“Silent Night, Holy Night”

This post is part of my notionally annual, but in point of fact, irregular attempt at spreading Christmas cheer on my web log. This year, when I heard the old Christmas standard Silent Night, I began to think of current events in Mexico, for reasons that will be apparent if you read this yuletide message in its entirety.

In 1963 Leonard Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic in a rendition of Silent Night, showing why the 1818 composition by Austrians Franz Xaver Gruber (1787-1863) and Joseph Mohr (1792-1848) remains eternal around the world. Mohr, a Catholic priest and writer at St Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Salzburg, had written a six-stanza poem on the birth of Jesus titled Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht (Silent Night, Holy Night). Mohr asked Gruber, the organist and choirmaster at St Nicholas, to write a melody around the poetic message of peace. Mohr and Gruber first performed the song at St Nicholas Church on Christmas Eve, 1818. In 2011 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the song a part of the “Intangible Cultural Heritage” of the human race. Over the years the song was translated into English and shortened to three-stanzas, but it still retains its original message;

“Silent night! Holy night! Which brought salvation to the world, from Heaven’s golden heights, mercy’s abundance was made visible to us: Jesus in human form, Jesus in human form.”

Here I should mention that moment during World War I, the night before Christmas in December of 1914 to be exact, when German and British soldiers stopped fighting, climbed out of their muddy trenches, and defied their orders to kill one another by fraternizing in the no-man’s land. It started with the sound of German soldiers singing Stille Nacht, the melody wafting over the bomb scarred wasteland. British troops responded by singing Silent Night, and soon the two armies were exchanging handshakes, gifts, and playing soccer on the killing field. What united the two antagonists was a song with meaning and significance understood by both parties… something to be remembered in the war-mad present.

Most Americans remain blissfully unaware that Gruber and Mohr’s Silent Night is a Christmas standard in the Spanish speaking world as well. Known as Noche de paz (Night of peace), it differs from the English language version only in that each stanza begins with the words, Noche de paz, Noche de Amor. But the words “Silent Night, Holy Night” take on new meaning during the Christmas Season in today’s crisis shattered Mexico.

Screenshot of the Ayotzinapa Christmas tree at the Benito Juárez monument from a video by the Guardian.

Screenshot of the Ayotzinapa Christmas tree at the Benito Juárez monument from a video by the Guardian.

In the weeks just prior to Christmas, religious and political activists raised a Christmas tree decorated with artworks depicting the 43 missing students of Ayotzinapa kidnapped by government forces on Sept. 26, 2014.

The tree was erected in Mexico City’s Alameda Park at the Neoclassical monument dedicated to President Benito Juárez. The group, Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir (Catholics for a Free Choice), invited the public to come light the tree “For truth, justice, and peace in Ayotzinapa,” and also to “call for solidarity and accompany the families of those who have been victims of state violence, because if their families are not complete, then as a society, neither are we.” On Dec. 16th, the tree was consecrated in an evening ceremony before hundreds of people.

Affixed to the top of the Christmas tree was a Star of Bethlehem ornament that read, Justicia (Justice). The gathered crowd said a prayer for the eradication of corruption and government impunity. Hymns were sung and candles lit while 43 white balloons representing the missing students were released into the night sky. Photos of the event went viral, and that árbol de Navidad para Ayotzinapa was seen all over the world.

On Dec 22, the parents and relatives of the 43 missing Ayotzinapa students delivered a Christmas message to the world in the form of a short video, “We wish you a Merry Christmas, and ask that you don’t forget about us.”

But in truth what actually got me thinking of Mexico when I heard Silent Night, Holy Night, was the announcement that dozens of organizations and activists had called for a huge Marcha Silenciosa (Silent March) to be held in Mexico City the day after Christmas. Starting at the capital’s Ángel de la Independencia statue that memorializes those that died in the 1810-1821 war of Independence against Spain, the silent throng will converge on another symbolic site, the Monumento a la Revolución, which commemorates the revolution of 1910. The idea of an immense but silent multitude dressed in black and carrying candles representing the people’s fallen, a determined crowd that through their silence demands justice and liberty, no doubt terrifies the country’s vampiric ruling class.

On December 21, 2012, there was another silent march in Mexico, it took place in San Cristobal de las Casa, Chiapas when up to 40,000 indigenous supporters of the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army of National Liberation - EZLN) marched in absolute silence to show the world that they exist and have not succumbed to government threats or intimidation. No speeches were made that day, the people just marched in steely, disciplined silence. It should be noted here that the EZLN has given full support to the families and supporters of the missing Ayotzinapa students.

A number of poster images announcing the 2014 yuletide demonstrations have been circulated in Mexico, three of which illustrate this article.

"Marcha Silenciosa" (Silent March) - Anonymous artist. 2014. Poster announces a mass Silent March in Mexico City the day after Christmas.

"Marcha Silenciosa" (Silent March) - Anonymous artist. 2014. Poster announces a mass Silent March in Mexico City the day after Christmas.

The poster Marcha Silenciosa (Silent March) announces the silent march in Mexico City the day after Christmas; drawings of all 43 disappeared students appear on the poster. The announcement exclaims in the voice of the people that “it has been three months and we are still waiting for them, alive.”

A rather crazed looking militant Santa Claus is featured in the poster, De la Universidad a las calles (The University to the streets), a poster announcing three Holiday Season student activities against the corrupt government of President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Yes, Santa knows if Presidente Nieto has been naughty or nice, and by the look on the face of the irate man in the red suit, Nieto ain’t gettin nuttin’ for Christmas.

Señor Claus’ white fur-lined red suit is unbuttoned to reveal a black t-shirt emblazoned with the words, ¡Fue el Estado! (It was the State!), the popular slogan that charges the government as being responsible for the kidnapping of the Ayotzinapa students. Old Kris Kringle’s suit is also ornamented with patches that read, Ya Me Cansé (I am tired), and 43, the number of kidnapped students.

"De la Universidad a las calles" (The University to the streets) - Anonymous artist. 2014. Poster announcing Holiday season activities in Mexico City to protest the disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa students.

"De la Universidad a las calles" (The University to the streets) - Anonymous artist. 2014. Poster announcing Holiday season activities in Mexico City to protest the disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa students.

The placard that Father Christmas holds over head is actually a calendar listing of activities in Mexico City to protest the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students. On Dec. 21 there were “Artistic activities and discussion forums at the Palacio de Bellas Artes” (Palace of Fine Arts).

On Dec. 26 Saint Nicholas encourages one and all to participate in “the 6th Global Day for Ayotzinapa,” which includes the massive silent march in downtown Mexico City.

And finally, St. Nick announces that on Jan 4, the Casa del Lago art & media lab at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) will host “arts, discussion forums, social health brigades, and various workshops” related to the Ayotzinapa crisis.

The poster Marcha Silenciosa, No Más Desaparecidos (Silent March, No More Disappeared), was designed by an arts group and announces the Dec. 26 silent march. The poster uses an altered version of the painting The Scream, by the Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944). Munch’s original 1893 oil painting depicts a disturbed individual shrieking in abject terror while standing on a bridge against an undulating backdrop of a bloody red sunset.

"Marcha Silenciosa, No Más Desaparecidos" (Silent March, No More Disappeared) - Anonymous artist. 2014. Poster announcing the Dec. 26 silent march to protest the disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa students.

"Marcha Silenciosa, No Más Desaparecidos" (Silent March, No More Disappeared) - Anonymous artist. 2014. Poster announcing the Dec. 26 silent march to protest the disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa students.

The painting has become iconic of modern day angst and trepidation. The artist that created the Marcha Silenciosa poster counted on people recognizing Munch’s vision; the horror portrayed in Munch’s original painting was intensified in the Mexican poster by making the figure absent. That is the dismay and alarm that grips Mexico today.

It is highly unlikely that you will read any authoritative accounts of Mexico City’s post-Christmas Silent March in the pages of the New York Times or other U.S. newspapers, who altogether have barely covered the earth shattering changes washing over Mexico since September 2014; but that is not to say those events never happened.

