with Tongues: Muralist RIGO 02 Speaks
you have spent any time in San Franciscos South of Market
District, you have probably seen Rigo 02s artwork. The San
Francisco-based muralist has done several enormous murals there
in his characteristic style of simple bold graphics combined with
one or two words, including One Tree next to a freeway on
ramp, Innercity Home on a large public housing structure,
Sky/Ground on a tall abandoned building, and Extinct
over a Shell gas station. Competing with all the surrounding commercial
billboards which tell you what to think and what to buy, Rigos
work instead invites the viewers to stop, reflect and figure out
their own messages and meanings to the simple signs. This is what
public art is all about.
Ricardo Gouveia goes by the name Rigo 02, having formed the name
"Rigo" in high school to hide his identity in an underground
zine that he was involved with and changing the number behind the
name annually to reflect the current year. He came to California
from Madeira, a small Portuguese island off the west coast of Africa,
to study art in 1985. Influenced by American pop culture and the
political climate of change in his own country during the 1970s,
the 35-year old artist got his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute
in 1991 and his MFA from Stanford in 1997. Over the past 16 years,
his work has included over a dozen one-person shows and participation
in many group shows in San Francisco and in far away places such
as Mexico, Taiwan, Chile and Europe. His involvement in the Bay
Area mural scene has been passionate and important. In 1993, along
with Aaron Noble, Rigo founded the Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP)
in the Mission District dedicated to free form murals using a varied
array of mediums such as spray can, graffiti and stenciling. He
has painted murals in Balmy Alley in the Mission District and several
years ago finished a giant ceramic tile mural for the new international
terminal in SFO entitled Thinking of Balmy Alley. He won
SFMOMAs Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art
(SECA) award in 1998 and produced both indoor and outdoor murals
for that project.
If his style of using everyday symbols and straightforward graphics
tends to be simple and direct, the possible messages and issues
of his work are anything but that. To paraphrase Rigo, his art aims
at mentioning the invisible; to make light of things that are all
around us, but often go unseen. It is this questioning of our realities
and offering opportunities for social dialogue and examination that
makes his murals so powerful. Among some of his most significant
work, he cited several projects with American political prisoners
Geronimo Ji Jaga (Pratt), an ex-Black Panther exonerated after serving
27 years in prison and Leonard Peltier, a Native American artist
and activist who many consider unjustly imprisoned since 1977.
Interviewed at the end of November 2001 in his Outer Mission studio,
Rigo 02 had just participated in two New York City shows including
Marked-Bay Area Drawings in September at Hunter College in
which several of his Lost Bird flyers appeared and at Widely
Unknownat Deitch Projects in November. Soon after, he was heading
to Taiwan to show his work there in a container arts festival which
has since taken place. The interview begins with a discussion of
his recent work, followed by his background, murals in San Francisco,
politics and the future.
You just came back from New York
where you participated in the show Widely Unknown. Can you
talk a little bit about that?
The show was an exhibit curated by Eungie Joo and it was
mostly Bay Area painters. The show was sort of centered around the
work of Margaret Kilgallen and her recent death [Kilgallen, a San
Francisco-based artist noted for her murals and paintings died in
June 2001]. It was a bunch of her peers from here and some of the
people that she had met in other cities where she had worked. Barry
McGee was in the show as well, Chris Johansen, and several others.
We were sort of living in the gallery 24-7, setting up and staying
there with the other people involved. It was a special time and
it was also representing what they saw as somewhat of a West Coast
movement. I had one drawing specifically for the show of a moonscape
and it had a rhino which is pretty much a replica of a Durer drawing
from the early 1500s. It was sort of addressing some millennial
or end of the century ideas.
Why the rhino?
Well, theres a story of a rhino and the first sea voyages
of the Europeans to Africa, to Northern Africa, which was done by
the Portuguese and the Spaniards. Im from Portugal and theres
this story that they [the Portuguese] were there in this boat and
they had never been that far south nor had had contact with people
from there before supposedly, and they see this animal that they
have never seen before. The rhino represented this monster that
was not really part of their world view, so they decided to capture
one and bring it back to Lisbon to show people. They manage to bring
it back alive and the story goes that Durer comes down from Central
Europe to render the rhino because he was the best scanning device
at that time, the best renderer. But then, judging from his drawings,
you start to dispute whether he did in fact see the rhino and its
a pretty fantastic drawing. Chances are that maybe he did not see
it. Also, the Portuguese would carry these stone markers, pillars,
with the insignia of the kingdom and they would prop them up in
these new far off places. So, I was making a parallel with an American
flag on the moon. It was this other worldly creature showing up
in this other place where people like American astronauts have been.
