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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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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.
“‘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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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 (We Are All Ayotzinapa), Fue El 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, “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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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 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 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.
With its M16 Art Project, the “peace activist” organization Peace One Day asked 14 contemporary artists “to use decommissioned M16 assault rifles to produce artwork, thereby continuing the story of taking objects of war and using them in support of peace.” The M16 Art Project is the companion exhibition to the earlier AKA Peace exhibit mounted by Peace One Day in 2012; both shows were curated by postmodernist Jake Chapman of Chapman Brothers infamy. I wrote an extensive critique of AKA Peace that I titled, AKA Peace: Off Target. That article ended with the following:
“AKA Peace was not an antiwar exhibit; it ignored history and kept clear of any critique of ultra-nationalism, militarism, or imperialism. It did not critically assess the economic and political reasons that give rise to war. It had nothing to say about fundamentalist religious extremism, nor did it even present an elemental pacifist stance regarding warfare. The exhibit essentially depoliticized war, the most political of all issues. It was not a loathing of state violence that served as the foundational view of the show so much as it was an irrational and morbid fear of firearms. AKA Peace was one of the most simplistic responses I have seen from artists reacting to real world political issues.”
I will not be writing a review or critique of the M16 Art Project; to do otherwise would be redundant. Everything that might be expressed about Peace One Day, Jake Chapman, and the insipid politics behind the project, has already received more than enough attention in my AKA Peace: Off Target article of 2012. Still, some things just bear repeating. It is stupefying that the transgressive and intentionally hideous works of Chapman, bereft of even a smattering of beauty or humanist compassion, can be showcased by Peace One Day as examples of art created for the uplift and betterment of humanity. But Peace One Day is itself a paradigm of contemporary “progressive” thought and action; it decorates itself with lofty rhetoric but offers no cohesive analysis, theory, or political solution. At best, it proffers charitable deeds, but ignores the necessity of deep structural change. Its platitudes are understood by some to be “antiwar,” but as the rest of this article shall illustrate, the organization’s bromides simply mask its deep hypocrisy.
Not surprisingly, Peace One Day solicits corporate sponsorship, asserting that “Corporations have the power to generate unparalleled levels of awareness all over the world.” Yes… just as they have been doing lo these many years. One corporate sponsor that Peace One Day lists euphemistically on its website as a member of its “corporate coalition” is McKinsey and Co, Inc., a major U.S. consulting firm that advises international governments, businesses, and institutions. Forbes ranks McKinsey as the 44th largest private company in the U.S., with revenue totaling some $7.8 billion annually.
So what does Peace One Day have to do with this consigliere for global ruling elites and the Fortune 500 billionaire class? Therein lies the rub.
In 2005 it was revealed by the Guardian that in June of that year the Labour Party Prime Minister Tony Blair hired David Bennett, a former senior partner at McKinsey, to head Blair’s Policy Directorate and Strategy Unit. Bennett also served as Blair’s Chief Policy Advisor. At the time British soldiers had been occupying Iraq since Blair misled the U.K. into war on Iraq in 2003. In Nov. 2005 the London Financial Times revealed that the Blair administration had commissioned a report from McKinsey that paved the way for “a shake-up at the heart of government.” The same article also stated that the U.K. Ministry of Defense handed the “consultancy firm £40m worth of contracts since 2001″ (for Americans, that is over $64 million Yankee dollars).
Large sections of the British public regard Tony Blair with open contempt for closely supporting U.S. President George W. Bush and involving the British armed forces in the invasions of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003). Many even call Blair a war criminal, some Americans, such as yours truly, concur. The question is, why does Peace One Day accept sponsorship from McKinsey and Co, Inc., a global corporation with clear links, not just to Blair, but to the U.K. Ministry of Defense?
Though McKinsey and Co, Inc. does not list their clients, their website makes clear what they do when not sponsoring Peace One Day. In the company’s own statement, “We serve more than 75 percent of the top 25 aerospace and defense companies in the world, and support numerous defense agencies in both mature and emerging markets.” The company also helps “defense organizations realize their strategic visions and meet mission-critical goals.”