I am amazed by the artistic and cultural responses to the Ayotzinapa crisis now flowing from cultural workers in Mexico, and their efforts have only just commenced. A powerful new art of social concern is blossoming across Mexico as I write these words, the likes of which have not been seen for decades. I will continue to document, encourage, and participate in that rising tide of artistic resistance.


"Ayotzinapa somos todos" (We are all Ayotzinapa) - Mark Vallen 2014 ©

"Ayotzinapa somos todos" (We are all Ayotzinapa) - Mark Vallen 2014 ©

AYOTZINAPA SOMOS TODOS - Free downloadable 11 x 17 inch poster.

Created by Los Angeles artist Mark Vallen
in solidarity with the 43 kidnapped students of Ayotzinapa Normal School in Guerrero, Mexico.

Download and publish the poster on any printer that takes 11 x 17 inch paper.

The black and white poster is offered in two formats:

.pdf (2 megabytes) or .jpg (23 megabytes)

Artist’s Statement:

I began to create my artwork, Ayotzinapa somos todos, immediately after the 43 students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Ayotzinapa Normal School were attacked by police in Iguala, Mexico on Sept. 26, 2014. I made my drawing with black colored pencils on textured handmade paper, producing an artwork that looks like a classical lithographic print. Over the decades I have created an abundance of images with socio-political themes, publishing them as multiples and freely distributing them with the objective of raising awareness and initiating activism; my Ayotzinapa somos todos drawing is no different in that regard.

I created Ayotzinapa somos todos as an expression of solidarity with the Mexican people who struggle so valiantly to build a free, democratic society. The title of my artwork is one of the slogans currently used by Mexico’s pro-democracy movement. I am greatly alarmed by the kidnapping of the 43 students, a heinous crime that provides the clearest evidence yet of collusion between the Mexican government and the drug cartels that run much of the country.

The woman in my drawing could be any Mexican woman. She might be a family member of one of the kidnapped students, a protestor outraged by the abductions, or perhaps someone that hears gunfire coming from one of the secret fosas clandestinas (clandestine graves) that pockmark the countryside. She may be a person who knows one of her country’s 26,000 desaparecidos… those who have been forcefully “disappeared” by the authorities or the drug cartels since 2006. For that matter, she might be an American woman declaring sympathy with the Mexican people and their yearnings for justice.

I wanted to distribute my artwork internationally to as many people as possible, so I decided to circulate a digitized poster version that people could print on their own. After adding some hand-drawn text to the digital artwork, and setting it up to be published on any computer printer, I uploaded the poster to the internet’s global community. My fervent hope is that my Ayotzinapa somos todos poster will bring much needed attention and support to the suffering Mexican people, and help them to achieve their dreams of a liberated country.

The official story presented by the Mexican government regarding the kidnapping and now presumed killings of the 43 Ayotzinapa students continues to unravel; anger, shock, and fury continues to rise amongst the people.

On Dec. 11, 2014, Proseso, an important news weekly in Mexico, published a report by scientists and researchers from the National University of Mexico (UNAM). The opinion has been translated into English and published at Borderland Beat. The finding contests the government’s insistence that the bodies of the murdered students were destroyed in a huge fire pit built in a landfill by their drug gang assassins; three members of the Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors) drug cartel are in government custody and have allegedly confessed their guilt.

The government claims the drug gang stoked the fire with trees, tires, and gasoline. The scientists at UNAM said that was impossible; to burn 43 human bodies and leave no remains would have taken “33 tons of tree trunks, four inches in diameter” and “about 1000 passenger car tires.” The smoke from the burning pyre “would have been seen 5 or 6 miles away.” Government investigators said that “three to 15 members” of Guerreros Unidos were involved in burning the remains, but the UNAM scientists asked how that number of men could possibly have moved 43 dead bodies and tons of wood and tires?

Looking at the photo of the landfill that appears in the Proseso article, one can see that from the rim of the landfill to its bottom is a very long and steep descent. According to the government, the narco-gang drove trucks filled with their 43 victims to the precipice, and one by one threw them off the sheer drop into the dump where they were then allegedly stacked and burned. According to the UNAM scientists, “in places of the greatest free fall, the bodies should have left traces of skin, blood and bones or pieces of clothing should have attached to articles in the landfill, which would serve as sources of genetic material for identification.” No such forensic evidence was ever found. The government of President Nieto never responded to the Proseso article. But Proseso was only just getting started.

On Dec. 13, 2014, Proseso published an explosive article by investigative reporter Anabel Hernández and journalist Steve Fisher titled, Iguala: La historia no oficial (Iguala: Unofficial History). Supported by the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley, the report presents convincing evidence that Mexico’s federal authorities were directly involved in the kidnapping and killing of the Ayotzinapa students.

A number of Mexican news publications have picked up the report, including Univision Noticias and El Diario. As of this writing, the Guardian has published the story and the Los Angeles Times published a short mention. The Huffington Post presented a detailed report on the story, which also includes a 20 minute video interview with Anabel Hernández and Steve Fisher.

The government of President Enrique Peña Nieto has so far said it knew nothing about the attacks on the students and their kidnapping until after the crimes had transpired. It also claims that the mayor of Iguala and the local police were behind the attacks, and that the police turned the 43 students over to the Guerreros Unidos, whose gangsters murdered the students, burned their bodies, and disposed of their remains.

The Iguala: Unofficial History report shows that Federal Police and the Mexican Army were active participants in the attacks on the Ayotzinapa students, because the authorities opposed “the ideological structure and governance of the institution” (the Ayotzinapa Normal School), and due to the fact that the Federales saw the students as “political activists in training.” The Federal Police were watching every move of the Ayotzinapa students as they left their campus on Sept. 26, monitoring their travels all the way to Iguala. It was there that the Federal Police stopped the students and began shooting them.

Moreover, the Federal Police informed Mexico’s massive C4 intelligence center of the first gunshots fired at the students at 9:40 in the evening. C4 (for “Command Center, Control, Communications, Computation”) was launched in Mexico City in 2011 with a budget of $460 million dollars. Connected to Mexico’s central government, is the largest intelligence gathering center in all of Latin America. If C4 was informed of the attacks on the students as they occurred, then the government of President Nieto also knew of the assaults.

Furthermore, Steve Fisher, the co-author of Iguala: Unofficial History, told teleSUR News: “We cannot say whether or not Guerreros Unidos was ultimately involved with this, or not, but we can say that the evidence we have acquired was that they were tortured before their testimonies were given. It is thus suspect that they could actually get proper testimonies considering the fact that they were tortured brutally, including electric shocks to testicles and extreme beatings.”

The chant heard on Mexico’s streets since late September 2014, Fue El Estado (It was the state), now rings true for millions. While the ruling class of Mexico and its Narco-state government reels from the anger of a defiant populace as well as the accusations made in the Proseso exposés, a familiar face from El Norte emerges to help prop-up President Enrique Peña Nieto.

It has been announced that President Obama’s first meeting of the New Year will be with President Nieto at the Oval Office in the White House on Tuesday, January 6, 2015. The White House press secretary said that Obama looks forward to working with Nieto on “economic, security and social issues, as well as underscoring the deep cultural ties and friendship that exist between our two countries.” Also on Jan. 6th, Vice President Joe Biden will host the second U.S.-Mexico High-Level Economic Dialogue meeting with cabinet secretaries of the Nieto regime, talks intended to “give strategic direction to initiatives designed to improve economic competitiveness.”

President Nieto has been dismantling Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), the state-run oil company created by Mexico’s left-leaning President Lázaro Cárdenas after he nationalized Mexico’s oil in 1938. Nieto is selling what remains of PEMEX to foreign oil companies. Since Mexico is the third largest oil producer in the Western Hemisphere and the ninth largest oil producer in the world, I am sure Mr. Biden will have much to discuss with the Mexican government. One can deduce that the massive violation of human rights in Mexico will not be a topic of discussion.