The underlying thing is to what extent does the dehumanization of
the unknown, of the other, go on. Its called Lunatics and
What about the Arts Festival in Taiwan in December that you are
The project that Im doing there is called TheTricycle Museum
and it will be part of this container arts festival. Basically,
these shipping containers will be transformed into the initial modules
that could be like nomadic, modular shanties where the container
will double as the exhibition venue. This museum will document these
tricycles that are manufactured usually in small numbers or that
are actually unique: the person that uses them makes them. I think
they are depositories of creativity, ingenuity and resourcefulness.
I think they are very aesthetically pleasing, telling and very humane
in a way that I find more appealing than high end technological
machines, like the Mercedes and the Porshes which seem to play a
big part in this male fantasy of what success might be. And then
theres the fact here in the United States and the West Coast
in particular of the whole low rider culture which I also find very
interesting with cars that have been highly fetishized and decorated.
I think that these tricycles possibly can receive the kind of investment
and fascination that the low riders have. Its propping the
tricycles up with star status as vehicles and as objects.
And are you going to have tricycles from different countries that
are going to have different uses?
There is documentation, photographs and drawings, of tricycles for
a few different places. First I have documented some myself, but
now Im already getting people who tell me they also have photographs
and such, so well add those as documentation. The Tricycle
Museum there is the seed of what could be a larger project which
might not happen. I think it will have sort of a utopian, sort of
fantasy side to it. The way I see it, after Taiwan, it will go to
Cuba next and then in Cuba, it will be joined by another container
and then from there, it will go to India and it will be this space
station with different modules which are all sort of economic low
end. So whether that dream will have a further life at all or not
is beyond me at this point. But Im very interested in a decentralized,
nonhierarchical world view, so this idea of different peripheries
communicating and exchanging ideas without having to go through
a center is exciting. Ive documented the tricycles in Cuba,
which like Taiwan, is an island. Taiwan is the border now geopolitically
between the United States and China. And Cuba in a way was the border
between the United States and the Soviet Union. I find them two
interesting island countries. I would like to have communication
happen through this very unsuspecting item of the tricycles. My
role as an artist amidst all that I guess is not clear. I feel like
Ive become an outsider to most places you know, even to where
Im from which is Portugal. I came here when I was 19. Im
obviously very much integrated in life here, but Im also not
fully from here, so theres potential for complicated things
with tourists and voyeurism and colonialism, but Im just embracing
all this and trusting my instinct and then how ever those things
manifest, hopefully theyll be interesting.
and Other Imperialists (2001)
Museum, Kaoushung, Taiwan (2001)
Inside the Tricycle Museum
stated in another interview that you feel like you are not really
in place A or place B, but that you really reside in the gap between
two places, like an outsider in your life here in the U.S to some
extent and also when you go back to Portugal. How do you feel that
affects your art and does that give you a chance to see things from
It makes me appreciate stuff more. Im growing more contemplative.
The chance of changing location really allows for the regular daily
life of the city to be spectacular. So its nice to see an
hour and a half of condensed intense fiction about a place, but
the experience of moving through that place can be just as exciting.
If you dont know it, you cant pretend that you do. And
in a place like Taiwan, its very hard to pretend Im
No one is going to mistake you for being Taiwanese.
Right. Nor can I read the text, but I try to go with it. Now the
tricycle is a good metaphor for that. Its not the two-wheeled
kind of form, but its this hybrid. So in a way, it is a tribute
to madness which is quite distanced from aspirations of a pure anything,
the pure race or pure culture or pure nationality. Its part
bicycle, part color, part motorcycle. But I find that very inspiring,
and the fact that they are most of the time really a labor of love.
You were also involved with the Depois
dos Cravos [meaning After the Carnations, an arts festival
featuring new work from Portugal ] exhibit at the Yerba Buena Center
My involvement with that was more facilitating the contact and the
communication between people here and the artists in Portugal. It
was quite interesting because a lot of artists in the show I did
not know because they are already part of a younger generation and
again it was one of those loose moments where I got introduced to
practically a generation of artists from Portugal in San Francisco.