What’s more, the McKinsey website offers the company’s Special Issue reports. Its Spring 2010 McKinsey on Defense report presented articles with titles like; An expert view on defense procurement, Improving US equipment acquisition, and Stabilizing Iraq (!) In part, the document’s introduction reads: “(….) the world remains a dangerous place. Defense forces must still be capable of deploying and sustaining ‘boots on the ground.’ Weapons must be maintained and upgraded. What, then, is to be done? In this edition of McKinsey on Government, we, along with some eminent military thinkers and practitioners, look at a range of challenges facing militaries that must do more things - some of them relatively new things - with less.”
When the skilled Orwellian writers at McKinsey and Co, Inc., aver that militaries must do “relatively new things - with less,” what exactly are they suggesting? Cyber warfare departments? Armed drone warfare? Since the “peace activists” at Peace One Day have partnered with McKinsey to help bring about a world without war, they might want to ask.
The Spring 2013 McKinsey on Defense report covers the company’s view on government military spending in a time of austerity. Contained in the 2013 report is an article titled, Cut fat not muscle: Preserving combat power when defense budgets are falling. The organizers at Peace One Day might have read it, but are hoping you have not. The report states that McKinsey “presents a potential solution through which governments can increase defense productivity to reduce costs without cutting capability,” One must assume that the preservation of military “capability” includes the acquisition of M16 rifles and other weapons systems large and small.
However, the U.K. intrigues of McKinsey and Co, Inc. did not end with the company’s close relationship with Tony Blair and the U.K. Ministry of Defense. The secretive consulting firm has been working with the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government of Tory Prime Minister David Cameron and Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. In March of 2012, the U.K. Parliament enacted the Health and Social Care Act, which had been written by Andrew Lansley, the Tory Health Secretary at the time. Lansley’s “reforms” opened the way to the ongoing destruction and privatization of England’s National Health Service (NHS). The coalition government demands £20bn ($32 billion U.S.) of enforced cuts to the NHS by 2015.
It has been revealed that McKinsey wrote key sections of the Health and Social Care Act, and that the coalition government has been paying McKinsey £250,000 ($403,600 U.S.) a year to advise on the NHS forced transition to privatization. Moreover, the aforementioned David Bennett (former senior partner at McKinsey and Chief Policy Advisor to Blair), is now the head of Monitor, the regulating agency that is currently overseeing the downsizing of the NHS. As the luminaries and pop celebrities of Peace One Day prance about at their art exhibits and rock concerts for peace, their friends at McKinsey and Co, Inc. are busy digging a grave for the NHS.
Apart from McKinsey’s depredations in the U.K., the firm helps “shape strategy and strengthen operations for players in major industries” all across the globe. The infamous Enron scandal comes to mind. Enron became synonymous with corporate crime in 2001 when the U.S. energy and commodities-trading giant was caught running the largest accounting fraud in history. In a March, 2002 article, the Guardian called McKinsey “The firm that built the house of Enron.” Jeffrey Skilling was a McKinsey consultant that worked for Enron starting in 1987 and by 1990 he became chairman and chief executive officer of Enron. In May, 2006, Enron founder Kenneth Lay along with Jeffery Skilling, were found guilty of fraud and conspiracy; Skilling was sentenced to 24-years in a federal prison for his financial crimes.
McKinsey is a paid consultant for governments from the reactionary kingdoms of the Middle East, to the nations of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. You may be rooting for the “pro-democracy” protestors in Hong Kong, China, but McKinsey and Co, Inc. are placing their bets on Beijing. As an example of their service to humanity and why Peace One Day would value such a partner, let us briefly examine the machinations of McKinsey in India.
In A bright future for India’s defense industry?, an article from the previously mentioned 2013 McKinsey on Defense report, the firm suggested what the Indian government “can do to seize the moment” in expanding “India’s defense sector.” It must be assumed that McKinsey is currently assisting the Indian government in doing just that.