It is ironic that January 6th is also the Christian celebration of Epiphany, known as El Dia De Los Reyes in Mexico, or Day of the Kings, the final day of the 12 days of Christmas which celebrates the arrival of the Three Kings in Bethlehem and their presentation of gifts to the infant Jesus. How fitting that the new world ‘kings’ will meet on the Day of Kings… but I fear that Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, has not been invited.

In the aforementioned Huffington Post video interview with Anabel Hernández and Steve Fisher,  Professor John Ackerman of the National Autonomous University of Mexico was included as a speaker. He had this to say:

“The government account of what happened in Ayotzinapa is full of lies, full of contradictions, and it’s the federal government who is the central actor… who is responsible for these disappearances. And this lays directly on the shoulders of Barack Obama and the United States government, because Barack Obama and the United States government has been supporting Enrique Peña Nieto throughout this entire process and supporting his cover-up of  the situation, and never insisting on any investigation of human rights violations.”

The So-Called Torture Report


“We don’t torture, we’re a civilized nation

We’re avoiding any confrontation

We don’t torture, we don’t torture.”

Ten Year Anniversary of AFC Blog

Artist Mark Vallen at an undisclosed secret locale somewhere in greater Los Angeles, 2014. Photo by Jeannine Thorpe.

Artist Mark Vallen at an undisclosed secret locale somewhere in greater Los Angeles, 2014. Photo by Jeannine Thorpe.

¡Ay, Caramba! Today marks the 10th anniversary of my founding the Art For A Change web log.

This labor of love was brought into existence on November 27, 2004. In prior years, I wrote articles that appeared on my website and e-newsletter, but in 2004 I made the change to the blogging platform due to its immediacy.

As a lifelong realist painter, printmaker, and draftsman, I felt compelled to write about the visual arts, not just for other artists, but for those with little engagement in art. Being an artist was not enough, it was also necessary to be an advocate for art.

But what kind of art? As the name of this site suggests, one of my concerns is that we remember how to summon art as a means of authentic progress, community, human solidarity, and social transformation. Once integral facets of art, those ideals have been severely weakened as the art world continues its fall into commodification and hyper-commercialism. So it was also necessary for this web log to take an activist stance.

There is another meaning to the title, Art For A Change. After surveying the paucity, artlessness, and detachment of today’s official art world, the name proclaims that art will have to be found elsewhere. It will rise from the ground up, outside of officialdom - it lives here.

The first post I made to this web log was a quote from the American photojournalist Dorothea Lange. Celebrated for documenting life in the U.S. during the Great Depression, Lange said:

“Everything is propaganda for what you believe in actually. I don’t see that it could be otherwise. The harder and the more deeply you believe in anything, the more in a sense you’re a propagandist. Conviction, propaganda, faith, I don’t know, I have never been able to come to the conclusion that that’s a bad word.”

While this web log focuses on the visual arts, over the years I have made mention of dramatists, photographers, writers, and others who share my philosophy regarding art. Though I have not mentioned her before in my writings, one such person is the American author Ursula Le Guin. In a speech given by Ms. Le Guin at the National Book Awards as she received the 2014 Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the 85-year old author described the world of publishing in much the same way as I describe the art world;

“I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art - the art of words.”

The Art For A Change web log shall continue to be a voice for those artists “who can remember freedom,” and a wellspring where “resistance and change” begins in art. In the future, you can expect from this blog a number of exciting projects designed to undermine the divine right of kings, both in the art world and otherwise.

Happy holidays and…

Ferguson photo by Associated Press ©

Ayotzinapa; Between pain and hope

Carlos Lorenzo Hernández Muñoz - Poster of the missing 19-year old Ayotzinapa student created by Laila Cohen.

"Carlos Lorenzo Hernández Muñoz" - Poster of the missing 19-year old Ayotzinapa student created by Laila Cohen. José Guadalupe Posada's famous La Calavera Catrina can be seen over the student's shoulder along with the Virgen de Guadalupe.

El Día de la Revolución is celebrated every year in Mexico on the 20th of November. The occasion this year marks the 104th anniversary of the 1910 revolution that overthrew the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. This year however will be different. The government has cancelled the annual military parade that ordinarily fills the capital’s streets. Instead, the Mexican people will participate in a nationwide protest and a general strike on Nov. 20, 2014. They will continue the protests against the government kidnapping and probable murder of 43 students that has outraged Mexico for almost two months.

Leonel Castro Abarca - Poster of the missing 18-year old Ayotzinapa student created by Bodox.

"Leonel Castro Abarca" - Poster of the missing 18-year old Ayotzinapa student created by Bodox.

This essay is about the Mexican citizens and artists that are playing a role in that uprising. The posters in this essay came from Mexican artists who created portraits of the 43 missing students disappeared by state “authorities” in Guerrero, Mexico. But before talking about the posters, here is some background on the story.

On Sept. 26, 2014 the police in the town of Iguala, located in the Mexican state of Guerrero, attacked students from the all male “Escuela Normal Raúl Isidro Burgos” teacher’s college in the town of Ayotzinapa. The students were preparing to protest against unfair government hiring practices in education. The officers killed 3 of the Ayotzinapa students in Iguala, wounded 25 others, and also killed 3 bystanders.

The police then rounded up 43 surviving students and handed them over to Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors), one of the criminal drug cartels plaguing the country. It is presumed the drug gang murdered their captives on behalf of the corrupt police.

The next day one of the students, 22-year old Julio César Mondragón, was found dumped on a street in Iguala for all to see. Whether he was a victim of the police or the gang is not known, but a medical examination confirmed that Mondragón had been tortured to death - his face and skull had been completely flayed and both his eyes gouged out. A student at Ayotzinapa for only a month before his death, Mondragón is survived by his 24-year old wife and their 3-month old baby daughter.

Giovanni Galindes Guerrero - Poster of the missing 20-year old Ayotzinapa student created by Argel Gómez Concheiro.

"Giovanni Galindes Guerrero" - Poster of the missing 20-year old Ayotzinapa student created by Argel Gómez Concheiro.

After the Iguala story broke, the mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca and his wife María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa, went into hiding. They were found in Mexico City and arrested by federal authorities who insist the couple were the “masterminds” behind the attacks on the students.

It is claimed the mayor gave orders to police to apprehend the students before they disrupted a speech to be given by his wife. On Nov. 14, 2014 the government formally charged Abarca for being behind the students’ kidnapping.

Nevertheless, there are far too many open questions regarding the case of the 43 missing students to consider it closed, for instance, where are their bodies?

The Mexican government has unearthed a number of clandestine graves in and around Iguala, but none contain the 43 students. They do however contain remains of dozens of people apparently killed in mass executions. But who were they? Who killed them? Protest signs seen on Mexican streets have some answers - Mexico es una fosa (Mexico is a grave), and Los asesinos están en palacio nacional (the assassins are in the national palace).

At a Nov. 7, 2014 news conference, Mexico’s Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam claimed that three members of Guerreros Unidos confessed to killing the 43 students, incinerating their bodies and placing their remains in garbage bags, then dumping the contents into a river. Karam said authorities have retrieved one such bag and sent its contents to a medical lab in Austria for DNA analysis. Meanwhile, the families of the missing students asked the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) to investigate the remains found so far. On Nov. 11 the forensic experts reported that the remains did not have “biological kinship” with the missing students.

"Abel García Hernández" - Poster of the missing 21-year old Ayotzinapa student created by Jorge Zapata.

"Abel García Hernández" - Poster of the missing 21-year old Ayotzinapa student created by Jorge Zapata.

What the Ayotzinapa tragedy has revealed about Mexico is that large sectors of the state apparatus - police, armed forces, courts, and politicians - have merged with the deadly drug cartels. This merger is aptly described by the signs now carried in the streets by protestors identifying those that kidnapped the 43 students, Fue El Estado - “It was the state.”

The shadow narco terror state incorporates municipal, state, and federal officials, and spends much of its time in the drug business. A 2012 article by CNN stated that Mexican drug cartels annually move $39 billion worth of cocaine and heroin into the United States. What no one will say is that Mexicans are dying like flies to support America’s drug habit.

