In Defense of Art & Artists

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Karlísima's defaced "Presidential Mural." Video screen capture from Channel 4 NBC Washington.

On August 6, 2015, a highly praised public mural funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities was defaced by a vandal or vandals. Unashamedly, a leading left-wing activist wrote a vile article celebrating the willful destruction of the artwork because it depicts eleven U.S. presidents from Eisenhower to Obama. Then, one of America’s leading “radical” websites published the filthy screed.

What the hell is going on here? Please allow this working artist to fill in the details.

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Video screen capture from Channel 4 NBC Washington.

In 2008 the owners of Mama Ayesha’s, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Washington D.C., commissioned award winning artist Karla Cecilia Rodas Cortez, popularly known as Karlísima, to paint a large mural on the outside wall of the restaurant.

The mural work was meant to honor the founder of the eatery, Ayesha Abraham, a Palestinian born in Jerusalem in the late 1800’s who came to the U.S. as an émigré in the late 1940s. Abraham opened her restaurant, originally named Calvert Café, and it was a success in the community and frequented by the politicos that worked in Washington. When Ayesha died in 1993, her family renamed the business Mama Ayesha’s in her honor.

Karlísima’s mural depicts Ayesha Abraham in traditional Palestinian dress, flanked on her right by presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, and Jimmy Carter, while on her left Abraham was flanked by Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. In the background one can see blossoming Cherry trees and the White House. The mural is framed on both sides by a border set in mosaic tile that depicts the U.S. flag. No doubt the restaurant owners wanted to praise Ayesha, but they also wanted to laud their establishment as a favored bistro with government workers, ambassadors, and political dignitaries.

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Karlísima's defaced "Presidential Mural." Video screen capture from Channel 4 NBC Washington.

It took three years on a scaffold for Karlísima to paint her Presidential Mural. The cost of producing the artwork was $25,000, and the funding was provided by the Abraham family, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities. The artist hired some assistants, but most of the work she did by herself. $25,000 is a pittance for three years of labor, is it not? Allow this proletarian artist to explain the concept for you. I support the fifteen dollar an hour movement, so I know that a 40-hour-a-week job that pays the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 nets a worker a yearly salary of around $13,926, or $41,778 for a three year period. This is wholly inadequate as a living wage, but it also means that in three years of hard work Karlísima earned far less than a worker laboring in a fast food business.

On the night of August 6, a vandal, or possibly a group of hooligans, shot up Karlísima’s mural using a paint ball gun or guns loaded with bright red paint. It took time to methodically place over 50 shots in the groin area of the presidents. The central figure of Ayesha Abraham was not destroyed. One of the hoodlums supposedly signed the work with a scrawl reading, “The War Thugs.” Channel 4 NBC Washington reported that the manager of Mama Ayesha’s, Amir Abu-El-Hawa, responded to the destruction by saying: “It’s sad. My family has worked hard for this restaurant - blood, sweat and tears over the past 55 years.” The television station also spoke to the artist, who simply said: “I’m just so devastated.”

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Karlísima's defaced "Presidential Mural." Video screen capture from Channel 4 NBC Washington.

On August 7, 2015, the Common Dreams website published an article by Sam Husseini with the awkwardly sophomoric title of: On Shooting the ‘War Thug’ Presidents in the (Paint) Balls. A writer and left-wing political activist, Mr. Husseini is the communications director of the progressive Institute for Public Accuracy. His articles on pop culture, media, and political matters have been widely published, from the Nation to the Washington Post, but his Paint Balls essay is utterly reprehensible. From the opening paragraph to the last moral high-horse sentence, Husseini’s anti-art diatribe made my blood boil; this passionate article is the result.

I will be direct, Sam Husseini is a philistine, a classic example of an individual who knows absolutely nothing about art. The fact that he writes about pop culture and media, and his rubbish is published, points not only to the intellectual squalor of our times, but to the bankruptcy of America’s so-called “left.”

In the malicious opening sentence of his article, Husseini informs the reader that Karlísima’s mural had been “transformed” or “made more whole, reborn” by its defacement! He completely dismisses the artist, barely mentioning her, saying only that “the mural was originally labored over by Karlisima Rodas.”

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Karlísima's defaced "Presidential Mural." Video screen capture from Channel 4 NBC Washington.

Of Mayan ancestry, Karlísima was born in San Salvador, El Salvador, and was considered a prodigy for her artistic abilities. As a child Karlísima was mentored by none other than José Mejía Vides, a printmaker, sculptor, and painter now considered to be an outstanding luminary in Salvadoran art. One does not need to dwell on the conditions suffered by El Salvador in the 1980s. As an artist I worked hard to oppose the “death squad” democracy the U.S. hoisted upon the unfortunate Salvadorans at the time, creating a multitude of prints and drawings that depicted that country’s bloody “civil war.” Karlísima left El Salvador in 1984 and emigrated to the United States where she settled in Washington D.C. In 1992 she graduated from Washington University with a Bachelor degree in Fine Arts, and went on to work at the National Gallery of Art and the National Museum of African American Art as a silk screen specialist.

Husseini goes on to call the paint ball vandalism “a sort of art work that is literally paint as paint,” and that for the destroyed mural “there’s a case to be made that this more completes the piece than defaces it.” Husseini adds the wisecrack that “some people, including Karlisima, now seem upset by the addition of the paintballs, but murals are not typically done to glorify the high and mighty.” In what would not be his final spasm of mental incapacity, Husseini jeered that “the original mural is not destroyed, it’s not painted over, but used to make a perhaps unexpected point.” Ah, there it is, the postmodern gobbledegook. You see, an anonymous street artist has merely “appropriated” and “repurposed” Karlísima’s mural! It is with the most bitter sarcasm that I must point out that our paint ball vandal could enjoy a lucrative career in today’s trendy art world, if he or she would only step out of the shadows.

Instead of criticizing Karlísima’s artwork, perhaps Mr. Husseini should offer some critical analysis of America’s progressive movement. The U.S. antiwar movement totally collapsed with the ascendancy of Mr. Hope and Change, the “antiwar” president; the left simply folded itself into the Obama campaign and the democratic party, willingly and mostly uncritically. It has not since recovered, and I have serious doubts that it will. The left’s ineptitude and total incompetence has prevented it from impacting the American political scene, and now out of sheer frustration, lefties are attacking an artist for painting the portraits of eleven U.S. presidents.

What really stuck in Husseini’s craw was that Karlísima dared to paint 11 U.S. presidents without giving them devil horns and fangs. In Husseini’s words: “From using nuclear weapons to bombing Vietnam and invading Iraq to deploying killer drones in country after country, the thuggish-ness of these presidents is hard to compete with.” He went on to say that “an augmented mural could include mushroom clouds in the background, and perhaps jet fighters, bombers and killer drones flying overhead.” Yes, but… we are not talking about the augmentation of an artwork, we are talking about artless pillage. Husseini completely disregards Karlísima’s right to freedom of expression because he deems her artwork “politically incorrect.”

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"Nagasaki Nightmare" - Gee Vaucher. Pencil drawing, 1980.