While the McKinsey article was written before the May 2014 election of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi as India’s Prime Minister, it is clear that McKinsey is working with the new regime. In Sept. 2014, Modi appointed former McKinsey India chairman and current senior adviser with McKinsey India, Adil Zainulbhai, as chief of the Quality Council of India (QCI), the “autonomous” agency that in large part promotes Indian business, manufacturing, and products. Given McKinsey’s track record of promoting austerity budgets, downsizing, and privatization, it appears the new McKinsey-linked QCI will further transform India into the world’s sweatshop.
Narendra Modi and his political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are largely held responsible for the 2002 pogrom that saw Hindus attacking the Muslim minority in India’s western state of Gujarat. Most of those killed in the riots were Muslims, and they were murdered in acts of appalling cruelty and brutality; at the time Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat. In 2005 the George W. Bush administration denied Modi entry to the U.S., citing Modi’s “severe violations of religious freedom.” In May of 2014, President Obama congratulated Modi on his electoral victory and invited him to the White House; on Sept. 29, 2014, Obama met Modi in the White House for a private dinner, kicking off a two day visit between the two leaders.
The maneuverings of McKinsey and Co, Inc. are obvious enough, and it is easy to grasp that their partnership with Peace One Day is window dressing meant to present the firm in a benevolent light, but what does Peace One Day get out of the relationship? That question would be based on the naive assumption that the so-called peace activists of the organization were not simply enthusiastic frontmen for McKinsey and Co, Inc., as well as other powerful business and governmental interests.
The M16 Art Project first came to my attention when I read a BBC report that the London home of English actors Samantha “Sam” Taylor-Johnson and Aaron Taylor-Johnson had been raided by up to a dozen armed police. A “concerned passer-by” had spied a “machine gun” through the window of the couple’s home, and dutifully informed the local authorities. Moments later the police entered the residence of Sam (director of Fifty Shades of Grey) and Aaron (co-star in Godzilla 2014) to search for the weapon, possession of which would have violated England’s stringent gun laws.
The couple and their children were not at home during the armed search of their abode. The police found the weapon and confirmed that it was a decommissioned M16 rifle given to the Taylor-Johnsons by Peace Day One, the rifle to be used in the group’s upcoming antigun M16 Art Project. No arrests were made. Such a scenario would make for an interesting narrative in an artwork, or perhaps a lively performance art piece… but that apparently is not what Peace One Day had in mind.
The M16 Art Project will be exhibited at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts from Oct. 13 to Oct. 19, 2014, with an auction of the artworks taking place at Bonham’s on Oct. 17, 2014.
2014 marks the 10-year anniversary of the release of the infamous Abu Ghraib prison photographs, an event remembered by Iraqi Detainees, an unusual exhibition in Brooklyn, New York. The exhibit of photos by Chris Bartlett is evidence enough that the wounds from the U.S. war against Iraq that began on March 19, 2003 have not yet healed. But as I write this article on Sept. 23, 2014, President Obama’s order to conduct airstrikes against the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” in Syria is being carried out to deadly effect. On the first day of the new war, the U.S. launched some 47 cruise missiles from Navy warships and used drones, B-1 bombers, F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, as well as F-22 Raptor jet fighters to strike at ISIS extremists in northern Syria.
Obama the “Constitutional scholar” ordered the airstrikes despite not having Congressional authorization to back-up his actions, nor did the Nobel Peace Laureate seek a UN Security Council resolution to justify the new war. In touting the participation of the utterly corrupt Arab potentates of Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Qatar in supporting his bombing raids, Obama sought to give the appearance of a broad and “historic coalition.” In spite of this, U.S. military officials have stated that the U.S. has launched the vast majority of airstrikes. The president has placed the U.S. in the middle of a war that will only grow larger.
Now dragged into the Syrian quagmire, which will unquestionably be inherited by Obama’s successor, Americans should reflect on what was initially referred to as, “Operation Iraqi Liberation” (OIL), the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the eight-year long occupation that followed. One of that war’s many scandals was centered around how the U.S. Army and the CIA committed human rights abuses against the prisoners held at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison.
