created by the unexpected exchange.
In December, when I contacted you about this interview, I was enjoying my annual visit to San Francisco, which you have called home for over three decades. Walking both the city’s boulevards and skinny alleyways, it was impossible for me to escape posters that heralded LUZIA, a new show from Cirque de Soleil that “transports you to an imaginary Mexico” and invites audiences to “experience a wondrous world that inspires you to explore your senses.” While the show’s creators promise an ode to Mexico, it loudly smacks of cultural appropriation. As a Mexican-born artist, and a long-time resident of San Francisco, how do you negotiate these popular forms of appropriation that so strongly hit home?
Unfortunately, I did not see that show. I personally like Cirque de Soleil because they don’t use animals in their performances. I am not sure I can comment on LUZIA, since I did not see it. However, most appropriations are done by people who admire whatever is being appropriated, and as a creative strategy, appropriation is very much a contemporary art practice. (I use it all the time.) My critique is more in terms of appropriations coming from a position of power, like the modernist artists appropriating cultural elements from former colonies. Contrastingly, I appropriate many Western artists from the perspective of a “primitive artist” or “noble savage,” and I guess this becomes a kind of visual critique of this imbalance of power, and the many cultural stereotypes that may emerge from it (Western and non-Western).
What are you currently working on? One of your favorite political targets in the early 2000s was George W. Bush, as we see in the Poor George series of satirical drawings, where you directly transpose Bush into the role of Richard Nixon, borrowing from Philip Guston’s 1971 drawing series, Poor Richard. Are you compelled to revisit this type of satire, using the presidency of Donald J. Trump as inspiration?
I am still waiting to see where this new administration lands. It changes every week, with new scandals, and whatever artwork may be done would be dated in a few days. In spite of this situation, I have ventured some satirical work, still in progress, responding to the misogyny and xenophobia of the President and many of his supporters. There have been many great cartoons of Mr. Trump but, for now, the best caricature of Mr. Trump is Trump himself, with his pre-emptive attacks on the media before the next leak happens, perhaps in fear of disclosure of more information about the contacts between his campaign and the Russians, or more conflicts of interest (as if he didn’t have plenty already) that could trigger an impeachment.
Instead, I am focusing on the ongoing xenophobia and every other kind of bigotry coming out of his chaotic government. In this case, the subjects in my new artwork will be the people whose lives will be completely affected by his policies, like the deportation and criminalizing of non-criminal undocumented immigrants (and, in some cases, documented immigrants), the Islamophobia at a national and international level, the anti-Semitism, the ending of the Affordable Care Act (which affects mostly working-class people, and ironically defended now by many who voted for Trump), the closing of Planned Parenthood, discrimination of the LGBT community, the threat to the planet’s environment and the global economy, et cetera. There is an incredible amount of issues one can choose from. It is actually rather scary.
Which emerging artists are you most looking forward to watching develop in the years ahead?
Recently, I was the moderator of a panel with four artists who presented art (works on paper and sculpture) at the Chandra Cerrito Gallery in Oakland, California. The title of the exhibition was Turbulence, and the participating artists were Modesto Covarrubias, Alison O. K. Frost, Paul Taylor, and Stephen Whisler. I was not familiar with their work, and I was very impressed, not only by the strength of their work, but by the conviction behind their ideas. It was an inspiring experience for all of us, and I believe for the audience as well, as the people who attended participated in the conversation enthusiastically.
It was great to know and to feel that one is not alone facing the current challenges in the current social context, and to realize that we are the majority. Some of these artists were active in making art for public display and participating in many ongoing demonstrations. We also concluded that we need to reach out to people outside of our own comfort bubble, and create a dialogue through our own work, hopefully organizing towards a more peaceful, just, and sustainable world.
I think that, during difficult times, we may find many people among us who express the best of human qualities to support each other. That inspires one to search for what is best within ourselves so that we can serve a common need and cause. That is what I will be looking forward to.