I am in no way opposed to the creation of acerbic works of art that malign the war making ruling class, I have created such images myself. Here I must mention the brilliance of English artist Gee Vaucher. In 1977 she joined the anarchist punk rock band Crass, producing extraordinary hand drawn images that everyone thought were photomontages. In 1980 Vaucher drew the cover art for the band’s Nagasaki Nightmare single, an antiwar musical masterwork. The artwork depicted the leaders of nuclear armed powers and their allies standing on the pulverized remains of Nagasaki, the charred body of a child at their feet. Vaucher’s drawing and the band’s lyrics continue to haunt me: “They’ve done it once, and they’ll do it again, they’ll shower us all in their deadly rain.” If Husseini actually knew anything, he might have told his readers about Vaucher’s works, instead he went for the denigrating cheap shot by belittling an artist and praising a vandal. Crass did not destroy anyone else’s artwork in order to make their point.

Husseini attempts to justify the destruction of an artwork that he does not politically approve of, and he makes light of it. His tone is more appropriate for TMZ or Buzzfeed. He condones the ruining of an artist’s depiction of U.S. presidents, because “all these presidents have used violence.” I find the crudeness and philistinism of Sam Husseini to be frightening. By giving a green light to the defacement of Karlísima’s Presidential Mural, my fear is that he incites some screwball to visit the U.S. National Portrait Gallery and begin defacing the museum’s historic Portraits of the Presidents collection; justifying the vandalism of art is a slippery slope.

Furthermore, Husseini assumes the “transformation” of the mural was carried out as a left critique of power. How does he know the defacement was not carried out by your garden-variety lunatic, or simply as an act of teenage vandalism? The signature “The War Thugs” could have been left by anyone and should not be considered evidence for political motivation.

More to the point, it is so much easier to destroy a work that took an artist three years to create, than it is to produce your own artistic statement. Husseini did not call for artists to step forward to create skillful and persuasive works of art to open minds and touch the human soul, no, he made excuses for an act of sheer brutish intimidation, and no American should put up with it.

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Karlísima's defaced "Presidential Mural." Video screen capture from Channel 4 NBC Washington.

What would Husseini have written about the City of Los Angeles partially white washing the Siqueiros América Tropical mural on Olvera Street in 1932? Would he have written that it had simply been “transformed” or “made more whole, reborn?” I have to wonder how Husseini would respond to a pro-Palestinian public mural being defaced on U.S. streets with red paint ball splats. Would he say that “the paintball artist perhaps admirably exercised restraint from engaging in figurative head shots,” like he did when referring to the ruined Karlísima mural?

It seems so obvious that I hesitate to bring it up, but history has shown us many examples where art and artists were destroyed for political purposes. Starting in 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committed destroyed the lives and careers of hundreds of directors, screenwriters actors, and other professionals in the Hollywood motion picture industry, because they were accused of being communists. In the late 1930’s the Nazis began to ban artists that they perceived to be “un-German” and “degenerate,” in particular banning Jewish and communist artists. Husseini’s claptrap regarding Karlísima’s mural reminds me of the Nazi Degenerate Art exhibitions (German: Entartete Kunst), where the fascists exhibited modern art for ridicule and derision before destroying the canvases, sculptures, and prints, or selling them overseas for profit.

I am a dedicated realist painter and printmaker with a lifelong commitment to creating socially conscious works of art. If Sam Husseini, his minions and supporters, would care to go through my online portfolio of artworks and writings published on my Art For A Change website, they will find nothing that even remotely smacks of reactionary politics. That being said, I strongly denounce Husseini’s vile contention that Karlísima’s mural was “transformed” and “made more whole, reborn,” by a wretched act of vandalism.

In 1758 the French philosopher Claude-Adrien Helvétius published a controversial book titled On the Mind. The work was banned by the Parliament and the Sorbonne while Helvétius came under relentless attack. The Enlightenment philosopher and writer Voltaire was unimpressed by the book, but when he heard it had been publicly torched, he resolved to support Helvétius.

In 1919 the English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall published a book that summarized Voltaire’s position regarding Helvétius in the following words: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Hall’s phrase is what Husseini should have proclaimed when announcing his displeasure with Karlísima’s mural. Hall’s words should be ringing in our ears. The act of vandalism approved of by Husseini clarifies her words and brings them new life and meaning.

Truth be told, I don’t really care for Karlísima’s Presidential Mural, as I do not believe an artist’s role is to give uncritical support to those at the top. Let us just say it is the Francisco Goya in me. But when goons attempt to physically obliterate her work, and slippery eels publish rationales and apologia for those attacks… I will stand with Karlísima as a fellow artist.  I would hope that I would have the same support, were my own works ever defaced.

The manager of Mama Ayesha’s, Amir Abu-El-Hawa, has set up a GoFundMe page to raise the money necessary to restore the damaged mural; the goal is to raise $4,000 dollars. At the time of this writing, $3,285 dollars have been raised. Please join me and contribute whatever you can to the restoration of Karlísima’s Presidential Mural.

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UPDATE - 8/12/2015: Craig Brown contacted me on August 11th. As the co-founder of Common Dreams, Mr. Brown directs the editorial content and daily operations of the online publication. He surprised me by writing: “I completely agree with your ‘In Defense of Art & Artists,’” and claimed that since he had not seen nor approved the Paint Balls article by Sam Husseini, its publication was an oversight. To his credit, Brown asked permission to reprint my essay as a rebuttal to Husseini’s piece. In Defense of Art & Artists was republished on Common Dreams on Aug. 12, 2015.

In his e-mail to me, Brown noted that his late wife and fellow Common Dreams founder Lina Newhouser, was also a founder of the Alliance for Cultural Democracy (ACD), and that she would have been infuriated by Husseini’s screed. The ACD was a national arts activism group that organized around issues of cultural democracy from 1982 to 1994. Readers should carefully review the ACD’s Declaration of Cultural Human Rights that was written in 1996.

In the Land of the Tlingit

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Fortune smiled upon me and I found myself in the land of the Tlingit from June 7th to June 14th, 2015; I made an all too brief journey to Southeast Alaska and witnessed many wonderful sights during my brief sojourn. The indigenous Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people all live in the region, but this article will place emphasis on the enduring Tlingit people as I encountered them during my visits to the Alaskan communities of Icy Strait Point, Hoonah, Juneau, and Ketchikan. This essay features some of the photographs I took during my travels.

I am certainly not an expert when it comes to the culture and history of the Tlingit, but I have always had a great affinity for the indigenous of this hemisphere. However, I am writing as a realist painter and printmaker from the metropolis of Los Angeles; I dash off these words as someone who, for a short while, escaped the congested postmodern swamp of L.A. to view another, pristine world.

In the plastic megalopolis where I live, art has degenerated into little more than a voguish commodity, largely disconnected from community and history. Art functions differently in the land of the Tlingit, and we have much to learn from them when it comes to an arts philosophy. This essay is presented in that spirit.

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Icy Strait Point on Chichagof Island, Alaska. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

My first stop was Icy Strait Point on Chichagof Island, which in actuality is the extreme outskirt of nearby Hoonah, Alaska’s largest Tlingit village. The Tlingit call their lands, Lingít Aaní, (roughly, “Land of the Tlingit” or “Tlingit Nation”). The meaning of the name “Tlingit” can be interpreted as “People of the tides.” It is not known when they settled the area, but evidence points to their being in the region for at least 3,000 years. Beginning in 1700 the Tlingit were forced from their villages in Glacier Bay by an advancing glacier. They eventually settled in a place they called Xunniyaa, “shelter from the north wind,” which is today’s Hoonah.