From 2003 to 2004, Iraqis were sexually abused and raped, tortured, beaten, humiliated, and killed in the Abu Ghraib prison by their American guards, some of whom documented their abuses with hand-held cameras. When a number of those photos became public in 2004, the notion of the U.S. being the international defender of human rights went up in smoke; the photograph of a hooded prisoner standing on a narrow box, his arms outstretched and connected to electric wires, can still be considered the iconic photo from that phase of the Iraq war.
The international arts community responded to the barbarous acts committed by Americans at Abu Ghraib prison, from the 2004-2005 paintings by famed Columbian artist Fernando Botero, to the 2004 Stop Bush artwork by the American minimalist sculptor Richard Serra. There were of course legions of artists that created works in opposition to the madness that was the Iraq war, but one has to ask the arts community, “now that the madness continues with Obama… what happened to all of your fury and indignation?”
Chris Bartlett’s Iraqi Detainees project is a reconsideration of those horrific Abu Ghraib prisoner photos. In 2006 Bartlett accompanied attorney Susan Burke on trips to Amman, Jordan and Istanbul, Turkey, to interview former Iraqi detainees held at Abu Ghraib. The interviews were conducted in preparing a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense regarding the detention and torture of prisoners. During that process Bartlett asked former prisoners, men and women, for their consent to be photographed; those photos served as the foundation for the Iraqi Detainees project.
Bartlett prefers to use natural lighting to capture his subjects, and this is the method he used in photographing the former Iraqi prisoners. Each individual was photographed against a black background, isolating extraneous details and compelling the viewer to face the subject head-on.
While Bartlett’s compassionate photos restore “humanity through beautiful portraiture,” they also make a much larger point about professional photography in general - how it is used to advance either the noble or the intolerable.
Bartlett told the BBC that in the case of the American guards at Abu Ghraib, “The camera was an instrument of abuse. The soldiers, the perpetrators of abuse, took the camera and used it to humiliate their subjects (….) I was using one of the instruments of their torture to bring some of their humanity back to them.”
The contrast noted by Bartlett, that one can use a camera to degrade or elevate, was partly seen in the microcosm of a torture chamber. However, stepping back from the dungeon to view the role of photography in the wider society, the same dynamic is found. A photographer can work to distract and obfuscate, uplift and enlighten, to cognize the complexities of life or to bury wisdom in the junk pile of commercialism. The same of course applies to artists in the fine art world. With Iraqi Detainees, Bartlett took a giant step outside the milieu of commercial product and fashion photography to produce some deeply affecting and humanistic photographs.
In an interview with The Intercept, Bartlett said that after having been robbed of their rights and dignity in the confines of the notorious prison, he “wanted to put these people back in front of the camera and use photography as a humanizing force.” All of the individuals photographed by Bartlett were detained by the U.S. military at Abu Ghraib, and though none were ever charged with any crime, each suffered horrible abuse and torture before being released.
Consider Bartlett’s portrait photograph of Ali Shalal Qaissi, which illustrates this article. It is difficult to imagine a man of such demeanor - beaten, hooded and electrocuted by his U.S. guards. According to Bartlett, Qaissi was “forced to lie on the ground, loudspeakers blasting music into his ears.” His guards “beat him regularly, and, on three occasions, subjected him to electric shock.” Mind you, Mr. Qaissi was never charged with committing any crime, he was simply picked off the street on Oct. 3, 2003, detained at Abu Ghraib, tortured, and finally released on Oct. 13, 2004. After his release, Qaissi founded the Association of Victims of American Occupation Prisons in Baghdad.