The posters displayed in this article came from #IlustradoresConAyotzinapa, a Mexican Tumblr account where over 200 Mexican artists have created portraits of the missing students. The artists began painting the disappeared students to humanize them, to further ingrain them in the public consciousness, and to embolden the Mexican movement for democracy and human rights. The posters on the Tumblr account have been printed out and carried in demonstrations in Mexico and around the world. Some of the posters are produced by amateurs, the majority however are produced by professional artists.

"Alexander Mora Venancio" - Poster of the missing 21-year old Ayotzinapa student created by José Quintero.

"Alexander Mora Venancio" - Poster of the missing 21-year old Ayotzinapa student created by José Quintero.

While digital media plays a large part in the production of the posters, a variety of artistic mediums are employed; drawings done in pencil, chalk, or pen and ink, watercolors, linoleum and woodcut prints, paintings in acrylic or oils. Even sculptural and embroidered works. A number of posters offer serious treatments of the subject matter, others are humorous and fanciful in the Mexican folkloric tradition. All are touching and deeply compassionate.

The artists at the Tumblr account have apparently inspired others; in this video artists in Chilpancingo, the capital of Guerrero, paint portraits of the students in a public square.

The Ayotzinapa posters bring up an important question for artists everywhere. What is the purpose of art? Is it just a commodity for wealthy elites? The Ayotzinapa posters are perfect examples of art springing from the people, the very antithesis of the detached and “apolitical” postmodern art found in today’s museums and galleries. The posters were done for a pure and noble social purpose, they defy the politics of the so-called art world - obsessed as it is with stardom and ostentatious wealth. Those making the Ayotzinapa posters will likely never appear in museums or galleries, but their creations have deeply worked their way into the hearts and minds of the people, expanding and deepening the very definition of Mexican culture.

"Luis Ángel Abarca Carrillo" - Ink drawing. Poster of the missing 18-year old Ayotzinapa student created by Diego Molina.

"Luis Ángel Abarca Carrillo" - Ink drawing. Poster of the missing 18-year old Ayotzinapa student created by Diego Molina.

A caption that appears on each portrait on the Ayotzinapa Tumblr account asks a question regarding the portrayed missing student, “I want to know where” he is. In other words the person depicted is a desaparecido - one who has been made to “disappear.”

Desaparecido is a Spanish word that describes a type of repression I first became familiar with during the October 1968 Summer Olympics held in Mexico’s capital. Ten days before the Olympic games began in Aug. 1968, the county’s student movement assembled in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco to demand democracy and human rights.

President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz ordered the plaza cleared with 8,000 soldiers and dozens of tanks, the result was the army killing upwards of 300 students. The regime destroyed the student movement by making its leaders and supporters disappear - through kidnapping, false imprisonment, and murder by state security forces. No one was ever brought to justice for these crimes.

For those who march in Mexico today, Ni 43, No 68 (Not 43 or 68) is a popular slogan that refers to the slaughter in Tlatelolco. Mexicans have not forgotten that President Ordaz was a member of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional), the same authoritarian party of today’s President Enrique Peña Nieto. In fact, the 43 kidnapped Ayotzinapa students intended to join the annual October 2 protest held in Mexico City to commemorate the events of Tlatelolco in 1968.

"Leonel Castro Abarca" - Poster of the missing 18-year old Ayotzinapa student created by Ricardo Peláez Goycochea.

"Leonel Castro Abarca" - Poster of the missing 18-year old Ayotzinapa student created by Ricardo Peláez Goycochea.

The regimes of El Salvador and Guatemala disappeared thousands of their civilians in the 1980s, more than 50,000 in Guatemala and 8,000 in El Salvador. November 16, 2014 marked the 25th anniversary of the U.S. trained Salvadoran Army’s Atlacatl Battalion going onto the campus of the Universidad Centroamericana in San Salvador, and murdering six Jesuit scholars, their housekeeper and her daughter.

Each were shot in the back of the head. Crimes like these became the subject of much of my art during that period. I imagined that Latin America would someday be free of such tyranny - but in today’s Mexico, there are now some 29,000 desaparecidos.

Addressing the disappearance of the 43 students and the wider issue of government corruption and violence, the students and teachers of Mexico’s National School of Dramatic Arts (ENAT), have been doing public performances - interventions if you will - all around the capital. In this amazing YouTube video of one such performance in the courtyard of the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico City, the students tell the tale of those gunned down by Iguala police. This is what “performance art” should be all about.

Reading the U.S. media on the current situation in Mexico, one cannot find a single mention that President Enrique Peña Nieto most likely came to power in the 2012 elections due to massive fraud. In poor neighborhoods, the PRI party distributed a purported $8.2 million in pre-paid gift cards for Soriana grocery stores in exchange for votes of Nieto. There were also charges that Nieto and the PRI purchased positive media coverage from Televisa and other media outlets.

"Jorge Aníbal Cruz Mendoza" - Poster of the missing 19-year old Ayotzinapa student created by Gabriel Pacheco.

"Jorge Aníbal Cruz Mendoza" - Poster of the missing 19-year old Ayotzinapa student created by artist Gabriel Pacheco.

Before the 2012 vote count was tallied and announced, Nieto declared himself to be the new president. As hundreds of thousands of Mexicans marched in the streets to oppose his sham election, President Obama called Nieto to congratulate him on his “victory.”

In 1990 the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa said live on Mexican television, that “Mexico is the perfect dictatorship. The perfect dictatorship is not communism, not the USSR, not Fidel Castro; the perfect dictatorship is Mexico, because it is a camouflaged dictatorship.”

Perhaps Obama never heard of Mr. Llosa or his description of the perfect dictatorship. Interestingly enough, Obama has currently said nothing about the upheaval in Mexico. Secretary of State Kerry has been silent, as have all other members of the Obama administration. The only person to offer a comment was Jennifer Psaki, the spokesperson for the State Department, who on Nov. 13, 2014 simply said “We urge all parties to remain calm through the process.”

"Jorge Antonio Tizapa" - Woodcut poster of the missing Ayotzinapa student created by Claus López López.

"Jorge Antonio Tizapa" - Woodcut poster of the missing Ayotzinapa student created by Claus López López.

Maybe President Obama is made uncomfortable by the fact that his administration provides $15 million in military aid to Mexico, up from the $3 million it received in 2009.

Evidently it is difficult for the President to justify his arming a narco terror state while it murders its own people, so it was thought best just to keep quiet.

The Mérida Initiative signed by President Bush in 2008 and since extended by Obama “indefinitely,” provides $2.1 billion to Mexican security forces fighting the so-called drug war. Since 2006 the U.S. government has spent $3 billion on funding the Mexican government’s “war on drugs,” a joke if there ever was one.  The US government is indirectly arming the very drug cartels it says it wants to eradicate.

The 2012 election returned the corrupt PRI to power, the authoritarian party that ran Mexico for 70 years. That reign was broken in 2000 when Vicente Fox of the conservative PAN (Partido Acción Nacional) won the presidency, followed by Felipe Calderón of the PAN, who became president in 2006. Calderón will likely be remembered for Mexico’s bloodiest years since the 1910 revolution. In 2006 he supposedly began a war against the drug cartels then running large swaths of Mexico. By the end of Calderón’s six year term, the cartels were stronger than ever and an estimated 110,000 civilians had perished in the conflict.

"Julio César López Patoltzin" - Poster of the missing Ayotzinapa student created by Rodrigo Padilla López. The artist used digital media to replicate the visual effects of traditional Mexican woodcuts, and used the Aztec Náhuatl language to ask the question "Kampa ka?" (¿Dónde está?)

"Julio César López Patoltzin" - Poster of the missing Ayotzinapa student created by Rodrigo Padilla López. The artist used digital media to replicate the visual effects of traditional Mexican woodcuts, and used the Aztec Náhuatl language to ask the question "Kampa ka?" (¿Dónde está?)

