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Chicanx murals II

In my previous post, we explored the links between Chicanx murals and urban renewal. However, murals’ functions extend far beyond denouncing the freeways and Chavez Ravine.

Closer analysis of murals lends nuanced insight into Chicanos’ struggles and efforts to counter the racial narratives that have been imposed by the dominant group in society. Through murals as a form of artistic expression, Chicano artists have striven to reclaim their history while rejecting the negative stereotyping or discrimination imposed by Anglo-American racial scripts.

These traits are prominent in the following three Chicanx mural pieces that I will cover.

Leo Tanguma’s 1973 mural Rebirth of Our Nationality in Houston, Texas features a man and woman emerging from a red flower which sits on a pile of skulls. The man and woman appear to be reaching outwards, struggling to grasp the hands of anguished and shackled figures. Across the top of their heads floats a banner, unraveled to read “To become aware of our history is to become aware of our singularity.” All figures within the mural are Chicano, and the anguished figures represent the “multiplicity of Mexican peoples are the complexity of their history and struggles” in both Mexico and the U.S. The powerful combination of text and image communicate Tanguma’s message that it is crucial for Chicanos to “become aware” of or learn their true history rather than accept the widely circulated racial scripts constructed by Anglo Americans.

downloadThe composition’s dramatic thrust and violent expressionism of the characters pays homage to Mexican muralists Siqueiros and Orozco. Thus, even in the style of the mural’s execution, Tanguma references past muralists who heavily influenced Mexican artistic expression. The mural seems to throb with agency as the central Chicano man and woman strain their bodies in an attempt to connect with other members of their community, therefore forging the bond and singularity as a group that is mentioned in the banner above head. The term “rebirth” in the title of the mural delineates how Tanguma formulates a counter script that encourages Chicanos to discover their own history rather than accept norms established by a racist society, and utilize this knowledge to create a support network.

greatwalllist-thumb-600x327-61665A guest lecture by Kaeyln Rodriguez, a UCLA graduate student whose research focuses on artistic expression by black and brown people in the U.S., opened my eyes to a veritable mural masterpiece. The Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), in which Rodriguez is involved in also lends further insight into the backstory and mission of The Great Wall of L.A.  

The half mile mural is broken into sections- prehistoric, Spanish arrival, 1910, World War I, 1930, 1940, and 1950. Within pre-historic California, a white hand that emerges from the ocean disrupts the serene atmosphere of Native American homelands. Spanish arrival is marked in the mural’s imagery of Spaniards on a sailing ship, with emaciated and anguished captives on the lower deck. This symbolism counters the greater mainstream notion that white settlers’ takeover of Native American land was a peaceful and justified process, instead exposing the unharmonious disruption of white settlement. (Click on images for detail). 

The mural’s coverage of World War II features a man bleeding to death because a hospital refused to treat him for blood loss. “The iron hand, symbol of the dehumanization that racial discrimination brings, is shown cutting off the flow of blood, cutting off life.” As the mural extends onwards, Baca addresses themes of women’s role in World War I, racial segregation, unnecessary violence of police brutality, the plight of Mexican Americans during the Great Depression and deportations, dehumanizing police actions during zoot suit riots, and more. All of these narratives meld together to directly counter white racial narratives which have continually reconstructed such events to reflect justified and peaceful exchanges rather than unacceptable and discriminatory altercations.

50s_teamBeyond the physical images produced in the mural, the actual making of the piece itself highlighted a sense of unity amongst racialized groups. Over 400 youth and families from diverse socio-economic and racial backgrounds contributed to this mural. For instance, an American-Indian boy painted pre-historic California, Black-American artist Ulysses Jenkins designed a black perspective of 1948 Bandaide, and Gary Takamoto designed the Chinese segment featuring railroad construction. Overall, The Great Wall of L.A. is both visually and symbolically a manifestation of interracial harmony and a history that represented women and minorities who were otherwise invisible in popular educational resources like textbooks.

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Sojourners

Chicanx artists like Leo Tanguma and Judy Baca not only achieve aesthetically pleasing murals, but manage to emit visual images of narratives that challenge the twisted and reconstructed racial narrative that the dominant group- Anglo-Americans- established through from of popular education and mass circulation. Leo Tanguma urges Chican@s to become aware of the truths of their history and treatment in the U.S., and harness this knowledge to unity the community. Judy Baca casts minorities as leading roles throughout the historical frames of The Great Wall of L.A. to challenge racial scripts which cast minorities as savage criminals and justified white people’s exploitation of such groups.