It should be remembered that in May of 2009, Obama blocked the court-ordered release of around 2,000 damning pictures taken by U.S. guards at Abu Ghraib, despite Obama’s earlier “promise” to have them released. The photos showed what the president himself described as “torture, abuse, rape and every indecency.” No commanding officer, Defense Department official, or high ranking figure in the Bush administration was ever charged, let alone faced trial, for what happened at Abu Ghraib. It should also be noted that during Obama’s 2008 run for president, he promised to review evidence of the abuse that occurred at Abu Ghraib and at a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan, because, as Senator Obama put it, “Nobody is above the law.” After winning the election, President Obama blocked investigations into the torture and murder of Afghan and Iraqi prisoners in U.S. custody, saying in April 2009 that “this is a time for reflection, not retribution.”
Iraqi Detainees opened on Sept. 9, 2014 at Photoville in the Brooklyn Bridge Park of Brooklyn, New York. Fittingly, Photoville exhibits a wide range of photography in an outdoor modular venue ingeniously constructed from giant metal shipping containers. It is the greatest of ironies that the same type of containers played a very different role during the early days of the 2003 war in Iraq. It is difficult not to think of the following when looking at the exhibit of Bartlett’s photos: interrogations of Iraqi prisoners conducted by U.S. military-intelligence soldiers and civilian contractors at Abu Ghraib were held in metal shipping containers.
In 2001, during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, thousands of Taliban prisoners were locked into metal shipping containers by Afghan warlords allied to the United States. Given no food or water, the prisoners suffocated to death in the extreme heat, or died when their captors riddled the containers with bullets. A declassified U.S. State Department intelligence report estimated that around 1,500 Taliban prisoners of war were killed in this manner.
Iraqi Detainees will run at Photoville until Sept. 28, 2014. Photoville is located in Brooklyn Bridge Park - click here for directions. For more information on the detainee photos, visit: www.detaineeproject.org. For more on the work of Mr. Bartlett, visit www.chrisbartlettstudio.com.
A monumentally important federal court ruling was quietly made on Sept. 4, 2014; it was a decision barely reported on by the national media.
On that date a federal judge in Louisiana found BP responsible for the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster of 2010, the worst oil spill in the history of the U.S.
The court also found the oil giant guilty of being “grossly negligent” in failing to conduct proper safety tests in the run-up to conducting deep sea oil drilling from its Deepwater Horizon oil platform in the Gulf, negligence that lead to the platform blowing up and killing 11 workers. The explosion resulted in some 4.9 million barrels of crude oil being dumped into the Gulf.
The ruling in the high-stakes trial presided over by Judge Barbier now opens the likelihood that BP will be forced to pay some $18 billion in fines for its violation of the Clean Water Act, enacted in 1972 as the principal federal law in the U.S. when it comes to water pollution. BP was quick to condemn the ruling, and announced plans to appeal the decision.
BP might want to refer to Michael Govan, the Director and CEO of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as a character witness.
Mr. Govan of course accepted $25 million from the oil giant in 2007, telling the L.A. Times at the time that he took funding from BP because: “What was convincing to me was their commitment to sustainable energy.” In its May 1, 2013 newsletter, LACMA informed the public that it was “pleased to announce” the renewal of BP’s corporate sponsorship. LACMA continues to tout BP as a corporate sponsor.
I first wrote about the relationship between LACMA and BP on March 14, 2007, and since then the oh-so-liberal L.A. arts community has remained stone silent when it comes to the issue of the world’s largest polluter funding the city’s leading art museum. Not so surprisingly, Michael Govan has refrained from issuing a single word of disapproval towards the oil-soaked, criminal benefactor of the museum he directs. Everything I have written on the subject of LACMA and its monstrous sponsor has been vindicated by the ruling of Judge Barbier, and I will not cease writing such articles until the relationship between LACMA and BP is finally terminated.
“Who needs Art when we have Perpetual War?” is a question that would be asked by a general who runs a garrison state. “What is Art when we have Perpetual War?” is a question that could only be asked by an artist.
I am an artist who believes that art reflects social realities, whether consciously or unconsciously, and that social conditions not only greatly impact the arts, but also shape how artists and the public envision them. Because of my world view, I want to share a few ideas regarding President Obama’s Sept. 10, 2014 nationally televised speech announcing his war on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Obama delivered his address announcing the expansion of war in Iraq, Syria, and beyond, on the eve of the 13th anniversary of 9/11.