So it was really like a gift that I would meet them here. It was
quite interesting some of the conversations that ensued. They were
asked if they felt any sort of binding cultural identity among them.
The tendency was not to. There was someone who said he thought the
work that I had done here was sort of more Portuguese than the work
they were doing over there. Again it was this influence of specific
experiences that we shared growing up.
You grew up in Madeira and you came
to California when you were 19 to visit relatives and then you started
studying art here in San Francisco. I read some articles where you
said back in Madeira, comics and American pop culture had an early
influence on you. Can you talk a little bit about that? Were there
specific comics that you were reading or specific elements of pop
culture that were affecting you, like TV or movies?
A lot of TV. TV was in its first steps then. My parents rented a
TV to decide whether they wanted to buy one or not. They rented
it for the weekend to try it out. There was only one station and
it closed at like 11 p.m. or midnight. I remember that we turned
it on and the first thing that came on was Bonanza. It was
about 1973 or something, in my grandmas bedroom.
The comics I think was more the form, the possibility to tell a
story. I started drawing comics as a kid. I got exposed mostly to
mainstream stuff like superhero comics and Disney and then some
Latin Americans like Mafalda and then more underground, more urban
expressionist sort of French and Italian comics. And then Crumb
and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers of San Francisco, Last Gasp
and all that. So when I came here I was quite excited about all
that history. I started making comics in high school and did some
zines with other students and some poster art and comics and mixing
of text and image. It was something that I was turned on to early
on. The last couple years of high school, I was hanging out with
this other guy who was a historian and poet, Antonio Aragao, and
a lot of what he wrote about was how the eye did not discern image
from text, how the eye perceives them the same and the eye did not
need more text to make it more literature nor more images to make
it more art. The eye wants whats open and so in my work, text
started drifting off into speech bubbles and they would start having
volume and leaning against the word and things like that. So I was
very self-conscious from early on because of this guy. It wasnt
like there was a big pool of kids to work with there. It was sort
of a lonely endeavor. So thats pretty much how that experience
And did you do murals before you
came here or is that something that you got into here in San Francisco?
What was your first mural and how did that affect you?
Murals started after I came here. When I went from Madeira Island
to Lisbon, there were a lot of political murals in Lisbon. I went
there in 1984 and 10 years before, there had been this big social
change there [the end of several decades of dictatorship and isolation].
There were still a lot of political murals around that were very
exciting. They were big paintings out on the streets. How could
that not be exciting? And then I came to San Francisco and then
I was really exposed to a whole other thing I had never seen. Some
were art murals that werent about a particular political message
necessarily. It was just art up there and that was super exciting
to me. I was here in 1985 and I met some people at ATA, Artists
Television Access, which at the time was on 8th and Howard. They
asked if Id like to do a show here. A show in America? And
I was 19! I thought it would be great, but I didnt have enough
money to buy the canvases for the show. Marshall Webber, who was
one of the founders of ATA, worked at a club called Club 9 which
is now the Stud on 9th and Harrison, doing art events. I guess that
was in the mid-80s, so that was back at a time when there was a
lot of interface between the art world and night life, so he set
it up where I would paint a mural for the nightclub, get paid for
it and use that money to buy the supplies. The imagery was just
very much derived from comic books and stuff. The building had nine
windows and I had to use the windows in the design. It was done
in time for New Years, 1985. I wasnt old enough to be inside
the club, so I was waiting on the outside. That was a great, lucky
And were you hooked on murals after that?
Pretty much. It was a really nice experience. Some guy stopped and
asked if I needed help, which I did, but I couldnt pay anybody.
But, this guy came back the next day with his own brushes and he
helped me paint for a few days and were still friends sixteen
years later. The whole thing was pretty nice. So that was the first
mural experience out on the street.
What artists have impacted your life and your art?
Many really and at different times. The music that I listened to
and because of the period that I grew up in Portuguese history,
I was always driven to cultural output that had a side of protest
and engagement. Social engagement in terms of furthering or insinuating,
I dont know if its a juster society, but a society maybe
less goal-oriented. I was always sort of attracted to that.