At Icy Strait Point, temperate rain forest stretches to the sea. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

At Icy Strait Point, temperate rain forest stretches to the sea. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

The environment at Icy Strait Point is dazzling beyond words; deep blue Pacific waters meet broad pebbled beaches strewn with driftwood, mussel and clam shells. Above the shoreline a lush rainforest dense with cypress and pine trees, ferns, wildflowers, and thick carpets of moss, looms above the sea. Higher up still one finds verdant mountain forests and majestic peaks capped with snow and ice; bear hunt for salmon in the icy rivers and streams.

In the days before European colonization, the Tlingit, like the other indigenous people in the region, lived as fishermen, hunters, mariners, gatherers, and traders in an environment so plentiful that acquiring food did not present a problem. The abundance and variety of food, and the easy access the Tlingit had to it, cannot be overstated. It led to the people having the leisure time to develop a sophisticated art and culture.

By 1912 the place now called Icy Strait Point was transformed into a major hub for the U.S. commercial salmon fishing industry. A huge processing factory and cannery was built at the untouched natural bay, which also served as a dock for the fishing fleet. It would not be until the mid-1990’s that the Tlingit people were able to reassert control over that land.

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At Icy Strait Point, the author stands next to a Totem Pole created by Tlingit brothers Mick and Rick Beasley. Photo/Jeannine Thorpe ©

In 1996 the Tlingit-owned Huna Totem Corporation in nearby Hoonah purchased the old cannery, and in 2001 renamed the land Icy Strait Point. The cannery has been transformed into a museum and retail shops; boating, flying, bicycle tours and kayak adventures are conducted out of the village, which is also home to the world’s largest zip-line. Vendors sell fresh caught crab and fresh grilled salmon. “Eco-tourism” is big in Icy Strait Point; one can book tours that will have you walking through glacier-made landscapes, rain forests, and evergreen forests. There are whale watching tours where Orca and Humpbacks abound. Southeast Alaska’s only on-site brown bear viewing is at Icy Strait.

There are a number of impressive totem poles to be found at Icy Strait Point. Totem poles were, and are, narratives that carry on oral traditions, honor ancestors and sacred animal spirits, and mark social or historic events. They also provide identity, as the Tlingit are divided into two moieties or descent groups: Eagle and Raven. The moieties are divided into clans, and clans are further divided into houses. Each entity has its own history, tales, heroes, and guardian spirits, all of which are carved on the totem poles belonging to each tribal group. Traditionally, totem poles were raised in front of community Tribal Houses.

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Detail of Totem Pole created by Tlingit brothers Mick and Rick Beasley. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

It might surprise the reader to know that salmon eggs played a role in Tlingit art. Pigments - red, green, white, yellow, brown, were derived from minerals; black was obtained from charcoal or coal. These pigments were ground on stones until they became powdered, and then mixed in stone bowls with a little water and crushed salmon eggs. In European tempera painting, the old masters mixed crushed mineral pigments with water and chicken egg yolk to obtain vibrant, transparent, and long-lasting paints. In the same way, Tlingit artisans mixed their mineral pigments with fish eggs. The fish oil made for a tough and lustrous paint that handled like, well, oil paint, and it was fairly impervious to the elements! By the end of the nineteenth century, commercial paints started to take the place of fish-egg tempera.

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Detail of Totem Pole created by Tlingit brothers Mick and Rick Beasley. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

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Detail of Icy Strait Totem Pole created by Tlingit brothers Mick and Rick Beasley. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Many Tlingit carved and painted to some degree, but when something special was required, an artist of great talent was paid for their skills. Such an artist carried a box full of brushes tipped with soft porcupine hair; brush handles were usually made from carved cedar wood. Up to a dozen such brushes of various sizes were stored in the box, along with other necessary tools like pigments, fish eggs, carved sharpened sticks for drawing, and cedar bark stencils for laying out patterns. Tlingit artists never attempted to shade with their colors, nor did they mix them. While Tlingit art always presented form in a realistic manner, the European understanding of perspective was entirely unknown.

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"Indian Village" - Mary Blair. Storyboard art for the 1953 animated Disney film, Peter Pan, depicting a stereotypical and inaccurate teepee village and totem pole. Starting in the 1940s, the talented Ms. Blair was a prominent artist at the Walt Disney Company.

Hollywood movies and cartoons spread the notion that “Indians” lived in teepees next to garish totem poles.

In reality totem poles are a unique art form created only by the indigenous people of the Northwest coastal region, the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Kwakwaka’wakw, Bella Coola, and Nootka.

Totem poles were never created as religious objects to be worshipped. Europeans came up with the term “low man on the totem pole,” a reference to the order of figures placed on the poles, to describe someone without power or social status. In reality, it was not dismissive for a figure to be placed at or near the bottom of a pole. The multiple figures carved on a pole told a story, but one usually understood only by the clan or family that owned it.

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A cedar wood carving of an Orca is mounted at the entrance of the Heritage Center Native Theater in Icy Strait Point. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

The Heritage Center Native Theater at Icy Strait Point is where presentations of Tlingit history, dance, art and music are made. Constructed as a replica of a traditional cedar plank Tribal House, the theater provides a glimpse into the living traditions of the Tlingit.

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Detail of Totem Pole carved by Jimmy Marks that stands in front of the Heritage Center Native Theater at Icy Strait Point. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

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Detail of Totem Pole carved by Jimmy Marks that stands in front of the Heritage Center Native Theater at Icy Strait Point. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Standing in front of the center are two splendid totem poles that were carved by the late Jimmy Marks, who is still widely hailed as a Tlingit master carver whose unique designs are immediately recognizable. Born with the Tlingit name of Jakwteen in 1941, Marks worked in the Hoonah fishing fleet as a fisherman. He became known for his carvings and eventually became a carving instructor. He was fluent in the Tlingit language, and taught it in the Juneau School District Indian Studies Program. Marks passed away in 2009 at the age of 67, but his works continue to inspire.

Icy Strait Point is home to Lisa Andersson (Yak x waan tlaa) and Jeffery Skaflestad (Sei ya Eesh), two impressive artists who create traditional weavings, carvings, drums, and moccasins of the highest quality; they sell their works at Dei L’e.aan, Andersson’s store in the transformed cannery. Mr. Skaflestad has a work table set up in the store where he diligently hand carves traditional wood masks using hand tools. I spent some time talking with the enthusiastic and knowledgeable Skaflestad. Sensitive to my interest, he regaled me with stories on woodcarving, the production of Tlingit armor, and methods of producing the world renown “bentwood box.”

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The work table of Jeffery Skaflestad (Sei ya Eesh). Photo/Mark Vallen ©

The traditional bentwood box is made from a single cedar plank, shaped and molded through a process of steaming. The boxes are made without a single nail or corner joint, lids for the boxes were similarly produced. The boxes can be elaborately carved, inlaid, and painted or left plain, depending on its intended use. In the old days the wooden cases were used as furniture, shelves, treasure chests, and storage containers. They stored wardrobes, ritual objects, or served as pantries. The boxes were so well constructed that they were even used to cook food. Water in a bentwood box could be brought to a boil by dropping heated stones into the container - just add cuts of salmon!