Placing the deaths of so may innocent Mexican citizens in context, it should be remembered that during the approximately 17-year long Vietnam war, some 60,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in combat. Nearly twice that number of Mexican citizens died in just six years of Calderón’s drug war. Since President Nieto took power in 2012, another 29,000 citizens have perished in the war. Then came the disappearance of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa; it took Nieto 11 days before he said a word about the kidnapping.

During his Nov. 7 news conference announcing the apparent killing of the 43, Attorney General Karam tried to stop questions from the press by saying, “Ya me canse” (I’ve had enough). His words became a rallying cry. Mexican filmmaker Natalia Beristan perhaps said it best when she appeared in a YouTube video response to Karam’s statement. Beristan said: “Señor Murillo Karam, I too am tired. I’m tired of vanished Mexicans, of the killing of women, of the dead, of the decapitated, of the bodies hanging from bridges, of broken families, of mothers without children, of children without fathers. I am tired of the political class that has kidnapped my country, and of the class that corrupts, that lies, that kills. I too am tired.”

There are other filmmakers that share Ms. Beristan’s opinion. On Nov. 11, 2014, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City held its annual film benefit, this time a tribute to Mexican filmmaker, Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity, Children of Men, Y Tu Mamá También, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). Cuaron wrote a collective statement with fellow Mexican filmmakers Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman), which was read before the elite audience at MoMA by del Toro. The statement read in part:

“This past September, 43 students were kidnapped by the local police in the state of Guerrero, Mexico. After a period of apathy, the authorities only then were forced to search for them, due to the protestations of citizens across the entire country and the world, and they found the first of many, many mass graves. None of these graves contained the remains of the missing students. The bodies within them were those of other anonymous victims. Last week, the general attorney announced that the 43 students were handed over by the police to members of a drug cartel to be executed and burned in a public dump. But even the identity of those charred remains awaits proper DNA.

The federal government argues that these events are all just local violence — not so. As Human Rights Watch observes, these killings and forced disappearances reflect a much broader pattern of abuse and are largely a consequence of the longstanding failure of the Mexican authorities.

We believe that these crimes are systemic and indicate a much greater evil: the blurred lines between organized crime and the high-ranking officials in the Mexican government. We must demand answers about this and we must do it now. We would like to take this opportunity to ask you all to join us in the pain and indignation felt by the families of the disappeared students and of every civilian in Mexico who is living with this atrocious reality on an every day basis and to at least be aware of this systematic human rights violation taking place so often and so close to you.”

In today’s Mexico there is a modern expression that illustrates the country’s agony; Ayotzinapa; Entre el dolor y la esperanza. In English the phrase translates to “Ayotzinapa; Between pain and hope.” The pain emanating from the place is a distillation of Mexico’s entire blood-spattered history, but it is also an anguish recognized by working people no matter where they live. Likewise, the optimism pouring forth from Ayotzinapa, inspires not just Mexicanos but people all across the globe who dream of a better world.

– // –


Videos that document the November 20, 2014 demonstration:
Students of the Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), created this 4 minute video on the Nov. 20, 2014 march.

The Mexican website Animal Policito made a video of the Nov. 20 march that documents the size of the crowds through the use of drone cameras.

“Battle Cry” video:
Grito de Guerra is a new song produced by a collective of 30 Mexican recording artists. The video for the composition incorporates images from recent demonstrations along with footage of the song being recorded in the studio. On Nov. 27, 2014, Grito will be released on iTunes and other platforms, with the proceeds going to the parents of the missing students.

The following Mexican Twitter accounts are covering the uprising in Mexico:
#AcciónGlobalPorAyotzina #20NovMx #NOnosCANSAREMOS #FueElEstado

Richard Duardo: RIP

“‘Where in the world, where in this situation now can I be revolutionary, iconoclastic, and a voice of freedom?’ And, mind you, I’d never even lifted a pencil or drawn a circle. I was eighteen. I thought, “Artist. You can be as revolutionary and loud and opinionated and self-righteous as you want to be in this world - in the art world. And they’ll just accept it.” You know, what an interesting curiosity, an artist with an opinion. And I thought, “Okay. I’m going to be an artist. This is how I can survive, this is where I feel I can be free.”

- Richard Duardo in an 2007 interview with the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

 "Richard Duardo" - Mark Vallen. 1980 ©. Print from 35mm Diapositive. I took this photo of Richard standing in front of the Centro de Arte Público gallery in Highland Park, Los Angeles. He was 28 at the time and I was 27.

"Richard Duardo" - Mark Vallen. 1980 ©. Print from 35mm Diapositive. I took this photo of Richard standing in front of the Centro de Arte Público gallery in Highland Park, L.A. He was 28 at the time and I was 27.

My old friend and associate Richard Duardo died on November 11, 2014 at the age of 62. I will let others compose the detailed obituaries… but I do have a few things to say about the passing of L.A.’s maestro of serigraphy.

I made Richard’s acquaintance in 1980, since we were both denizens of the Los Angeles punk scene. Our reputations preceded us, as we knew of each other’s works before we ever met.

I had seen a number of silkscreen prints by Richard - like his 1978 poster Dia de Los Muertos, which was a public announcement for an art event held on Nov. 4, 1978 in the Highland Park area of the city.

Featuring a hand-drawn image of a skull clenching two red roses in its teeth, the poster is still in my collection. But it was Richard’s punk posters that really grabbed me.

Richard and I were both enamored with The Plugz, one of L.A.’s original Chicano punk bands. The group was widely popular in Los Angeles during that tumultuous period and Richard had produced a 1980 poster for them announcing performances with British bands Gang of Four (Starwood) and The Selector (Whiskey a Go Go).

"The Plugz" - Richard Duardo. 1980. Silkscreen poster announcing a Plugz performance at the Starwood with the Gang of Four.

"The Plugz" - Richard Duardo. 1980. Silkscreen poster announcing Plugz performances at the Starwood and Whiskey a Go Go.

That same year Richard teamed up with Tito Larriva of the Plugz and Yolanda Comparan Ferrer to form the Fatima Records punk label. Its first production was Attitudes, the debut album from L.A. Chicano punk rockers, The Brat. Richard designed the album cover art for the record.

Only in the last few years has there been some acknowledgement that a sizable portion of L.A.’s original punk scene was composed of working class Chicano youth.

We were also fans of the Screamers, possible L.A.’s most extreme and theatrical early punk bands. In 1980 Richard created a large silkscreen portrait of Screamers front man Tomata du Plenty and keyboard player Tommy Gear.

Snarling in cheap sun glasses, Tomata stands behind Gear, who breaks open a raw egg. Esoteric and mysteriously confrontational, the Screamers print not only captured the novelty of the band, but the uniqueness of the entire early L.A. punk scene.

I still think of the Screamers print as a high-point of Richard’s design career.

At the time I had also created portraits of the Screamers, and I am pleased that one of them, a 1978 portrait of Tomata, is currently on display at the Georgia Museum of Art’s Boxers and Backbeats: Tomata du Plenty and the West Coast Punk Scene until January 4, 2015.

"Screamers" - Richard Duardo. 1980. Silkscreen. 37 x 40 inches.

"Screamers" - Richard Duardo. 1980. Silkscreen. 37 x 40 inches.

My two cover illustrations for L.A.’s punk journal SLASH magazine were well known in 1980 - a portrait of singer Sue Tissue of the Suburban Lawns, and Come Back To Haunt You, a drawing of an indigenous man wearing a leather jacket and sporting a Mohawk.

One day in 1980 Richard called me to ask if I would exhibit my works at a small group exhibit of artists to take place at his Centro de Arte Público gallery in Highland Park. He knew of my art, especially liked the SLASH portraits, and really wanted these works in the show.  Of course I said yes; years later, every time I saw Richard he mentioned how much he loved the Sue Tissue drawing, and always hinted at buying it. Now I wish I had simply given him a print of it years ago.