As I kid, I liked Goyas drawings a lot and his artwork. And
all the pop artists who used sort of low end cultural output and
daily imagery for something that was worthy of aesthetic wonderment
and all that. Diego Rivera and a lot of Brazilian artists, Candido
Portinari. My brother studied art and hes older so he would
have these books and hed make me guess who did what painting
in his books. So, I had this baseball card exposure to European
art as a teenager. And then coming here and studying at the Art
Institute, I was much more interested in transgressive art or art
that makes the daily life tamper with this special temple of artmaking
and performance art, like Chris Burden and others. There are many,
many artists that I really like and admire but a lot of my daily
experiences here has been more with peers, like Scott Williams,
Barry McGee, Nao Bustamante, Manuel Ocampo, Sue Coe, Julie Doucet.
I also particularly like art from people who are not necessarily
participating in the high end art world, like Creativity Explored.
And also some of the older muralists here in town who relate the
Chicano experience, like Ray Patlan, Juana Alicia, Chuy Campusano.
Its always been sort of a busy constellation of people rather
than this or that model.
The model that appealed the least to me was the Jeff Koons kind
of model in which people entered the artmaking process from a, at
the beginning he worked in the stock exchange, very sort of cerebral
and cynical, top down heavy way. My parents are both very sensitive
to art and appreciate the little things. But we never really went
to museums or galleries growing up. There were few; its a
very small town. But I think it would sound to me like a failure
if I was so engaged in an area of art making that I knew my parents
would, were I not their kid, not go check it out, or see it or connect
with it. That is what I strive for with my work, to have, making
a comparison with a building, many many doors, many ways in and
not requiring a whole set of pre-learned codes. And Ive actually
done a little collaboration with my mom [namely embroidery] and
my father always encouraged us to draw. So thats one of the
reasons why public art and mural painting started appealing to me.
It was the fact that people would encounter it in a situation that
was free and accessible.
Mural Scene in San Francisco
Murals have been described as "art
galleries of the street", "mirrors of the community"
and "walls with tongues" that are really speaking to people.
What is the value of murals as public art? What are some of the
special benefits and challenges of a mural outside in the public
arena as opposed to having a painting or mural inside a gallery?
Once all the conditions that are necessary for an artist to have
studio space and studio time are met, the studio is a very free
place, a remarkably free place. Painting something on somebody elses
building is rarely going to be that free. I think the vitality,
the diversity, richness, interest and worthiness of murals depends
from place to place and from period to period. What I think Ive
witnessed in my time here is somewhat of a fossilization of the
form. It seems that there is not much trust from people at large
and the artists. People dont realize murals are put through
a whole lot of bureaucracy and criteria to meet and so often times
youll see a mural and youre like "Why didnt
they do something a little more creative, a little more daring?"
And a lot of times its because they couldnt you know.
And so I know for a fact that we could have a much more diverse
visual landscape in the City if we lived in a different kind of
Do you think thats particular
to San Francisco or is that something that is happening in other
large cities with murals such as Los Angeles or New York?
I would think its similar in other cities. Maybe here its
smaller, so its more micromanaged . I think in places where
property is not as valuable and where the management of property
is not as efficient, that maybe its easier. You might have
a building, but its in a dispute by 12 inheritors and nothing
is going to happen for 15 years. Those kinds of situations dont
happen here as much as in other places. But, maybe theres
just a gut pleasure about seeing some communications other than
corporate advertising. I actually was just thinking about that today.
I was thinking that maybe the mode of communication that most people
are most accustomed to having to deal with and have developed the
most defenses against is advertising, like commercials, especially
people who watch a lot of TV, but also on the street. It creates
the mindset in the public that basically we are being lied to all
the time or if not lied to, teased, manipulated, driven to excitement
about something which we know in reality is not quite that exciting.
Like picking up a phone, or being stuck in traffic, drinking a cold
beer, whatever. I think that actually leaves quite a heavy residue
in the way people are. For instance now, where we have a political
system where a president and high ranking politicians clearly are
lying to people and misrepresenting things. Its hard to be
shocked or outraged at being lied to and having the world misrepresented
to you when thats the thing youre most accustomed to.
Its quite nefarious in fact, and dehumanizing. So on that
basis alone, its so nice to be going down the street and seeing
the word "heart" on a wall. Theres a guy in town
who writes "heart" in his work and its just so nice
to see because that person is not about to benefit financially from
what hes doing. Hes doing that because he is really
compelled to get his message out and its sort of an honest
voice amidst all this mercenary bombardment. So I think some of
my work has those kind of concerns in mind. Using an urban language
to point to natural features and natural phenomena.