I had a conversation with a Tlingit woman at Icy Strait Point who, like many locals, is a shareholder in the Huna Totem Corporation. Bright, enthusiastic, and fiercely proud of her heritage, she exemplified all the people I talked to who work in the small town. She told me that collective ownership of the village had brought economic sustainability to her people. Great care had been taken to present the true face of indigenous culture, keeping out most of the cheap, kitschy trinkets in favor of locally made indigenous arts and crafts. She informed me that so far, proceeds from sales made in Icy Strait Point provided a half-million dollars in educational scholarships to Tlingit youth.

The forested mountains surrounding the village of Hoonah. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

The forested mountains surrounding the village of Hoonah. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Less than a 2 mile walk from Icy Strait Point is its parent village of Hoonah. Commercial fishing and processing still employs many, but the work is seasonal and grueling. The timber “industry” was the second largest industry in Alaska during the 1970s, but when it collapsed, tourism became the economic lifeblood of Hoonah. With a population of around 800 individuals, 80% are Tlingit, and most of them work at Icy Strait.

I was told time and again that Hoonah is the face of the real Alaska. It is a small, working class enclave fully integrated into a magnificent natural landscape. Colorful rustic homes, mom and pop stores and eateries, picturesque harbors, community centers and churches dot the landscape.

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American Bald Eagle in Hoonah. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

American Bald Eagles perch on telephone poles and rooftops; ravens are everywhere, and they are the biggest ravens I have ever seen… in more ways than one. A traditional Tlingit creation story tells us that Raven brought light into the newly created world. I was enormously impressed by the Ravens I saw, and will be drawing them in future artworks.

At Hoonah an extremely important undertaking for the Tlingit is now underway, the building of a traditional Tribal House. The Tlingit have not had such a structure in their homeland for over 250 years. At present Tlingit master carvers Gordon Greenwald, Herb Sheakley, and Owen James are laboring in a workshop next to Hoonah High School, carving totem poles and other items for the project. It was my intention to visit the workshop, not just to assess the endeavor’s progress, but to learn a few things from the committed indigenous artisans. As fate would have it, their workshop was closed when I arrived in the late afternoon, but I can still tell you what I know of their work.

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Detail of Hoonah High School Totem Pole created by Tlingit brothers Mick and Rick Beasley. The fish depicted on the pole is a Pacific Halibut. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

The Hoonah Indian Association reached an agreement with the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) to build the 2500 square foot Tribal House on the shoreline of Bartlett Cove in Glacier Bay National Park, the ancestral homeland of the Tlingit. Construction has already begun and it is scheduled to be completed by the summer of 2016, just in time for the centennial year of the NPS.

The large plank house has been called Xúna Shuká Hit by tribal elders, which roughly translates into “Hoonah House of Ancestry.” The House will represent both the Eagle and Raven Moiety, and will provide a center for sacred ceremonies, tribal knowledge, workshops, and meetings. It will also be open to park visitors who will have the opportunity to learn about Tlingit culture and history firsthand.

To reach the new Tribal House, one must first cross the actual Icy Strait passage that separates Chichagof Island from Glacier Bay National Park. The region is remote, and all travel is done by boat or plane. On the dedication day in the summer of 2016, the Tlingit and their many friends will arrive at the site in dug-out canoes and ferryboats from wherever they live. They will come singing and drumming to usher in a new chapter in their history.

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Detail of Hoonah High School Totem Pole created by Tlingit brothers Mick and Rick Beasley. The animal depicted on the pole is a bear, its head surrounded by the tentacles of the giant Pacific octopus that is found in Alaskan waters. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Standing in front of Hoonah High School are two enormous and intricately carved totem poles created by Tlingit brothers Mick and Rick Beasley. Brightly painted in red, green, white, and black, the traditional totems at the school are carved in Western Red Cedar; however, they have a modern touch to them. Though based in Juneau, the works of the Brothers Beasley have graced a number of public places, including museums throughout the region. Rick began to carve at the age of eight when he was inspired by his teacher, the aforementioned Jimmy Marks.

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"Raven Discovering Mankind in a Clam Shell." - Bill Ray Jr. Mural painted on the outer wall of Juneau City Hall. 1988. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Juneau is the capital city of Alaska. Named after a gold miner from the late 1800s, it is the second largest city in the state with a population of around 32,000. It was impossible not to notice the public indigenous art, or the apparent pride the city has regarding its indigenous history. For instance, the outer wall of Juneau’s City Hall is painted with a beautiful mural that portrays the spirit animals Raven, Bear, Frog, Eagle, Whale, and Wolf that have been so important to First Nations people of the Northwest Coast.

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Detail of the supernatural bear from the Juneau City Hall mural by artist Bill Ray Jr. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Painted by local artist Bill Ray Jr. in 1988, the mural depicts the Haida creation story of Raven discovering man, and so is titled Raven Discovering Mankind in a Clam Shell. I certainly cannot say that officialdom in Los Angeles has extended that level of respect to the original people of the L.A. basin, the indigenous Gabrieleño-Tongva.

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Sealaska Heritage museum. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Juneau is home to the recently opened Sealaska Heritage museum at the Walter Soboleff Center, in fact I visited the museum just one month after its grand opening on May 15, 2015. It was founded by the Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI), a nonprofit organization of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people of Southeast Alaska. The museum’s mission is to showcase indigenous art of the region, but also to rejuvenate it while nurturing future generations of artists. It houses an exhibit space, archives for its extensive collection of art, artifacts, and ephemera, a carving shed for the production of totem poles and other carved items, a gift shop were high-quality indigenous art and crafts are sold, rooms for conducting classes and lectures, and office space for the SHI.

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Tlingit Warrior Helmets on display - Photo/Mark Vallen.

During my visit, the Sealaska Heritage museum was exhibiting Tlingit armor, both antique and contemporary. Helmets were usually constructed in two pieces, the collar and the actual helmet, which was carved with supernatural beings, animals, or clan symbols. Collars were created from hard, dense wood burls of spruce, alder, or yew that were made into planks and bent into a circle through steaming. The collar was closed at the back and tied off with a leather thong. Two eye-hole notches were carved into the top of the collar, allowing a warrior to see out, breathing holes were provided, and an internal nose indent was carved. The warrior wearing the collar could bite down on an internal loop of spruce, which acted as a mouth guard but also secured the helmet.

When taking a blow to the head, the warrior could lift his shoulders, causing the helmet to strike the collar rather than his head. The War Helmet in the foreground of the picture shown above, was carved from yew wood in 2014 by Tlingit artist Tommy Joseph. It depicts a female warrior, which was not entirely uncommon; historic accounts mention women that not only engaged in battle, but directed attacks. The woman on the helmet has eyes of inlaid abalone, and is decorated with strands of human hair. She is depicted wearing a labret, or lip ornament. The labret was a sign of high rank not worn by all,  but it was worn exclusively by women. At a very young age, a girl’s lip was pierced with a copper wire, later replaced by a wooden skewer, and by thirteen she began wearing a labret carved of wood.