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Zoot Suit Riots

Although history is a crucial element of Chicanx muralism, this does not fetter artists from looking towards the future. Queer Aztlan, a concept introduced in an essay “Queer Aztlan: The Re-formation of Chicano Tribe” by Cherrie Moraga, is manifested in a mural commissioned by Galería de la Raza and designed by Manuel Paul. The 2015 San Francisco mural features a gay couple, a lesbian couple, and a trans man framed in chains and flowers done in classical cholo Chicano style. Across the trans man’s chest rests a banner that reads “Por Vida” meaning “for life.” In this mural we see the depiction of a desire for a queer Aztlan: a Chicanx homeland that could embrace all people, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.

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However, the mural has been defaced twice by people who disagree with this notion of a more inclusive Chicanx ideology. Chicanx murals have historically and consistently overcome obstacles such as urban renewal imposed by Anglo Americans, and it is now time for the murals to fight homophobia and other forms of discrimination within the community. Murals must now strive for acceptance and providing visual depictions of an all-encompassing and welcoming Aztlan.

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Header Image: 1848 Bandaide

Sources:

Goldman, Shifra. “Mexican Muralism: Its Social-Educative Roles in Latin America and the

United States.” The Chicano Studies Reader: An Anthology of Aztlán, 1970-2000. By Chon A. Noriega. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Publications, 2001. N. pag. Print.

Rodriguez, Kaelyn. “Case Study of Mexican Muralism.” Chicanx Studies, 7 November 2016,

Broad Art Center, University of California Los Angeles, CA. Lecture.

“The Great Wall – History and Description.” SPARCinLA. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2016.

Poteau Patriotique

Get out of the house and have an experience! -she said. It’ll be fun! -she said.

The “she” is my aunt and the “experience” was this public event in Fribourg, Switzerland that she had helped to organize with the APCd Foundation -a contemporary art gallery. I wasn’t sure I fully understood when she tried to explain to me what the event would be like.

“It’s the installation of a Poteau Patriotique (Patriotic Pole) on August 1st, Switzerland’s Independence Day. There are going to be a few speeches, and food.”

Still completely lost, I nodded my head and smiled, awaiting the next day with a mixture mild amusement and trepidation. What in the world is a Patriotic Pole? Who is giving the speeches? And more importantly, what type of food?

monney1My questions were all answered rather promptly when my mother, little sister, and I pulled into the parking lot across from where the event was to take place. We timidly parted the waters into the sea of unknown suits and flowing dresses with intricate designs. They all had clear plastic cups with glittery fizzing liquids; they all looked at us. Then I looked at us. My mom in a casual top with slacks and formal flats, my sister in a body hugging black dress with classy sandals, me in a t-shirt with jeans and flip flops. I catch sight of my aunt: thank god. She introduces us to her colleagues- Director of the gallery, handshake and smile. Exhibition manager, handshake and smile. Arts director, handshake and smile. Then she points out the creator of the Patriotic Pole, Alain Monney, also known in Switzerland for being a prominent comedian.

My sister and I casually float over to the appetizers. We take turns tasting the different macaron flavors. I try a tuna tomato bite sized tart. Then another, and another. By the time I’ve popped the fifth in my mouth, the crowd hushes. I stop chewing.  

A bald man holds a microphone while the crowd molds a crescent shape in front of him. After clearing his throat and uttering words of introduction, he takes out a scrap of paper from his coat pocket and uncrumples it- the paper is shaking. I watch his moist red face move for a few minutes. He announces he is nervous, as he is in the company of such prominent comedians and skilled speech-givers. I guess he was a comedian. I didn’t laugh.

He hands the microphone to a young woman with a prim pixie cut and small lace bows on her baby blue ballet flats. She is lively and intelligent; as she speaks she motions to the Patriotic Pole. Upon first sight, the Pole looks like a clumsy jigsaw puzzle of sporadically arranged pieces.

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But, as Prim Pixie explains, there is far more thought behind the piece than meets the eye. Monney chose the names of specific villages and cities in Switzerland and arranged them on the pole so that when read phonetically in order, the words on the pole sound like the first words of the Swiss National Anthem. Additionally, each label for the town points accurately towards its direction from the site of the pole.

Pixie hands the mic to Daniel Rausis, a well known Swiss comedian. He moves his hands and fingers in a way that tells you that he sat alone at the lunch tables in high school.

Then, things get weird.

img_2594All of a sudden, a priest emerges from the crowd, Rausis hands him a clear cup with water in it and a small twig of rosemary. The priest approaches the pole, dips the rosemary in the water, and twitches the twig towards the pole, sprinkling it with water.

Did a priest just bless that Patriotic Pole? I have to make a blog post about this.

When the priest retreats, Monney takes the spotlight and leads the crowd in singing the Swiss National Anthem around the pole. My sister and I blunder with the lyrics, mostly moving our mouths to blend in.

At last, the ceremony ends. I had endured a peculiar journey from banana flavored macaroons to nervous comedians to a priest blessing a pole to pretending I could sing the Swiss National Anthem.

If you read my previous post, you know I have had issues in the past with accepting contemporary art.

We are in for Round 2: Coming to terms with the fact that a street pole is art.