Its kind of like a lot of your
South of Market stuff, like Extinct, Sky/Ground, Innercity Home
and One Tree. I know theres so much advertising down
there. What was your message behind those murals and how do they
compete with all the billboards and advertising around them?
They were meant as sort of pauses, respites from those other messages.
I also like to use humor. In a way, they are very simple, just statements
of the obvious. The messages are very loud and in your face, but
then they are not pushing anything that specific. So its like
asking for peoples attention and then letting them occupy
their attention with their own thoughts, their own triggers. You
can invite them to think with themselves, faced with a tree, sky,
ground, birds, or something simple. I think its just helping
make visible things that are obviously here but are not mentioned.
Its letting people think what
they want to instead of telling them what to think. People can take
what they want from it and go in their own direction.
Theres only so much creativity available to people. And so
many people put their creativity to use in advertising that you
know, its hard to tell the difference. Ads resemble art more
and more. Its so fast. Some advertising is using a language
that is so sophisticated that they are not even telling you what
to buy. Its as sophisticated as any art production, so I just
try to keep it simple and keep it within context. I think it disappears
if its contextless. Different objects mean different things
in different places. A bottle of water in San Francisco would not
be a big deal, but a bottle of water in the middle of the desert
would be a huge deal.
You were talking a little bit about
globalism earlier and I wanted to ask you what kind of effect does
the fact that we can communicate much more easily than we could
maybe 50 and 25 years ago have on people? We have this incredible
cross exchange of products, people and ideas, but at the same time,
that brings with it some difficulties and challenges. How does that
affect your work?
I think it has a profound effect. Like I was saying about murals
before, they are very context specific because they are attached
to a building. They are very different from a work of art in a museum.
Its a very different sort of experience. Its not better
or worse, but just different. I think that I have put myself through
being in different contexts to try and internalize some of this
experience that is intrinsically temporary, like being able to move
to different places. Its great. I am able to travel, but a
lot of people still live in a very different time. Ive tried
to internalize that as much as possible, by spending time in the
places, meeting the people from there and I think one of the effects
that it has had on the work is throwing me for a spin. It really
makes me doubt where my priorities should be. So Im proceeding
in a very confused manner. No shortages of impulses to make or interest
to make, but sometimes Im not so clear as to where to put
the effort. But I welcome that confusion in a way versus as if I
were just reading, watching TV or being part of an established international
system of communication where I wouldnt retain a sense of
control or an overview. People say once you leave one place, its
hard to stop leaving. What Im finding is that also there are
some basic things that are just very much the same way everywhere,
you know things that people treasure, things that are agreed to
be good or not good for everybody. The experience of eating McDonalds
in Taipei or eating McDonalds in France might be interesting for
the sake of being in the same place but in a different environment,
but I think ultimately its weakening, debilitating. Fields
that only have only one crop tend to be more easily subject to plagues
or infestation or floods. Now we have Guggenheims, like Guggenheim
Bilbao. They are franchising that high end culture. They show the
same handful of artists, but they are not necessarily the most relevant
ones. They are not bringing wealth to a vast world but weakening
the diversity of it.
1993 along with Aaron Noble, you were one of the founders of the
Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP) which was a reclamation project
focused on a small Mission District alley. This project filled a
once shunned alley with dozens of striking murals done by various
artists with different themes and styles. What was the significance
of this experience on your work?
The Clarion Alley Mural Project is a particularly important project
for me because of the total involvement in community life it represented
for me, and still does, as well as for many artists in the Mission
District. As a founder of CAMP, it was amazing to witness the transformation
of the alley and the neighbors. We transformed from the house with
the nerdy characters and wild parties, to the house with nerdy characters
with names, shit scoopers, hoses, flyers, information, permits,
paints, artists, poets and even bigger parties. Clarion Alley went
from a path most avoided to a path much traversed. We were proudly
straddling the space between Mission and Valencia Streets, between
the heroin and crack pharmacy servicing mostly war veterans, prostitutes
and junkies, and the state-of-the-art new police station servicing
mostly the neighborhoods youth and poor.
The diversity of the people served by this project was really a
trip. It was in the very real face of Clarion Alley that Aaron Noble
and I decided to warehouse the American superheroes of our youth.
