Walls with Tongues: Muralist RIGO 02 Speaks

by Siobhan Fleming


If you have spent any time in San Francisco’s South of Market District, you have probably seen Rigo 02’s 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, Rigo’s 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 SFMOMA’s 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.

Recent Work
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, there’s 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. I’m from Portugal and there’s 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 it’s 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. It’s called Lunatics and Other Imperialists.

What about the Arts Festival in Taiwan in December that you are participating in?

The project that I’m 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 there’s 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. It’s 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 I’m already getting people who tell me they also have photographs and such, so we’ll 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 I’m 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. I’ve 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 I’ve become an outsider to most places you know, even to where I’m from which is Portugal. I came here when I was 19. I’m obviously very much integrated in life here, but I’m also not fully from here, so there’s potential for complicated things with tourists and voyeurism and colonialism, but I’m just embracing all this and trusting my instinct and then how ever those things manifest, hopefully they’ll be interesting.

Lunatics and Other Imperialists (2001)

Tricycle Museum, Kaoushung, Taiwan (2001)

Inside the Tricycle Museum

Tricycle Museum


You 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 a distance?
It makes me appreciate stuff more. I’m growing more contemplative. The chance of changing location really allows for the regular daily life of the city to be spectacular. So it’s 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 don’t know it, you can’t pretend that you do. And in a place like Taiwan, it’s very hard to pretend I’m from there.

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. It’s not the two-wheeled kind of form, but it’s 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. It’s 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 last summer/fall?
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.

Getting Started/Early Influences

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 grandma’s 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 what’s 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 wasn’t like there was a big pool of kids to work with there. It was sort of a lonely endeavor. So that’s pretty much how that experience went.

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 weren’t 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 I’d like to do a show here. A show in America? And I was 19! I thought it would be great, but I didn’t 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 wasn’t old enough to be inside the club, so I was waiting on the outside. That was a great, lucky situation.

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 couldn’t pay anybody. But, this guy came back the next day with his own brushes and he helped me paint for a few days and we’re 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 don’t know if it’s a juster society, but a society maybe less goal-oriented. I was always sort of attracted to that.

As I kid, I liked Goya’s 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 he’s older so he would have these books and he’d 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. It’s 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; it’s 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 I’ve actually done a little collaboration with my mom [namely embroidery] and my father always encouraged us to draw. So that’s 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.

The 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 else’s 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 I’ve 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 don’t realize murals are put through a whole lot of bureaucracy and criteria to meet and so often times you’ll see a mural and you’re like "Why didn’t they do something a little more creative, a little more daring?" And a lot of times it’s because they couldn’t 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 city.

Do you think that’s 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 it’s similar in other cities. Maybe here it’s smaller, so it’s more micromanaged . I think in places where property is not as valuable and where the management of property is not as efficient, that maybe it’s easier. You might have a building, but it’s in a dispute by 12 inheritors and nothing is going to happen for 15 years. Those kinds of situations don’t happen here as much as in other places. But, maybe there’s 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. It’s hard to be shocked or outraged at being lied to and having the world misrepresented to you when that’s the thing you’re most accustomed to. It’s quite nefarious in fact, and dehumanizing. So on that basis alone, it’s so nice to be going down the street and seeing the word "heart" on a wall. There’s a guy in town who writes "heart" in his work and it’s just so nice to see because that person is not about to benefit financially from what he’s doing. He’s doing that because he is really compelled to get his message out and it’s 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.

It’s kind of like a lot of your South of Market stuff, like Extinct, Sky/Ground, Innercity Home and One Tree. I know there’s 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 it’s like asking for people’s 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 it’s just helping make visible things that are obviously here but are not mentioned.

It’s 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.
There’s only so much creativity available to people. And so many people put their creativity to use in advertising that you know, it’s hard to tell the difference. Ads resemble art more and more. It’s so fast. Some advertising is using a language that is so sophisticated that they are not even telling you what to buy. It’s as sophisticated as any art production, so I just try to keep it simple and keep it within context. I think it disappears if it’s 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. It’s a very different sort of experience. It’s 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. It’s great. I am able to travel, but a lot of people still live in a very different time. I’ve 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 I’m proceeding in a very confused manner. No shortages of impulses to make or interest to make, but sometimes I’m 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 wouldn’t retain a sense of control or an overview. People say once you leave one place, it’s hard to stop leaving. What I’m 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 it’s 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.

In 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 neighborhood’s 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 didn’t 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.



Innercity Home

One Tree

Clarion Alley Mural

Thinking of Balmy Alley

Do 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 haven’t seen the diversity of the City really deepen. As the City has been growing, it feels smaller somehow. It’s an odd feeling. It’s 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 what’s 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. It’s 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 wouldn’t 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 that’s a big shift and it’s already started changing from that to something else. So I don’t know, answering your question I guess, partially it’s 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. That’s 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.

Murals and Politics

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 Rivera’s 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 it’s 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?" It’s something that does come to mind there and here not much. Maybe it’s a generational thing. I think it’s 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. He’s 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. It’s a cool thing. It’s 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 Women’s 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 it’s less visible, less mainstream.
Following 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 didn’t 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 Geronimo’s 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 Geronimo’s 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 wasn’t really an opinionated presentation; the fact that the story was so powerful, it sort of told itself. So I didn’t 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, he’ll come to the opening." So she told me that, "You tell them we’ll have the biggest motherfucking screen in the ghetto and it’s 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 Leonard’s 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. That’s where I did the Tate Wiki Kuwa Museum which was a museum dedicated to showcase Leonard’s artwork. I did these letters for the Tate Wiki Kuwa Museum that are the same size as the De Young Museum’s letters. They were on the side of the building and that’s 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 wasn’t as direct as Geronimo. It’s 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 that’s 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 he’s 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 it’s like running, like sports is good for everybody. You don’t 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 it’s 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; it’s not accusatory or even angry. It’s been painful and not easy to embrace that this clearly has made my life richer.

Do you think that you’ll go back to Leonard’s case in the future?
I think so. I always feel like I’m not doing enough. It’s such a difficult period because there’s such bigger dramas unfolding, so it’s a particularly difficult time for all. But yeah, I will definitely continue to contribute to Leonard’s 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. I’m still building contacts there.

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. I’m sure it’s 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. I’m still thankful for the fact that there is still a dissenting voice, but it clearly doesn’t 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 it’s 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 that’s hardest to get at is the notion of personal sacrifice. I think it’s 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, I’m 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 it’s very important for people who are here to communicate to people outside of here, that we don’t 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 hasn’t 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.


Time and Time Again
pushpin on wall

Tate Wikikuwa Museum

oil by Leonard Pelti


The Future

What is your dream project? Is there something that you haven’t had the chance to do, whether it be not the time nor the place? What’s one area for the future?
I usually go from one thing to the other. I don’t 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. It’s 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 Leonard’s artwork which could remain all together and be seen by many people. It’s not something that right now I can say that I am right this month working towards it. It’s an idea to be.

You recently had a show in March 2002 at the Gallery Paule Anglim. Can you tell us about the work you presented there?
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.]
You 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 America’s 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. Dre’s 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 Center’s 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 not commit.]

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 www.sfcityguides.org).


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