 A collarless War Helmet carved in 2009 by Tlingit artist Matthew J. Helgeson. The helmet depicts an anthropomorphized spirit animal. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

A collarless War Helmet carved in 2009 by Tlingit artist Matthew J. Helgeson. The helmet depicts an anthropomorphized spirit animal. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

A Tlingit helmet served the practical purpose of protecting its wearer, but with its fearsome carvings of animals or supernatural creatures, the armor was clearly a method of intimidation. The Russians that attempted to conquer the Tlingit during the 1804 battle at Sitka, reported their musket balls being deflected or stopped by the helmets. The Tlingit also wore body armor made from hardwood slates and elk hide that could stop arrows or deflect blows. Warriors were armed with bows and arrows, a variety of clubs, as well as daggers and lances they fashioned from native copper. As trade with Europeans increased, steel replaced copper; Chinese coins were sewn onto leather shirts to make a type of “chain-mail.” But firearms eventually made Tlingit armor obsolete, and the War Helmet evolved into the clan hat at around 1850.

The architectural design of the Sealaska Heritage museum pays homage to ancient ancestors. The huge traditional sculptural motifs constructed of red painted metal and mounted on the cedar façade of the museum’s entrance, represent the “Greatest Echo,” a supernatural being from Haida mythology. The sculpture was created by artist Robert Davidson, who is of Haida and Tlingit descent. In the museum foyer you first see a monumental carved and painted wood house front, of the type that once faced the cedar timber and plank communal village houses that Southeast Alaska indigenous nations made long ago.

In times past such houses were built along the banks of rivers or the ocean, with each facing the water and housing between 20 to 50 individuals. The museum’s 40 ft. wide house front was created by Tsimshian artists David Albert Boxley and his son David Robert Boxley; the carving’s central design tells the Tsimshian story of the earth, and Am’ala, The Man Who Holds Up the Earth. Surrounding that motif are designs representing all the tribes of Southeast Alaska.

But the Boxley mural-like house front is actually an entryway to another room. You have to bend down to go through the small door located in Am’ala’s belly, but it opens into the Shuká Hít (Ancestors’ House), a replica of a traditional clan house that serves as the museum’s public auditorium, performance space, and lecture hall where video can also be projected.

The museum’s glass awnings encircling the building are etched with formline designs created by Northwest Coast indigenous art expert Steve Brown. Formline is the spacial, proportional, and aesthetic basis for all Southeast Alaska/Northwest Coast indigenous art. Remarkably, when the sun shines through Brown’s awnings, the etched glass designs cast their shadows onto the sidewalk, painting in light the ethereal presence of ancient ancestors. All in all these architectural flourishes contribute to a stunning museum, a true gem among America’s art institutions.

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Main exhibition room at the Sealaska Heritage museum. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Dr. Walter Soboleff was Tlingit and a civil rights activist who fought for indigenous rights and the revitalization of his people’s culture. He died in 2011 at the age of 102, and the museum was named after him. The ceremonial Clan hat shown below belonged to Soboleff, it happened to be one of the items on display during my visit. Soboleff’s clan was the L’eeneidi of the Raven Moiety, who were referred to as Dog Salmon. The oral traditions of the L’eeneidi say that they migrated down the Stikine River until they reached the coast and settled in Angoon and later Juneau. Their Dog Salmon name and crest was acquired in a supernatural encounter.

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Tlingit Dog Salmon clan ceremonial hat. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

In 1982 the Sealaska Heritage Institute started a biennial festival called Celebration, a mass gathering of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian nations where their art, culture, dance, oral traditions, and music are shared, not just with one another, but with the entire community of Juneau and beyond. When the festival first began in ‘82 it attracted 150 participants, today it attracts many thousands. The upcoming June 8, Celebration 2016 promises to be the largest gathering yet.

Ketchikan was the last stop on my journey. Long ago the Tlingit named a favorite salmon fishing creek in the area the “Thundering Wings of an Eagle,” or “Ketchikan” in their language. When Europeans founded a town there in 1885 they named it Ketchikan. It had been an important fishing village for the Tlingit, and under European colonization it became known as “The Salmon Capital of the World” due to the massive industrialized fishing industry. Today fishing is still important, but tourism has become the number one industry, and Ketchikan Creek is now a favorite destination for tourists. If I needed any reminder of the city’s origins, I heard Tlingit spoken on the streets.

"The Rock" - Bronze statue designed by David Rubin that is located on the downtown waterfront dock of Ketchikan, Alaska. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

"The Rock" - Bronze statue designed by David Rubin that is located on the downtown waterfront dock of Ketchikan, Alaska. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Surrounding Ketchikan is the Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the U.S. It is named after the Tongass group of Tlingit who originally inhabited Ketchikan. At the city’s downtown waterfront dock, a large bronze sculpture titled The Rock welcomes visitors, setting the pace for the Ketchikan experience. In 2007 the city issued an artists call for public art. Artist Dave Rubin won the commission for his proposed bronze monument, whose seven figures would serve as archetypes for the city’s history. Assisted by sculptors Terry Pyles and Judy Rubin, the monument was completed and publicly unveiled on July 4, 2010.

  "The Rock" - Detail of indigenous woman playing her drum. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

"The Rock" - Detail of indigenous woman playing her drum. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Standing at the top of the sculpture is Chief Johnson, a famous leader of the Ganaxadi Tlingit of the Raven moiety from the Tongass group. At the base of the statue sits an indigenous woman who plays a drum while singing her song of Ketchikan. According to artist Dave Rubin, that song is a historical narrative of Johnson and the figures gathered around him: a logger, fisherman, miner, aviator, and European pioneer woman.

Ketchikan is known for its Saxman Native Village and Totem Park, home to a comprehensive collection of Tlingit totem poles and an indigenous carving center where Tlingit artists continue the tradition of sculpting their narrative pole sculptures hewn from live wood. But here I would like to focus on a lesser known treasure,  a unique piece of Ketchikan public art called the Yeltatzie Salmon. Jones George Yeltatzie (1900-1976) was born in Howkan, Alaska. He was a full-blooded Haida and belonged to the Double Fin Killer Whale clan. He settled in Ketchikan in 1935, and though he worked as a commercial fisherman until his retirement, he gained renown as a master totem carver. As a child he learned how to carve from his father George, who was also an accomplished totem carver.

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"Yeltatzie Salmon" - Terry Pyle. Mosaic sculpture. 2012. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

In 1963 Yeltatzie received a commission to create a public art piece from the Tourism Committee of the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce; the art was intended as a tourist attraction that would be installed at Ketchikan Creek. Yeltatzie carved and painted, in the traditional manner, a red cedar sculptural depiction of a 10-foot long king salmon. The carving was so impressive that it was displayed in a traveling exhibit for more than a year before it was finally situated at the creek. It was placed next to the city’s Park Avenue Bridge near Ketchikan Creek’s famous “Salmon Ladder,” where the fish annually struggle upstream to spawn.