America in the nineties was no place for escapist fantasies, at
least not on the street. You were bound to get physically caught
first by addiction and the police, than to successfully escape to
anywhere nicer. We didnt want to escape, but wanted to share
our fantasies. CAMP to this day remains a particularly real, shared
fantasy. Thank you Balmy for all that you taught us.
of Balmy Alley
you think that you will stay in San Francisco? Why do you continue
to stay here?
Part of it is has got to be that it is still a pleasant experience.
I think now I feel more the need to spend time in other places as
well. I think that the 15 or so years that I have been here, I havent
seen the diversity of the City really deepen. As the City has been
growing, it feels smaller somehow. Its an odd feeling. Its
growing in the way of more franchised business, and this professional
class. They are the ones who have the skills necessary to make it
in a more demanding urban setting. They have their priorities clear.
Just look at the difference between whats going on now [in
Afghanistan] and the Gulf War 10 years ago when tens of thousands
of people had nothing better to do than be out in the street getting
arrested and protesting. Its obvious now, myself included,
that people have less time dedicated to making sure they get to
express their ideas.
One of the first identities of the City that was presented to me
was this notion of a sanctuary town, people escaping political persecution,
sexual persecution. It was sort of like if you ran out of places
to go, you could still try San Francisco and maybe you wouldnt
be too much of a weirdo over there with everybody else. And that
was nice. I got to meet people from Guatemala that were literally
running for their lives. A lot of times it was this paradoxical
thing of running from or dying in the guerrilla wars in their countries
and coming here, here being a safe haven, but then some of the reasons
why there was war in their country was being fomented by foreign
policy here. So it really reinforced this thing of San Francisco
as being a special corner. That is one identity and also there is
the identity of the right place to be for the most cutting edge
technology, like the place to come to get rich quickly; sort of
a new gold rush. So thats a big shift and its already
started changing from that to something else. So I dont know,
answering your question I guess, partially its inertia, friendship,
ties, and some things going on here. But, at the same time, there
are also a lot of my peers who have left. San Francisco remains
a very transient city. Thats exciting in a way, but the historical
knowledge of the City is not very deep; a lot of people have only
superficial knowledge of the City.
You mentioned Diego Rivera a little
earlier on in the interview. I wanted to know what you thought of
his work and the legacy that Rivera, along with fellow Mexican muralists
David Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco, left to the U.S. about the
intertwining of public art and political commitment. In Riveras
1940 mural at City College entitled Pan American Unity for
example, there is a whole panel dedicated to the fight against fascism
in World War II. What do you think about Rivera and this idea of public
art and political commitment?
I think that this is very much why Rivera was so appealing to many
people. Also, his personal trajectory of going to Paris and living
with all the other artists during a very intense cultural period.
And feeling that he could do that. But for some reason, it seemed
like as he got into it, he ended up running back to Mexico and asking
"Who am I?" and "Where am I from?" I find that
very interesting that he came back to try to find out more about culture
on this side of the Atlantic. I find a lot of righteousness in that
position. Making a stance for beauty in the actual world. One can
argue that making art and beauty do not necessarily have things in
common, but I think there is an overlap there. I very much feel like
that. I think that its hard to raise absolute notions of beauty
while not being valued at all by the system. I am moved by people
that take the time to pursue beauty.
I think the notion of intellectual commitment, like ideas about how
society should be shaped, are more common outside the U.S. than in
the U.S. Probably even more so now. In Europe and Latin America, you
have poets and novelists running for presidents of nations. Elections
come up and people are like, "What do intellectuals think?"
Its something that does come to mind there and here not much.
Maybe its a generational thing. I think its very healthy.
Like the case of the three American athletes who put their fists up
when they won the gold medal at the Mexico City Olympics. Images like
that for me are very, very moving. I think that San Francisco has
some of that aura, you know that someone like Tom Ammiano is the president
of the Board of Supervisors. Hes someone who is clearly out
about his sexuality as a gay man and of all things, he was responsible
for the education of little kids and he is the president of the Board.
Its a cool thing. Its a nice, nice thing in San Francisco.
I remember seeing a debate about abortion in the Gay Pride Parade
and a group of very flamboyantly dressed gay men with a banner saying
"Gay Men Care About Womens Rights." This kind of selfless
involvement in others peoples causes seems something very sort
of characteristic here. Something that for me is an essential thing
about San Francisco that I really enjoy. I think that its less
visible, less mainstream.
up on the Diego Rivera political question, you have done a couple
of different projects about the former Black Panther Geronimo Ji Jaga
(Pratt) and Native American activist and artist Leonard Peltier. What
is your interest in American political prisoners and how did you get
involved in their cases?