In 2002 I contacted Richard to see if he would be interested in reprinting my Sabra poster at his Modern Multiples serigraphy studio in downtown Los Angeles. He was extremely supportive of the project and immediately agreed to do the work. At the time Israel had started its “Operation Defensive Wall” campaign that had its soldiers fighting major battles in Palestinian West Bank cities; it would be the largest Israeli military campaign in the West Bank since the 1967 war. Moreover, in June of 2002 the Israeli cabinet decided to build a gigantic wall that would seal-off the Palestinians in the West Bank. The Israelis called it a “security fence,” the Palestinians called it the “apartheid wall.” I thought it was time to republish my Sabra silkscreen poster.

I originally created the Sabra print in 1982 as a street poster reaction to the Sabra and Shatila massacres that killed some 3,000 Palestinian civilians in Lebanon during the Israeli invasion of that country in June of 1982. The Israelis had invaded with the intention of destroying the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which was then in exile in Lebanon. The Israeli Defense Force surrounded the PLO in the capital of Beirut, and laid a seven week long siege of the nation’s capital of Beirut that included saturation bombing. The war ended with a U.S. negotiated settlement that forced the PLO to completely withdraw from Lebanon. After the pull out, Lebanon’s President Bashir Gemayel was assassinated, and in retaliation his right-wing supporters were allowed by Israeli troops to enter the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila - thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians were brutally murdered and mutilated.

"Sabra" - Mark Vallen. Silkscreen. 23 x 29 inches. Originally published in 1983, Sabra was reprinted in 2002 by Richard Duardo at his Modern Multiples Serigraphy Studio in L.A. Each print was pulled on heavy white paper, hand-signed by the artist, and received the Modern Multiples studio "chop" mark.

"Sabra" - Mark Vallen. Silkscreen. 23 x 29 inches. Originally published in 1982, Sabra was reprinted in 2002 by Richard Duardo at his Modern Multiples serigraphy studio in Los Angeles. Each print was pulled on heavy white paper, hand-signed by the artist, and received the Modern Multiples studio "chop" mark.

As Richard pulled the Sabra print, we discussed the politics of printmaking and much more. He was very “left,” but also quite cynical, preferring the artist’s life to that of the political activist. I spent some days around the studio, talking with Richard about all manner of things, including the so-called art scene. In a moment of truth he told me that he sometimes wondered what it was all about. He spoke of the hundreds of artists that had passed through his studio, and how so few of them actually got anywhere; of those that did achieve fame, their celebrity was usually fleeting.

I have to mention that during my time at Modern Multiples, Richard was also working on a silkscreen reworking of the legendary artwork created by Ignacio Gomez for the play, Zoot Suit. I was thrilled to see this work in progress, not just because I have come to know Mr. Gomez, but for the reason that as a twenty-five year old I saw Zoot Suit premier at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1978. I watched in fascination as Richard’s assistants worked on creating a hand-drawn stencil for the large 37 x 51 inch silkscreen. Since the print had 25 colors in it, that meant 25 different screens; and because the edition was 250 prints, that meant an extremely labor intensive project. The results however are nothing short of astounding. Zoot Suit is a dazzling print full of rich detail and one of the reasons why Richard was an acknowledged master printer and his Modern Multiples was possibly the best arts oriented silkscreen workshop in the entire country.

I certainly had artistic differences with Richard. I thought his personal works became much too commercial in the latter half of his career, and that he need not have worked with so many self-absorbed art stars. He started to apply to himself the dreadful moniker given to him by others, “the Andy Warhol of the West Coast.” But I have been told that it is impolite to speak ill of the dead.

Richard was sociable, gracious, and always supportive of artists. Looking up his own prints online, I am alarmed to find that his early works are practically non-existent, which is why I felt it necessary to write this obituary. Of the hundreds of artists that did pass through his workshop, I am certain that each and every one of them felt special because of the experience. That perhaps was Richard Duardo’s greatest legacy.

– // –

The McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas will present an exhibition of 20 large-scale silkscreen prints by Richard Duardo from June 3, 2015 to August 10, 2015.

Dia de los Muertos - Monoprints

"Ayotzinapa: Faltan 43" - Mark Vallen. Monoprint. 6 x 8 inches. 2014 ©

"Ayotzinapa: Faltan 43" - Mark Vallen. Monoprint. 6 x 8 inches. 2014 ©. Printed on Arches watercolor paper with eleven different oil colors.

To mark the 2014 observance of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), I have created a suite of twenty monoprints based upon an ancient Aztec glyph representing death. Essentially a printed painting, no two images are alike. The images were painted directly on a sheet of glass in oil paint, and burnished with a wooden spoon; each color was “pulled” separately.

Working with cadmium yellows, oranges, and reds, I printed starting with the lightest warm colors and worked-up to the darker hues like vermillion and rose madder. I added contrasting cool colors - cinnabar green, emerald green and cerulean blue - with a final dark purple pulling all the colors together and giving form to the calaca (skull) glyph. When buying these monoprints, remember that each stand-alone print is unique, and that I cannot guarantee that your purchase will have anything more than a general likeness to those displayed here. However, I curated the prints and found each one suitable for inclusion in the suite. Each print is hand-signed with the artist’s signature, date, and the title of the print - Ayotzinapa: Faltan 43.

And what is the meaning behind the title of the print?

43 male members of the Normal Rural School of Ayotzinapa in the state of Guerrero disappeared on Sept. 26, 2014 after being kidnapped by the police. The cops handed their prisoners to members of the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel, who allegedly murdered them. Since then the people of Mexico have held protests and other activities to place the blame on the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto and his allies in Washington, D.C. While dozens of suspects have been arrested, not one has been charged with any crime, likewise, not a single member of the 43 male students has been found. Other mass graves have been discovered in the area, some 12 large graves, but the students were not found in them. Since 2007, some 100,000 civilians have perished in the so-called “drug war.”

Banners, flyers, street art, and graffiti have appeared across the country, some reading Todos Somos Ayotzinapa (You Are Not Alone Ayotzinapa), Crimen de Estado (It was the state), and Vivos Los Llevaron, Vivos Los Queremos! (They were taken away alive, we want them back alive!). The popular slogan Ayotzinapa: Faltan 43, is the title of my monotype series. It simply means, “In Ayotzinapa, 43 are missing.”

With my Ayotzinapa print I mean to bring attention to the current situation in Mexico; the corruption and collusion of government forces like the courts, ruing elites, and the police and army with the criminal drug gangs that run large areas of the nation; the U.S. government arming and training Mexican security forces as well as the drug gangs, and the Mexican democratic masses themselves, who protest at every opportunity against the depravity of the Mexican state. On October 29, 2014, President Nieto met with relatives of the missing students, promising that they would be found, but the relatives were not impressed.

Ayotzinapa: Faltan 43 represents a new period of print experimentation for me, and in the months to come a number of new monotype prints will appear on this web log.

So on this Día de los Muertos, remain vigilant and do not forget… in Ayotzinapa, 43 are missing.

$100. Ayotzinapa: Faltan 43 - Mark Vallen. Monoprint. 6 x 8 inches. 2014.
Purchase your print here.

Artworks by Mark Vallen ©

Four examples from the print series that show the differences in each print.

Roberto Chavez & The False University

Self-Portrait in Blue - Roberto Chavez. Oil on panel. 1963. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

"Self-Portrait in Blue" - Roberto Chavez. Oil on panel. 1963. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Roberto Chavez and The False University: A Retrospective, is a noteworthy exhibition of works by the 82-year old Chavez, an artist that should be a better known figure from the school of Chicanarte (Chicano art). The Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College (ELAC) offers an exhibit comprised of more than 50 artworks by Chavez that cover a surprisingly wide range of mediums and styles.

While the works of Chavez are grounded in the Mexican-American experience, they are universal in scope. A number of his early canvases are playfully cubist, and expressionism is a current that runs through his art. When viewing some of the artist’s paintings, I was reminded of the works of Arshile Gorky, especially his famous canvas The Artist and His Mother. That trace of Gorky’s influence is evident in The Group Shoe, a 1962 oil on canvas by Chavez. I could also see Van Gogh’s 1885 painting The Potato Eaters in works by Chavez, not because of theme or even technique, but for reasons of temperament. Chavez’s The Artist’s Brother, Raul (1959) displays hints of Van Gogh’s 1885 canvas.