I cannot unlearn what Pixie explained. When I drive by next summer and catch sight of the jigsaw puzzle, I will flash back to the macaroons, the bald red man, the blessed rosemary, and mouthing words to the Swiss Anthem. I now associate the pole with my oddly entertaining experience. I also understand the logic behind Monney’s choice of towns and their position on the pole, as well as his choice to mount the pole on August 1st.

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However, had I not been present at this event, this pole would have meant nothing to me. No memories, no association, nothing.

How then, can others who did not attend the event or create memories with the piece, consider the pole a work or art? Perhaps, Swiss people can feel a sense of general bonding, familiarity, belonging to their country, as the pole features towns from all the cantons.

But what about for total strangers? They have no bonds to the pole itself, and no bonds to the country it wishes to praise.

Because this pole caters to only a small audience who can truly connect to it, is it even art at all? Is all art universal? In this case, the pole is a piece that is not universal. Is it still art?

As usual, I end my post with more questions than I began with. I would love to hear your opinion in the comments.

Grande Discussion

Recently I visited the Kunsthaus Zürich Museum to view its newest joint exhibition with the MoMA of New York on Francis Picabia. There, I encountered his amusing quote, “Our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction.” I found these words witty and perfectly relatable to spark the following discussion.

I can gush for hours about art’s powerful transcendence of the reality buried within our innermost souls, pouring over with a refreshing effervescence which prods all subjects to enter into deep contemplation about fate, destiny, and sexuality (whatever that means).

Now that’s all fine and dandy- but what is art anyway?

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Francis Picabia, Spanish Night (1922)

To be completely honest, I’m not sure. I have tried and failed time again to capture a single definition. The best possible answer I have found so far, is to respond with Picabia’s ingenious words. Like his quote delineates, our thoughts –both personal and universal- on what art truly entails change constantly. Heck, I change my definition daily!

But it’s not totally our faults either, right? Correct. Artists seem to be constantly rebelling against the boundaries and definitions of art. Meanwhile, us plebeians are desperately trying to grapple for some scraps of understanding. It’s like riding a rollercoaster with no seatbelt-what is this madness?

We try to capture art’s essence in a box, because that puts us at ease; unfortunately, we can’t Pokémon Go our way through this one. Humans are comfortable when things we cannot fully understand are able to be contained, where we can control them (Side thought: consider why racial or gender based stereotypes exist. Hmmmm). Constantly evolving and morphing with our world, art is practically impossible to pin down. So how are we supposed to define art, if the definition is in constant revision?

To that, I still have no answer (yet), but I’m on it!

Contemporary art is often met with some degree of rejection, disgust, and confusion. Despite how new and uncontrollable this contemporary art movement seems to be, our reaction as a public is nothing new.

Did you know that impressionism was considered unfinished and messy? That’s right! Our treasured Monet Water Lilies were monstrous contemporary splotches of the 1920s. Critics found impressionists’ coverage of average, everyday scenes distasteful. If we wanted to see a garden, well, we could walk right outside and see it for ourselves, couldn’t we? And, sacre bleu, what is this blatant show of brushstrokes, this absurd color palette? Impressionist artists were rejected from exhibiting their works at the famous Salon de Paris. In retaliation, they exhibited at the Salon des Refuses/the Salon of Rejects and even adopted the derogatory term art critic Louis Leroy used to review Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise. He sarcastically wrote in the 1874 April edition of the Le Charivari, “I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it — and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape.”

Fauvism received a similar “welcome.” The art movement’s name also derives from an insult delivered by influential art critic Louis Vauxcelles. Upon viewing the vivid canvases displayed in the same room as a statue by the Renaissance sculptor Donatello at the 1905 Salon D’Automne, he remarked, “Donatello parmi les fauves/ Donatello among the wild beasts.” Later, the artists would proudly espouse the term to define their art movement which explored such “offensive” clashes of color. For goodness sakes Matisse, a woman’s hair is not blue and her skin is not green. Blasphemy!

Although now greatly admired, realism, post-impressionism, cubism, and minimalism all underwent similar receptions at the time. In the words of the almighty Drake, the artists “Started from the bottom now we here.”

With this in mind, I just can’t help feeling that we are in for another cycle of condemning today’s art to the dark abyss of frustration.

Here is a vague solution to finding a definition for art: rather than fight to confine what cannot be controlled, begin with a base definition that you feel fairly entails art. As you encounter pieces not included in your definition- perhaps like this one- gradually reform your definition to become more expansive.

Simple as pie. Well, not really. But pie certainly does sound good right now.

I’ve ended up right where I started, and in the process I’ve asked more questions than I answered. But after all, it is this constant challenge of  searching for an answer that keeps me lively!

I’m curious to know, and encourage you to comment: What is your definition of art, so far?

Header image: Francis Picabia, La Source (1912)