I guess it stems from personal experience in Portugal again during
that period of sudden political change. And some of the heroes of
that change there became political prisoners not too many years later.
And me and some of my friends visited them. They didnt fail,
they were heroes, and then society changed and they again were too
off center or something. Experiencing the kind of personal freedoms
that I saw on the streets here, and when I heard about Geronimos
case, maybe I guess I was naïve, but it was truly shocking to
me that this could be going on in California. So while I was trying
to make art about something else, I would end up drawn back to that.
I first came in contact with his case through a little blurb in a
weekly paper, the [San Francisco Bay] Guardian maybe. Then
in 94, I did a mural in Oakland where part of the mural was
a portrait of Geronimo, for a project I did with children, innercity
youth who were basically getting paid to stay out of trouble for the
summer. It was my job to do something with them, so we painted on
the side of this thrift store and I did a portrait of Geronimo and
it said, "Geronimo Pratt, still innocent." We got in trouble
for it and I had to paint out the "still innocent" part.
Then years went by and Geronimos still in prison and I had a
chance to do a show in the Richmond Art Center in 96 giving
the history of Richmond and the heavy African American population
that was invited to come there to work on the liberty ships and then
were sort of abandoned after the war. It seemed like a good place
to do something on his case. So I did an installation there called
Time and Time Again which just focused on his situation. It
was mostly just sharing his story. It wasnt really an opinionated
presentation; the fact that the story was so powerful, it sort of
told itself. So I didnt even really call him a political prisoner
and things like that. I just presented the years that he had been
in prison and said his time will come again. We corresponded and by
this incredible twist of fate, Geronimo ended up being released in
1997. And at the time, I was installing a version of the same show
in the Watts Community Center. So he came out in early June, 1997,
and the show was opening on July 4th, so he actually came to the opening.
It was very, very amazing. The whole thing was very special. The opening
was the night of the Mike Tyson-Holyfield fight and Geronimo, being
such a prominent member of the African-American community, was just
being bathed with thanks and appreciation and had been given ringside
tickets for the fight. Somebody had told him that our opening was
happening, his sister lives in Watts or something, so we get a phone
call at three in the afternoon the day of the opening and the director
of the center said, "Hey, we got a phone call. These people asked
if we could find Geronimo a TV here and if we get him a TV, hell
come to the opening." So she told me that, "You tell them
well have the biggest motherfucking screen in the ghetto and
its gonna be free. Fools can stay home and pay thirty bucks
to see it on TV or be here for free and hang out with a bunch of Panthers."
And so it was. They had this gigantic video screen. It was quite nice.
One of the experiences I am most thankful for here is the contact
with native people of California. I had been aware of Leonards
case for a little while. I decided to do work drawing attention to
his case partially as following up on my homework from the project
with Geronimo. So in the show in Watts I already had a section dedicated
to Leonard. This next thing happened when there was a show at the
De Young on how different Bay Area artists work and the role of museums
in the future. Thats where I did the Tate Wiki Kuwa Museum
which was a museum dedicated to showcase Leonards artwork. I
did these letters for the Tate Wiki Kuwa Museum that are the
same size as the De Young Museums letters. They were on the
side of the building and thats such a powerful word "museum",
and using it for a different purpose. So I did that project with Leonard
mostly through his defense committee; the contact wasnt as direct
as Geronimo. Its very, very heavy and emotional. So for one
year, that was a lot of what I was doing. The project was in Berkeley
in 99, then the show at the De Young and from there the show
traveled to London. And from there I took it to Santiago, Chile where
I hooked up with the Mapuche group there, an indigenous rights group.
So thats been the extent of that work. It was spreading the
word a little bit to a few more people about who he is and what his
predicament is and also helping show his artwork, because hes
an artist who works out of prison. Which again to me is a very encouraging
and moving tribute to the healing power of art. I really think that
art is good for people. You know its like running, like sports
is good for everybody. You dont have to be Michael Jordan to
benefit from sports. Of course, some people are incredible to watch
what they do as long as you know everybody has their own level. But
its the fact that, confined to a small cell in those living
hell conditions, Leonard still finds some peace of mind to paint and
that his artwork is so celebratory and peaceful; its not accusatory
or even angry. Its been painful and not easy to embrace that
this clearly has made my life richer.