Proclaiming a years long unilateral war against ISIS, the president said “we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are.” It was an announcement of open-ended war with no geographical boundaries, akin to the famous remark made by President Bush in Sept. 2001 when referring to al-Qaeda terrorists - “We’re going to smoke them out.” However, one gets the feeling that today, rather than smoking out our foes, they are drawing us in.
In his address Obama said he will “not hesitate to take action” in Syria.
The real objective of Obama’s war is not the defeat of Islamic extremism, it is regime change, the overthrow of Syria’s authoritarian leader, Bashar al-Assad, that and securing U.S. control over Iraqi oil wealth.
It should be remembered that only last year Obama wanted to bomb Syria and destroy the Syrian government, but he could not persuade the U.S. Congress to authorize military action. Polls showed that the majority of Americans opposed a U.S. strike on Syria.
When the British Parliament delivered a stunning defeat to Prime Minister David Cameron by voting down his call for military action against Assad… Obama’s war plans went up in smoke. Today the brutality of ISIS provides Obama with the casus belli for a war that will bring down Assad and strike crippling blows to Russia and Iran, who have historically been close allies of the Syrian regime.
During his speech Obama said that he would “degrade, and ultimately destroy” ISIS. He insisted “we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq,” even as he announced he was sending “an additional 475 service members to Iraq” (which expands the present U.S. military force in Iraq to 1,600 at the time of this writing). For Obama to say that we “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil,” is fallacious on the face of it. During an air campaign, special forces commonly infiltrate enemy territory to gather intelligence and “paint” targets with lasers to facilitate air strikes. There are already reports of U.S. combat troops fighting in Iraq.
The president said that the U.S. will “lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat,” but he gave few details on which nations will actually help fight the war. Remarkably, the White House is still casting about for members to join the coalition, days after Obama’s speech! The White House says it will soon name those allies that will do what Obama has disingenuously pledged not to do… send ground troops to fight ISIS. What member nation of the “coalition” will send troops to fight, kill, and die when the U.S. refuses to do the same? Why do I have the feeling that “mission creep” will rapidly have the U.S. military deeply involved in this looming disaster of Obama’s?
In his speech Obama pointed to his drone war being “successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” His five-year long drone warfare campaign has so far killed an estimated 2,400 people in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, with at least 273 of the dead being civilians. It goes without saying that drone strikes will be a major component of Obama’s air war in Iraq and Syria, and that innocent civilians do not appreciate having their wedding parties being turned into funerals by U.S. predator drones and their hellfire missiles. But does anyone believe that Obama’s air campaign against ISIS will manage to do what over a hundred thousand U.S. combat troops, massive air strikes, and an eight-year military occupation could not achieve in Iraq?
Obama did not even attempt to seek authorization from the U.S. Congress to wage war against ISIS, claiming in his speech that he already has “the authority to address the threat.” Obama has cited two authorizations passed by Congress in 2001 and 2002 in support of George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as all the authority he needs. The 2001 “Authorization for Use of Military Force” (AUMF) supported Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan, the 2002 AUMF supported the invasion of Iraq. But wait, in a 2013 speech Obama said he wanted to “ultimately repeal” the 2001 authorization because “we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight.” TIME magazine reported that in July of 2013 Obama’s National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, wrote Speaker of the House John Boehner to tell him that the 2002 AUMF was no longer operative. Rice wrote: “With American combat troops having completed their withdrawal from Iraq on December 18, 2011, the Iraq AUMF is no longer used for any U.S. government activities and the Administration fully supports its repeal.”
When Senator Obama was running for president in 2007, he said the following: “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” Now that the U.S. peace movement has completely rolled over and died without a sound, Senator Obama seems the most outspoken critic of President Obama.