But Chavez is not a Gorky, Van Gogh, or Picasso, he is uniquely himself. That fact aside, there are nonetheless inconsistencies and weaknesses to be found in his work. Some paintings like his 1980 Birth of Genji are so unappealing - in that obnoxiously aggressive expressionist manner, that one winces and quickly moves on. In a few of his lesser works, the artist seemed to be struggling with aesthetics and narrative, as if unsure of what to say or how to say it.

The retrospective for Chavez presents the first museum examination of his censored mural, The Path to Knowledge and the False University, painted on the facade of a building at East Los Angeles College in 1974. Created at the zenith of the Chicano movement, the mural pointedly criticized the curriculum of the college as irrelevant to Chicano students - hence the title of “False University.” The college administration perceived the mural as a threat, and whitewashed it in 1979. It is amazing how such a non-threatening painting could ruffle so many feathers. Frankly speaking, despite the attention given to the mural in the exhibit, it is fairly shaky artistically and feeble as a political work. Its importance comes from being censored and having served as a lightning rod for an angry community, rather than any inherent artistic weight.  That being said, it is a long overdue and welcome move that ELAC would admit to, and present for research and discussion, their 1979 act of censorship.

Despite the chinks in Chavez’s armor, his weak points and failings, his oeuvre is otherwise sterling. He is a genuine painter’s painter. Overall, though the works of Chavez in the retrospective are not necessarily didactic, curious viewers will discover a sense of history in them; those who dig deep may unearth certain truths about our society and the world.  In that sense Chavez continues to carry the banner of Chicanarte, which up to the present still largely upholds figurative realism, narrative, craft, and an exploration of the human condition, as foundational and necessary facets of art. Being a champion of such an aesthetic is perhaps Chavez’s greatest triumph.

The balance of this non-review will present my thoughts on a number of paintings from the retrospective that I thought impressive. Owing to the generosity of the Vincent Price Art Museum, I was allowed to take some close-up photographs of the artist’s works, those photos will illustrate my reflections on the art of Roberto Chavez.

Portrait of Gilbert Luján - Roberto Chavez. Oil on canvas. 1966. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

"Portrait of Gilbert Luján" - Roberto Chavez. Oil on canvas. 1966. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

A student and assistant of Roberto Chavez beginning in 1965, Gilbert “Magú” Luján (1940-2011) went on to become a leading artist and theoretician in the Los Angeles based Chicano art movement. Magú worked on a commission he had received in 1990, to incorporate art into the Hollywood and Vine station on the Metro Rail Red Line of Los Angeles, California. The Metro Station project consisted of a series of images depicting anthropomorphized animals and pre-Columbian figures driving around Hollywood in lowrider cars; Magú had drawn the images by hand onto dozens of ceramic tiles that were set into the walls of the Metro station. That and his fanciful sculptural benches shaped into lowrider cars, transformed the Hollywood and Vine station into a miniature Magulandia. Magú completed the Metro station project in 1999.

I met Magú around 2003, and we remained friends and artistic compañeros until his passing.

Once again leaping over the boundaries of Chicano art, the Chavez portrait of Magú looks as if it could have been painted by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff or Conrad Felixmüller, two German Expressionist artists from the 1930s that I greatly admire.

The Artist's Mother - Roberto Chavez. Oil on canvas. 1970. <br>Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

"The Artist's Mother" - Roberto Chavez. Oil on canvas. 1970. "The matriarch of a family surveying the world from her kitchen domain." Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

The Artist’s Mother illustrates a scene familiar to most older Mexican-Americans, the matriarch of a family surveying the world from her kitchen domain. This could be a portrait of my deceased grandmother, Dolores Maytorena-Riveroll, who lived in a small wooden house in the barrio of San Diego, California.

With this painting Chavez took the ordinary and made it sublime, he took what was familiar to millions, and made it iconic.

My grandmother came to the U.S. in the late 1920s as a young woman from Guaymas, Mexico, and ended up living in San Diego where she worked in the city’s Chicken of the Sea canning factory.

I came to know her when I was a child; she was old and deeply wrinkled, but full of life. A devout Catholic, she wore conservative dresses and shawls, and kept her hair in a bun. In my mind, she was the finest cook I have ever known, and from her tiny kitchen came Mexican culinary delights that seemed to come from paradise. I can still hear the sound of her patting tortilla dough between her hands as she made tortillas de harina.

I am sure Chavez had similar memories of his mother… the kitchen painted in the background of The Artist’s Mother looks exactly like the one belonging to my grandmother, from the glassware to the inexpensive chrome and vinyl kitchen chair.

The painting is beautifully if roughly executed. Starting with an underpainting done in cadmium orange, the portrait is built up in layers of blues and browns. The flesh tones are transparent, allowing the bright orange to peek through. The shawl and loose fitting dress are brilliantly painted with a mass of squiggly, nervous brushstrokes… some barely registering, others deftly laying down pigment from a fully loaded brush.

Japanese Fish Kite - Roberto Chavez. Oil on panel. 1956. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

"Japanese Fish Kite" - Roberto Chavez. Oil on panel. 1956. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

In the vibrant oil painting, Japanese Fish Kite Chavez created a still-life from Japanese craft items.

At first glance the painting could be mistaken as a work from the 1930s school of German Expressionism, but that is one of the things I appreciate about it, the artwork transcends the narrow definitions of Chicano art. Prominent in the composition is a red “fish kite” (hence the name of the painting), but below it, painted in almost mirror-like fashion, is another fish kite colored dark green.

At the lower left of the canvas can be seen a swath of the traditional indigo dyed fabric known as shibori; Japanese ceramic and porcelain bowls surround the kites. In actuality koinobori, carp-shaped “wind socks,” are flown in Japan during the month of May to celebrate the ancient tradition of Boy’s Day - tango no sekku. The carp is highly regarded in Japanese folklore as a determined and strong fish that battles upstream and fights to overcome adversity, hence it became an iconic symbol for Japanese families honoring their sons.

In 1948 the post-war Japanese government declared that the May 5th Boy’s Day celebration would be combined with the traditional March 3rd Girl’s Day celebration - hinamatsuri (literally, Doll Festival), to become Children’s Day - kodomo no hi. The new national holiday celebrating the “happiness of all children,” was to be celebrated on May 5th, with the brightly colored koinobori as its symbol. I became familiar with these traditions during my life-long association with the Japanese community of Los Angeles, located in the historic “Little Tokyo” area of downtown L.A.; In 1987 I maintained an art studio in an old 1911 brick warehouse in the Little Tokyo district, walking distance from the Buddhist Higashi Hongwanji Temple. My understanding of and appreciation for Japanese culture and aesthetics has had no small influence on my life as an artist, and a number of my paintings reflect this.

A surprising number of paintings by Chavez in False University, show the influence of Japanese culture and aesthetics. Aside from Japanese Fish Kite, other paintings also featured Japanese motifs. His large oil on canvas, North Coast Venus (not shown here), is somewhat reminiscent of a Renaissance portrait, but it just as readily conjures up the aesthetics of Japan’s Ukiyo-e (floating world) prints from Japan’s Edo period. Created in 1984, the painting shows a white female nude surrounded by sea life from the northern California coast, a large starfish and octopus at her feet.

During the Second World War President Roosevelt used an executive order to intern the entire Japanese American community living on the Pacific coast of the United States. Some 200,000 individuals, the great majority of which were U.S. citizens, had their properties seized and were sent to concentration camps. Prior to the war there were many opportunities in L.A. for cultural engagement between Japanese Americans and those Americans of Mexican heritage - in some instances their neighborhoods literally overlapped. During the war years Little Tokyo was completely emptied of its Japanese American residents, but after the war ended in August of 1945, they started to slowly drift back into Southern California. When Chavez painted Japanese Fish Kite in 1956, Japanese Americans were beginning to regain a foothold in the region.