Vandals twice attacked Yeltatzie’s sculpture. The last time, almost 30 years ago, it was ripped from its pedestal and thrown into the creek where it suffered extreme water damage. Every effort was made to repair the sculpture before it was reinstalled, but alas, by 2011 Jones Yeltatzie’s mighty king salmon had almost totally rotted away and the city took it down.

In 2012 the Ketchikan Public Art Works/Arts Council issued an artist’s call for an artwork to replace Yeltatzie’s salmon. Local artist Terry Pyles won the commission for his concept titled Yeltatzie Salmon - a giant iridescent mosaic covered sculpture of a salmon to honor Jones Yeltatzie. Pyles, a realistic painter who also creates sculpture in wood, and metal, helped create The Rock sculpture that greets visitors at the Ketchikan waterfront. His Yeltatzie Salmon was dedicated in a well attended public ceremony and unveiling on July 4, 2013.

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"Yeltatzie Salmon" - (Detail) Terry Pyle. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Terry Pyles’ Yeltatzie Salmon is affixed to a concrete post on the rocky shore of Ketchikan Creek. The sculpture’s multi-colored mosaic tiles flash in the sunlight; the silver fish radiates against the intense green of the creek’s vegetation. The endless sound of babbling waters creates a soothing and contemplative backdrop for Pyles’ creation. When the creek’s waters overflow its banks and the sculpture’s post is enveloped in rushing torrents, the colossal salmon appears to be struggling upstream to spawn. Jones Yeltatzie would be pleased.

"Yeltatzie Salmon" - Terry Pyle's sculpture on Ketchikan Creek. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

"Yeltatzie Salmon" - Terry Pyle's sculpture on Ketchikan Creek. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

As a sidebar to this story I have to mention that I did some snorkeling at Mountain Point in Ketchikan. Long ago I trained with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) when I took up scuba-diving in the waters of Southern California. I found the waters of Ketchikan not much colder than deep water diving in California, and with a full body, thick neoprene wetsuit I was more than comfortable. When snorkeling I saw a number of sea creatures that were new to me, like Alaska’s giant Sunflower Sea Stars, and nearby a pod of Humpback Whales were breaching while American Bald eagles flew overhead.

Snorkeling in Ketchikan drove home two points for me. First, diving in Alaska’s waters was magical; few undertakings could so quickly disabuse big city dwellers of their being the “rulers” of nature, nor affirm the spiritual beauty of Mother Earth.

To be enchanted by nature is the real key to understanding the indigenous art of Alaska, and the experience made it clear why the indigenous people of the region have an unalterable reverence for the natural world. Secondly, snorkeling underscored the appalling ignorance and rapacious avarice that led President Obama to grant Shell the right to drill for oil in the waters of the Alaskan Arctic Ocean. The Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and other indigenous First Nations of the Pacific Northwest oppose oil drilling in their ancestral waters, and I stand in solidarity with them.

The appreciation for indigenous art coming from non-Native people in Alaska is impressive, it might be newly found, but it is nevertheless firmly established and growing. I must juxtapose this phenomenon to a very different story that unfolded in Los Angeles in April of 2010, regarding the building of LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes cultural center, a museum in downtown L.A. dedicated to Mexican-American heritage.

When construction for the museum began in 2010, the 19th century graveyard of nearby La Placita Church was discovered and the remains of 118 individuals were removed. More desecration than removal, torsos had their limbs and skulls torn away and the remains were placed in bags and buckets for storage at the L.A. County Museum of Natural History. LA Plaza administrators said they had been informed that the old cemetery had closed and moved in 1844, and that no indigenous people were buried there… until indigenous activists produced burial records proving that some two-thirds of the nearly 700 people buried at the cemetery were Gabrieleño-Tongva.

Furthermore, the Gabrieleño-Tongva pointed out that the area under excavation was Yangna, their largest village when the Spanish arrived in 1769. In other words, it was a sacred site for the tribe and a significant archeological find for the scientific community. The California State Native American Heritage Commission asked that excavations for LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes be stopped, and dozens of indigenous peoples held protests to that effect.

On January 13, 2011, indigenous people held a vigil at the construction site, hanging offerings of sacred sage to their ancestors on the chain-link fence around the cemetery. It was all to no avail. Gloria Molina, a Democratic Party politician and then L.A. County supervisor and brainchild behind the museum, did not want any negative publicity to stop the April 9, 2011 grand opening of the museum. When that official opening party occurred, dozens of indigenous people protested outside.

Finally, in April of 2012, the remains of the indigenous dead were returned to the graves from which they were robbed; an ornamental granite plaque notes their presence. The historic cemetery is now located on museum property in what LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes calls a “respectful memorial garden.” The indigenous people of Juneau have the Sealaska Heritage museum, and the City of Los Angeles begrudgingly gives the Gabrieleño-Tongva a granite plaque. So much for forward-thinking “liberal” L.A. and its “enlightened” cultural institutions.

In the Tlingit, I found a people ablaze with creativity and artistic spirit, they understand art as a means to connect with a respected past and to assure the continuation of a beloved culture well into the future. Tlingit art does not exist to shock or alienate, but to uplift, stimulate historic memories, educate, and unify the people; to the Tlingit these aspects of art go hand in hand with an appreciation of craft and beauty.

Such integral facets of art have been altogether rejected by postmodernism. The result being a contemporary art largely reduced to vapid kitsch without elegance, refinement, meaning, or even a tenuous connection to the wider society. The very idea of “craft” has flown out the window. Postmodern artists wear their alienation from the people as a badge of honor. Art has gone belly up. Its worth is defined only by its exorbitant price tag.

An “appropriated” image or a video of someone in the act of vomiting is as good as the ancient Greek sculpture of Laocoön or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes - or so we have been told. How refreshing and invigorating it was not to encounter such nonsense in the wilds of Alaska. By viewing the indigenous art to be found there, artists living in the postmodern blight of the big city might rediscover the real power of art, and what it means to once again, consciously engage with people, community, and society.

A view near Ketchikan. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

A view near Ketchikan. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Manifesto for World Revolution?

Vallen finds inspiration in the pages of Adbusters. Photo/Jeannine Thorpe ©

Vallen finds inspiration in the pages of Adbusters. Photo/Jeannine Thorpe ©

The front cover of the latest edition of Adbusters magazine, is a photograph of a surfer “shooting the tube,” that is, riding his surfboard through the hollow part of a large wave as it crests over itself and makes a tunnel. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and I have spent much of my life on Southern California beaches… so I know this stuff. The photo is a bitchin image of primo, off the Richter, gnarlatious awesomeness (more obligatory surfer lingo).

But trouble is brewing in paradise. Beneath the eye-popping ADBUSTERS masthead that looks like a garish headline from a 60s B-movie sci-fi flick, a mysterious subhead hovers in the wave’s curl like so much kelp and non-biodegradable beach trash, it reads… Living Without Dead Time. It is a revolutionary proclamation from our past, and if we are lucky, from our future.

To unlock the profound meaning of the text, one has to read carefully while thumbing through the pages of the subversive rag and “art novella.” Hey, this ain’t no trendy, bourgeois gazette I’m talkin about here, this is a mag that promotes itself as a “Manifesto for World Revolution Pt. III.” Zounds! I think they are actually serious!