With his latest speech, Obama made George W. Bush’s “war on terror” and “pre-emptive war” strategies his own. If you doubt this, consider the following. In a Sept. 2014 interview with BuzzFeed News, former Bush administration lawyer John Yoo said that; “Obama has adopted the same view of war powers as the Bush administration.” In 2001 Yoo wrote the memorandum that became the legal basis for Bush’s pre-emptive war strategy. Almost as if he were goading the so-called left, Yoo told BuzzFeed News: “What is remarkable, is not that Obama eventually had to exercise the powers of his predecessors to protect American national security, but that his party in Congress, and his allies in the media and the universities, have remained so silent about it.”
In the wake of 9/11, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. To date the war in Afghanistan has taken the lives of 2,343 U.S. soldiers and some 21,000 civilians. In Iraq, 4,489 U.S. soldiers have been killed since the war’s start in 2003. Civilian casualties have been estimated to be as high as a half-million. Both wars combined have cost U.S. taxpayers between $4 and $6 trillion. The American Society of Civil Engineers put the price of upgrading America’s aging infrastructure at $2.2 trillion. For half the amount of money already spent in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. could have rebuilt all of its rundown bridges, water pipelines, roads, and railways. Since the focus of this web log is on art, I will suggest that some of that money could have gone to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The current budget of the NEA is $146.2 million; it could be equivalent to that of the National Science Foundation, some $7 billion annually.
Since they began in June of this year, Obama’s military operations against ISIS have cost an average of $7.5 million per day, which means that up until Obama’s Sept. 10th speech, his new war has already cost well over $532 million. As the war against ISIS escalates and expands into Syria, that daily average is going to skyrocket, and guess who is going to pay for it all?
If you want to know what the eventual outcome of Obama’s war in Syria will look like, consider the results of Obama’s 2011 war on Libya, where Washington overthrew secular strongman Muammar Gadhafi by supporting Islamic extremists opposed to the Libyan government.
As with his announced war on ISIS, Obama did not seek nor receive Congressional authorization to attack Libya. He promised that the war in Libya would not involve U.S. “boots on the ground,” and in lieu of sending in combat troops, he trained, armed, and provided essential air support to Islamic militias - some known to have ties with al-Qaeda. After the militias overthrew the government of Gadhafi, they set upon each other for control of the country. The weapons provided to the rebels by Obama during the “revolution,” plus the looted sophisticated arms caches stockpiled by the toppled leader, were exported by Libyan jihadists to al-Qaeda linked fighters in Syria fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad. On Sept. 11, 2012, jihadists attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, murdering U.S. Ambassador John Christopher Stevens and several other American personnel.
When running for re-election in 2012, Obama said of Libya’s then just completed, farcical post-revolution elections: “We will engage as partners as the Libyan people work to build open and transparent institutions, establish security and the rule of law, advance opportunity and promote unity and national reconciliation.” In July of this year, as jihadists fought for control of Libya’s capital city of Tripoli, the U.S. evacuated its embassy there, sending 158 Americans in a heavily armed caravan to neighboring Tunisia. This Sept., what remained of the “elected” Libyan government fell to those Islamist militias that took control of Tripoli. The so-called Libyan parliament now convenes on a rented Greek car ferry that also serves as a floating hotel for the banished legislature. A myriad of extremist Islamic militias now fight for control of Libya. As Obama leads Americans back into the inferno of Iraq and the killing grounds of Syria, hardly anyone is pointing to his Libyan debacle, or to its ongoing “blow-back.”
To stampede Americans into supporting his war plans, Obama cited the viciousness of ISIS in his Sept. 10th speech, saying that “these terrorists are unique in their brutality,” and “in acts of barbarism they took the lives of two American journalists - Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff.” As I write these words there is news that ISIS has beheaded a third victim, a British humanitarian aid worker named David Haines. While ISIS is unquestionably a brutal organization, honest observers of the Middle East will tell you that atrocious acts have been committed by just about everyone in the region, including those so-called “moderate” rebels in Syria that Obama supports. ISIS is far from being “unique in their brutality” and the president knows this.