Do you think that youll go back
to Leonards case in the future?
I think so. I always feel like Im not doing enough. Its
such a difficult period because theres such bigger dramas unfolding,
so its a particularly difficult time for all. But yeah, I will
definitely continue to contribute to Leonards case. I just got
these letters back from a supporter of his. I think next year I will
probably organize a show of his art in Geneva. Im still building
We have been referring in our emails
to the events that have been happening in Afghanistan the past few
months and I wanted to know if you have any comments on that. Im
sure its affecting you and affecting your work on a daily basis.
I think that I am feeling this time more isolated than before. I have
a sense that there are a lot of like-minded people not knowing that
there are this many like-minded people around. I think a lot of people
are feeling, myself included, challenged by how to respond. Im
still thankful for the fact that there is still a dissenting voice,
but it clearly doesnt feel like enough. The more gut level or
basic thing that it has made me feel is that smaller is more manageable.
It just seems that its so hard to feel like one can have an
effect. I think education is very important, sharing information,
but I also feel like we need some creative ways to manifest a humanity
different from now. I think the part thats hardest to get at
is the notion of personal sacrifice. I think its really hard.
In a way, I think that people feel betrayed by the world. What comes
next is not obvious. There are some things that I thought about before
like, "Ok, Im going to make room for more of myself within
this and work within." But by benefiting as much as we do from
the same policies we disagree with, I think it will take some kind
of tangible, symbolic or otherwise gestures that we can call personal
sacrifices in order to speak out. I think its very important
for people who are here to communicate to people outside of here,
that we dont all feel the same way about this. You know I was
disappointed to see that the only thing that has happened yet is you
see people raising money for the victims of the World Trade Center.
It hasnt gone past that or behind that. Locally it has you know.
Michael Franti spearheaded the beautiful job of leadership in that
regard. That was a great concert in Precita Park soon after the U.S.
started bombing Afghanistan. It felt good to be here and it was a
real nice thing. In a couple of days, they organized it and 3,000
people showed up and it was a good thing. I think it will be interesting
to see what kind of art comes out of it.
pushpin on wall
oil by Leonard Peltier
What is your dream project? Is there
something that you havent had the chance to do, whether it be
not the time nor the place? Whats one area for the future?
I usually go from one thing to the other. I dont have per se
these long set goals. But one thing I would like to do would be to
help facilitate a show of Native American art in Portugal. Its
a hard question to answer because there are so many things
I know that the question is probably something more about my own work.
Actually this project, the tricycle thing, I guess one thing that
has not happened for me yet is to create an art project that becomes
something that is self-sustainable.
On a much more serious note, I would like to be able to facilitate
or be part of a process that involved the gathering of people together
to see Leonards artwork which could remain all together and
be seen by many people. Its not something that right now I can
say that I am right this month working towards it. Its an idea
You recently had a show in March 2002
at the Gallery Paule Anglim. Can you tell us about the work you presented
The show was from March 6-30th and included new works involving pushpins,
which I have used a lot before, and also commercial printing techniques.
Lunatics and Other Imperialists was there too. [Gallery Paule
Anglim is located at 14 Geary Street, San Francisco, (415) 433-2710.]
have been working on another mural TRUTH which is to be dedicated
in April 2002. What is the message behind this one?
TRUTH is both an ad and a request; a scream and a memorial;
an elusive reminder. In these, as in any other times of war, truth
is hard to come by. In Americas current war, the Pentagon broadcasts
untruths in order to get world opinion to come closer to the Americans
self-image. This, of course, can only be accomplished through long-term
indoctrination or condensed spurts of carefully constructed untruths
that lead to 5 plus 17 equals 4.
The mural TRUTH complies with Dr. Dres intimation that
"this should be played at high-volume, preferably in residential
areas." The mural announces the notion of truth as a product
at high-volume specifically in a political area.
[TRUTH will be dedicated on Monday, April
22nd at Civic Centers U.N. Plaza in a ceremony from 5-8 p.m.
The mural is dedicated to human rights activist
and "Angola Three" member Robert King Wilkerson. Wilkerson
was released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in February 2001
after serving 29 years in solitary confinement for a murder he did
Siobhan Fleming teaches ESL at the Academy
of Art College in San Francisco. In addition to beading and photography,
she also gives free public mural walks for the volunteer tour organization
City Guides (schedules at