Adbusters contacted me in April seeking permission to reprint my 1980 silkscreen poster, Whatever Happened To The Future! The publication hoped to use my print in a “dystopic photo album” covering events in the 20th-21st century. Ah! Dystopia! I began to smile broadly.

"Whatever Happened to the Future!" Mark Vallen 1980 © Silkscreen print. Published in the July/August 2015 issue of Adbusters.

"Whatever Happened to the Future!" Mark Vallen 1980 © Silkscreen print. Published in the July/August 2015 issue of Adbusters.

When I was informed that anarchism would be the “overarching theme” of the issue, my ear to ear grin was joined with a sinister twinkle in my eye. Advised that the issue would cover, among other things, a “history of uprisings in the 20th-21st centuries” and an essay on “post-post-modernism,” I began to experience mystical self-transcendence!

I was simultaneously brought back to earth and thrown for a loop when told that Adbusters would like to place my image “right before the history section. We are featuring many old anarchist and situationist comics and cartoons, and would be honored to have your image run as a full page.”

Visions of Guy Debord, the Situationists, the Paris 68 uprising, and those brilliant posters created by the anonymous students and workers of the Paris 68 Atelier Populare galloped through my mind. Of course I did not refuse Adbusters request, which is why I am writing this screed.

Whatever Happened To The Future! has been shown at the MOCA Geffen Contemporary in Los Angeles and the Pasadena Museum of California Art, but Adbusters provided the proper historic context for my print.

Adbusters front cover, "Living Without Dead Time" issue. July/August 2015

Adbusters front cover, "Living Without Dead Time" issue. July/August 2015

Aesthetically, Living Without Dead Time is a poke in the eye, especially when compared to the à la mode commercial hipster garbage one finds on newsstands these days. Adbusters’ philosophy of art squares perfectly with that of situationism and its bugbear offspring, punk rock. In fact the publication is somewhat evocative of the rough and tumble punk aesthetic of L.A.’s Slash magazine, that “monthly manifesto of angry refusal” that rose from the polluted urban despair of 1977 to become the city’s first punk publication and an internationally influential journal.

Adbusters has taken the nihilistic graphic style of punk, and polished it up quite a bit. It maintains the punk spirit but meshes it with an overtly anti-consumerism political stance. In the summer of 2011 Adbusters championed a citizens’ “occupation” of Wall Street, and presto, the Occupy movement was born. Adbusters did not create nor control the Occupy offensive, but its contributions are undeniable. In their latest issue they announced they are “planning a #billionpeoplemarch in December” as a stand “against a world order which refuses to produce tangible action in the face of impending climate disaster.”

I do have some criticisms of Adbusters. I was an initial supporter of the Occupy movement, but soon found it rife with opportunists and social democrats. Bill Clinton’s former U.S. Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, was invited to speak at an Occupy rally outside of L.A. City Hall; Reich’s presence only served to fold people back into the Democratic Party orbit. Likewise, the liberal political commentator and PBS host Tavis Smiley was also invited to address Occupy at L.A. City Hall. With a net worth of some $10 million, Smiley was firmly within the 1% circle that Occupy supposedly opposed. Inviting Reich and Smiley was a major political failing for an ostensibly anti-corporate movement.

When Occupy seized the lawns around L.A. City Hall, the campaign degenerated into a fight over the “right” to camp on City Hall grounds; opportunities to make alliances with working people were squandered over a tussle regarding camping. This can only be attributed to naiveté and a lack of actual working class politics. Adbusters excelled at “culture jamming” but hit the skids when laying the groundwork for political opposition against the entrenched financial aristocracy.

There is one article in the Living Without Dead Time issue of Adbusters that I must give an emphatic thumbs down to, a piece on the Euromaidan “revolution” that occurred in Ukraine in February 2014. It is a hack-job that does nothing but contribute to the jumble of Russophobic Cold War nonsense presented nonstop by the corporate media. It is a lazy minded essay that plays into the war hysteria that seems to be growing by the day.

At Airstrip One, a prole secretly looks at Adbusters before participating in the Two Minute Hate on the telescreen. Photo, E. Goldstein.

At Airstrip One, a prole secretly looks at Adbusters before participating in the Two Minute Hate on the telescreen. Photo/E. Goldstein.

The Adbusters Ukraine article did not once mention NATO, the EU, or the enforced austerity programs of the IMF and the World Bank. The article paints the crypto fascist Dmytro Yarosh as a popular revolutionary leader, when in reality he is the boss of the right-wing, ultra-nationalist Right Sector organization. Yarosh is on record as having written, “I wonder how it came to pass that most of the billionaires in Ukraine are Jews?” [1] The word “fascist” is used in the Adbusters article, but it is decried as a Russian propaganda term used to malign the democratic project in Ukraine.

Democratic Congressman John Conyers Jr. and Republican Congressman Ted Yoho wrote amendments to ban U.S. troops from training a Ukrainian neo-Nazi militia unit known as the Azov Battalion, which is integrated into the Ukraine National Guard and the army. The Azov flag is a variation of the infamous “Wolfsangel” symbol used by the Waffen-SS. In early June 2015 the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed the amendment blocking assistance to the Azov Battalion. I understand that this story broke as Adbusters was going to press, but credible reports of the fascist threat in Ukraine have been circulating for some time, even on this weblog. The Adbusters Ukraine article did not even come close to mentioning this.

The socialist stalwarts at Jacobin magazine have a harsh assessment of Adbusters. Published in 2013, their critique titled Adbusted poses some tough questions about the politics and philosophy of the anti-consumerist publication; these are unsettling queries that demand answers.

I am not an anarchist, marxist, or a democrat, and I am certainly not a republican. The only identity I embrace is that of dissident artist, my humanist politics are fully on display in my art. To be honest, I am happy to be published by Adbusters, my criticism of them not withstanding, just as I would be gratified to be published in Jacobin. It is all part of the essential conversation so needed at this juncture in history.

The final image published in Adbusters is a photo that spreads over two facing pages, in this case the next to the last and the final inside page. It is a grainy black and white snapshot of masked protestors on a nighttime street. It is an ominous vignette laden with tension. Hostage-letter style text floats across the photograph, it reads…

May love and revolution rise from the ashes of this dying civilization.

– // –

Signed prints of Whatever Happened to the Future! can be purchased here.

[1] Practice for a Russian Invasion: Ukrainian Civilians Take Up Arms. Spiegel Online. April 16, 2014.

Rigoberta Menchú, Gilberto Sánchez, & Ana Gatica

A recent photograph of 30-year old artist, Gilberto Abundiz Sanchez. Photo courtesy of the Sanchez family.

A recent photograph of 30-year old artist, Gilberto Abundiz Sánchez, courtesy of the Sánchez family.

This article is about the barbarous assassination of a young Mexican artist, Gilberto Abundiz Sánchez. Why would unidentified armed men take an artist from his home and murder him? Considering the artist was just one of over 50 victims killed in one year in a single region, why are the authorities unable - or unwilling - to stop the killers? This is the reality of today’s Mexico, the subject of this piece. But this essay is also about much broader, international issues, human solidarity, and the democratic spirit.

Gilberto Abundiz Sánchez was a 30-year old artist attending the Popular Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo. Located in Michoacán, Mexico, the University is the oldest institution of higher education in the Americas.