There is no doubt that Chavez, like myself, was directly influenced by the Japanese community of Los Angeles. In fact, the Chicano working class area of East Los Angeles where Chavez was born, was also home to a large number of Japanese Americans. I would argue that a unique hallmark of the L.A. school of Chicano art, is its having assimilated Japanese culture, unconsciously or not. I believe this is extant in the works of Chavez, and it is his awareness of other communities that helps to make the artist an exemplar in the Chicano art movement.

Incident in El Salvador - Roberto Chavez. Oil on canvas. 1993. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

"Incident in El Salvador" - Roberto Chavez. Oil on canvas. 1993. "El Salvador had been reduced to a nightmarish charnel house during the 1980s." Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

The Goyaesque painting, Incident in El Salvador, depicts the recent past of El Salvador. From 1979 to 1991, the Central American nation was torn asunder when grinding poverty and repression led to revolutionary insurrection. The Salvadoran right-wing had organized death squads to eliminate their left-wing opponents both real or perceived, in large part triggering the uprising.

One of the first death squads was the UGB - Unión Guerrera Blanca or “White Warriors Union.” The name had nothing to do with race, it was a proclamation that the UGB were “patriotic” anti-communists (Whites), fighting against subversives (Reds). The UGB were also known as the Mano Blanca (White Hand), because they marked the homes of their victims by leaving their handprints in white paint. Photographer Susan Meiselas took a famous photo in 1980 of the Mano Blanca signature left on the door of a peasant organizer the group had murdered.

Since El Salvador had been reduced to a nightmarish charnel house during the 1980s, Incident in El Salvador could be about any number of events, big or small, that occurred during that period.

On March 24, 1980, the Archbishop of El Salvador, Óscar Romero, was murdered by a death squad for calling for an end to repression and for siding with the poor; he was gunned down while giving Mass.  Romero’s funeral took place on March 30, 1980 in El Salvador’s capital; it was attended by more that 250,000 mourners. Unbelievably, the funeral Mass was attacked by death squad snipers who shot rifles from government building rooftops, killing dozens of mourners. No one ever took credit or was charged with these crimes. After the cold-blooded murder of Óscar Romero, the revolution took off in earnest. The left-wing Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), fought against the brutal Salvadoran military which was allied with the country’s oligarchs - but armed, trained, and financed by the United States.

Incident in El Salvador (Detail). Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

"Incident in El Salvador" (Detail). Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Incident in El Salvador depicts a nighttime encounter between civilians and the security forces of the Salvadoran death squad government.

Two bullet riddled men are lying in the street, while two women plead for their lives; one women seems to have been shot and is falling to the ground, the other awaits her fate. The faces of the assassins are illuminated by automatic gunfire. The entire scene is awash in blood.

Photographer Chris Steele-Perkins documented the work of the murderous death squads while on assignment for Magnum Photos in El Salvador. His photo of families visiting a morgue to find loved ones killed by death squads illustrates the depravity of the war. In one photo, the headless bodies of victims are stacked up like cordwood, their heads neatly lined up in a row. John Hoagland was another photographer that caught the savagery of death squads while on assignment in El Salvador for Newsweek in 1979. He photographed El Playon, the dump where death squads left the bodies of their victims. Hoagland’s name appeared on a list of 35 journalists marked for death that was issued by the “Anti-Communist Alliance” death squad in 1982; in 1984 he was killed while covering a clash between guerillas and the Salvadoran army - which had most likely taken the opportunity to murder him.

Naturally, all of this and more was on the mind of Roberto Chavez when he painted Incident in El Salvador. The war that occurred in that impoverished nation during the 1980s became a subject for many artists around the globe; during those years I created a number of artworks about the conflict like We’re Making a Killing in Central America and El Salvador Presente. A negotiated settlement ended the war in 1992, but the wounds of war have not yet healed. Chavez memorialized the painful memories with Incident in El Salvador, a painting which also serves as a warning against the wars of today and tomorrow.

None of this information was placed on the painting’s caption at the museum exhibit. While other works were furnished with lengthy explanatory text, the caption placed next to Incident in El Salvador was one of the shortest descriptive texts given to any work in the exhibit. It simply provided the painting’s title, medium, and date of creation. That over 75,000 Salvadorans were killed by U.S. backed government forces during 12 years of war, or that hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans fleeing certain death came to Los Angeles in the 1980s, received no attention from the exhibit’s curators. Given that the Salvadoran exile community literally changed the face of L.A., and that Chicano artists and activists played a tremendous role in opposing the war, this “oversight” regarding the caption was an unacceptable error in curation.

Iphigenia - Roberto Chavez (Detail). Oil on canvas. 2014. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

"Iphigenia" - Roberto Chavez (Detail). Oil on canvas. 2014. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Iphigenia has been the subject of artists throughout the ages, although she is the most unlikely character to be found in Chicano art. But that is what makes the work of Roberto Chavez such a delightful surprise.

Iphigenia was a heroine from Greek Mythology. She was the daughter of Clytemnestra and King Agamemnon, the King of Mycenae that led the ancient Greeks in war against the city of Troy. Artemis, the Goddess of the hunt, prevented the warships of Agamemnon from reaching Troy because the King had insulted her. To appease the Goddess, the King had to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. Agamemnon tricked his wife by telling her that their daughter was to be wed to Achilles, the bravest and most handsome warrior in the King’s army. Clytemnestra eagerly brought the young woman to the wedding, but found instead that it was a sacrificial ritual. Some versions of the myth declare that Iphigenia was killed, while others say Artemis saved Iphigenia at the last moment by placing a deer in her place. Avenging her daughter, Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon when he returned victorious from the Trojan War.

One of the most recent works by Chavez to appear in the exhibit, Iphigenia is a tour de force. Using a bright red underpainting to begin with, the artist then brushed on layers of yellow ochre and burnt sienna flesh tones while letting the underpainting peek through. The figure’s hair was achieved simply by letting the underpainting show, then brushing on a few delicate strokes of cadmium orange. An ivory black background is blocked in, giving the portrait head its final form. The subject’s eyes are accusatory and fixed on the viewer, her hair aflame with a victim’s rage. The overall look of the portrait is delicate and ephemeral.

Iphigenia is a mature work produced by a highly skilled painter. At first glance, it may seem a portrait of punk rocker Johnny Rotten executed by Eugène Delacroix, but Chavez has instead chosen to expose the viewer to Greek mythology - the legends and folklore of which have mostly been forgotten by moderns.  It should be remembered, that the Greeks were the first people to give human attributes to their gods, thus bestowing these figures with continued universality and relevance. Once again, the artist pushes the boundaries of Chicano art by delving into the unfamiliar.

Golgotha - Roberto Chavez (Detail). Oil on Canvas. 2014. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

"Golgotha" - Roberto Chavez (Detail). Oil on Canvas. 2014. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Golgotha refers to the site where Jesus Christ was crucified by the soldiers of the Roman Empire. The full canvas depicts piles of human skulls from victims of previous crucifixions. Amongst the rocks where the skulls sit, a white dove symbolic of the Christian Holy Spirit is shown at rest. The dove was created by troweling on white paint with a palette knife; that the background colors show through, only heightens the spiritual nature of the bird. This close-up detail from Golgotha shows how Chavez used transparent glazes and brush splatters to great effect.

It could also be said that the paintings Iphigenia and Golgotha are statements against endless war. October 2014 marked the 13th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Just a week after the date marking the depressing event, President Obama signed a “Security and Defense Cooperation Agreement” with the Afghan government that will likely keep U.S. Soldiers in Afghanistan for another ten years. The President has also started a new war in Syria and Iraq - without Congressional approval - purportedly to destroy the so-called Islamic State fanatics. Obama’s former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, said of the latest war: “I think we’re looking at kind of a 30-year war.

One can hear the frantic protestations of Iphigenia as she is dragged to the sacrificial altar.

Roberto Chavez and The False University: A Retrospective, runs at the Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College until December 6, 2014. Directions and visitors info for the museum, here.