The New York Times reported that on Aug. 23, 2014, 33-year old Douglas McAuthur McCain became “the first American to die while fighting for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.” McCain and other ISIS fighters attacked a unit of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the “moderates” backed by Obama (the FSA is fighting other factions and extremist Islamic militias for supremacy in the Syrian antigovernment movement). The FSA responded to McCain’s attack by shooting and killing him as well as dozens of other ISIS combatants. And here is the clincher, the NYTimes reported that the FSA “went on to behead six ISIS fighters - but not Mr. McCain - and then posted the photographs on Facebook.” Moreover, according to the NYTimes, “the Obama administration released a statement” confirming the death of McCain.
While the outrageous beheadings of Foley, Sotloff, and Haines by ISIS fanatics have become headline news, the beheadings carried out by the Free Syrian Army - the U.S. backed “rebels” Obama wants to train and arm - have been left out of the White House narrative of terrorists “unique in their brutality.”
On Sept. 8, 2014, a spokesperson for the family of Steven Sotloff told CNN that Steven had been “sold” by “so-called moderate rebels” to the militants of ISIS. The Sotloff family representative said that the Free Syrian Army were responsible for turning the American reporter over to ISIS.
Though Obama does not seek Congressional authorization for his war against ISIS, he does want Congress to approve his plan to spend $500 million - to start - on training and arming “moderate” Syrian rebels. There are some 1,000 separate militias fighting the Assad regime, the largest and most effective of these groups are Islamic extremists like the 7,000 fighters of the al-Nusra Front or the 45,000 combatants of the Islamic Front. The Free Syrian Army is one of the few “moderate” groups anyone can name, even though they are known to have fought alongside al-Qaeda linked jihadists.
President Obama has also struck a deal with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Obama spoke with Saudi King Abdullah, who agreed to permit the construction of U.S. military training camps on Saudi soil. It is at these Saudi based camps that arms and war fighting skills will be provided to the Free Syrian Army and whatever other “moderate” Syrian militia men the U.S. manages to scrape up (never mind that the Saudis have been arming Syria’s Islamic extremists). While Obama attempts to hoodwink the American people with his plan to arm “moderate” rebels, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is reporting that Islamist and “moderate” militias in Damascus, Syria have signed a ceasefire and non-aggression pact with ISIS. Signatories to the pact agree not to fight each other and instead concentrate all their efforts in bringing down the Assad regime.
On Sept. 9, 2014, just one day before Obama’s speech, UN human rights experts condemned Saudi Arabia for its increase of executions and beheadings. The UN Human Rights Office noted that defendants in Saudi Arabia are often denied legal representation and have their confessions extracted by torture. Many of those found “guilty” of drug use or drug-smuggling, witchcraft, adultery, blasphemy, sodomy, and apostasy have been beheaded. UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan Méndez, said that “Beheading as a form of execution is cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and prohibited under international law under all circumstances.” Many state-sanctioned public executions take place in central Riyadh (the Saudi capital) at Deera Square, otherwise known by locals as “Chop Chop Square” according to a May 4, 2004 CBS report.
With the decisive assistance of Saudi Arabia, which uses public beheadings and crucifixions to implement its hardline version of Sharia law, Mr. Obama will wage war on ISIS, which also uses public beheadings and crucifixions to implement its hardline version of Sharia law. Yeah… that sounds like a recipe for success.
On Oct. 26, 2002, a silver-tongued Democratic Senator named Barack Obama gave a speech at an anti-war rally in Chicago, where he expressed his supposed opposition to President Bush’s impending invasion of Iraq by saying, “What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war.”
How odd it is to read those words now. Having pinned all of their fortunes on Mr. Obama - artists and the ostensible antiwar movement, especially its leaders, have much soul searching to do.
On Feb. 15, 2003 over 30 million people demonstrated in sixty different countries to protest the imminent U.S. war on Iraq. In my home city of Los Angeles, I joined around 100,000 people in an antiwar march down Hollywood Boulevard - now there is nothing but silence.