Gilberto Sanchez and two other young death squad victims. May 21, 2015.

Gilberto Sanchez and two other young death squad victims. May 21, 2015. Photo/EFE

By all accounts Sánchez was dedicated to art, he was a printmaker and painter. He was last seen watering the plants at his mother’s home when he was kidnapped on March 30, 2015. The remains of Sánchez were found on May 21, 2015 in Chilapa, Guerrero. He and two other young victims had been killed, dismembered, wrapped in blankets, and dumped along a roadside. The corpse was identified as Sánchez because of its unique tattoo.

The staff, students, and authorities of the University released a statement to express their “grief, anger, and outrage at the brutal murder of the student of the Bachelor of Visual Arts.” The collective statement describes Sánchez as a “peaceful, enthusiastic, and creative young man who actively participated in outreach activities that the Graphic Arts Department organized.”

The University communique also posed some very serious questions; “What happens in a country that allows the murder of its young students?” “Why do they fear the intelligence and creativity of young people, who represent the future of Mexico?” “Why has the whole society become a hostage to terror?”

The statement closed with these defiant words. “We are not willing to continue to act as if nothing happened in this country, that the death of Gilberto Abundiz Sánchez was natural and not the result of an undeclared war which has been unleashed against students, workers, peasants, and thinking people not aligned to power.”

The University statement is significant for two important reasons. It comes from the University staff, which includes academic as well as administrative faculty; it was also a collective statement issued in the name of the student body. More importantly, the bulletin expresses what millions of Mexicans are currently thinking about the criminal clique that rules their country.

Which brings us to the self-made controversy swirling around Rigoberta Menchú Tum, the indigenous Quiché woman, Guatemalan Human Rights activist, and 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner. If anyone in the U.S. remembers Rigoberta Menchú Tum, it is as a heroic and altruistic “native rights” activist. After surviving the depredations of death squads in her homeland and the state murder of her family, after suffering insults and verbal muggings from right-wing critics aplenty, Menchú has managed to besmirch and defile her own legacy by collaborating with the authoritarian government of Mexico.

I once respected Rigoberta Menchú… that is no longer the case. The reasons for my bitter disappointment with Menchú are headline news in Mexico, but the calamity she has set off in Mexico has not been covered in the U.S. press. As a result I feel obligated to break this cheerless story to my fellow North Americans.

Lorenzo Córdova, president of the National Electoral Institute, presents Rigoberta Menchú Tum with her accreditation as an official election observer for Mexico's elections. Photo/INE Mexico.

Lorenzo Córdova, president of the National Electoral Institute, presents Rigoberta Menchú Tum with her accreditation as an official election observer for Mexico's elections. Photo/INE Mexico.

On May 26, 2015 Rigoberta Menchú was accredited by Mexico’s National Electoral Institute (INE), as an official electoral observer for the country’s June 7, 2015 midterm federal and state elections.

The INE paid Menchú $10,000 U.S. dollars to “promote voting and democracy” during her five-day stay in Mexico. According to information published in the Mexican press, Menchú charged $40,000 dollars for her visit, the balance being paid by private foundations. Here I must add, if Menchú has been paid by the Mexican government to lecture the people on democracy, and to be an election observer, can she really be seen as impartial?

Specifically, the INE is sending Menchú to the conflict ridden state of Guerrero to drum up support for the sham elections, but why Guerrero? Because that region is home to the Ayotzinapa teachers’ training college that had 43 of its students kidnapped by police and their drug gang accomplices. Ayotzinapa has become the political lightning rod of the nation, a democratic prairie fire has sprung from the tragedy, and President Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) hopes to stamp it out.

It should be remembered that when the police of Guerrero seized the 43 Ayotzinapa students on Sept. 26, 2014, they turned them over to the Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors) drug gang to be murdered. There is no clearer evidence of the seamless relationship that exists between vast sectors of the Mexican government and powerful drug syndicates.

Lorenzo Córdova, president of the National Electoral Institute, presented Menchú with her accreditation at a photo-op press conference held at the INE headquarters. Córdova said Menchú was “a woman recognized internationally for her relentless struggle for the defense of the rights of indigenous peoples and for her convictions concerning peace.” It was a stunning bit of propaganda since just days earlier the Indigenous Council of Guanajuato filed a complaint against Córdova with Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights. During a phone conversation between the president of the INE and the group’s executive secretary, Córdova made racist jokes that ridiculed the way indigenous people speak.

Does Menchú not see that publicly accepting accreditation and money from Lorenzo Córdova legitimizes his image? If she was unaware of the controversy surrounding Córdova, then maybe she is not cognizant of other Mexican government intrigues. I suppose calling her naive is the best defense that can be offered, but callowness is not an attribute an election observer should possess.

Córdova’s phone call was surreptitiously recorded and released on Spanish language social media, where it has circulated ever since. Because of this Córdova “apologized” for his “unfortunate and disrespectful” jokes, but the INE asked the Attorney General’s Office to mount an investigation into who secretly recorded the conversation and made it public.

The former Attorney General, Jesús Murillo Karam (affiliated with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was widely criticized for attempting to cover-up the truth regarding the Ayotzinapa 43 kidnapping. He infuriated millions when at a press conference he was questioned regarding the 43 missing students, and responded with “that’s enough, I’m tired” before walking away from the press. The pro-Democracy movement then used Karam’s words #YaMeCanse (I am tired) in a social media campaign to show their contempt for government violence and impunity. Karam resigned in Feb. 2015, but the new Attorney General, Arely Gómez González (also affiliated to the PRI), will most likely lack the energy to tackle the Ayotzi 43 case, but I think she will show great zeal in exposing and prosecuting those who recorded Lorenzo Córdova’s racist phone conversation!

Video screenshot of 27-year old Ana Gatica challenging Menchú at a May 29, 2015 government organized forum.

Video screenshot of 27-year old Ana Gatica challenging Menchú at a May 29, 2015 government organized forum.

But back to Menchú and her disingenuous but well paid “This is what democracy looks like” side show. On May 29, 2015, at a large public gathering organized by the INE at the International Center in Acapulco, Guerrero, Menchú delivered a lecture titled Democracy and the Culture of Peace, a talk that many across Mexico found offensive and insulting.

Broad sectors of the population in Mexico are frustrated by narco-politica (narco-politics); millions believe their votes have no power to effect change. They believe, for good reason, that oligarchs and drug lords have an absolute grip on power, nullifying the democratic process. They believe there is no official mechanism that can be used to implement the people’s political will.

Furthermore, the movement for democracy that sprang up around Ayotzinapa has called for a boycott of the elections; it is a strategy that presses for the abolishment of Narco-regime governance and an end to kidnapping and murder by the state. The demand is that the 43 be returned, and if that is not possible, all of the conspirators who kidnapped and murdered them be brought to justice. Who is Rigoberta Menchú to tell the Mexican people that their assessment of the situation is incorrect?

During her lecture Menchú told the parents of the missing 43 Ayotzinapa students; “I would urge the families to try to explain the reason” for their children’s “actions” prior to being kidnapped (as if the students shared blame for being taken hostage). Menchú told the parents to do so “without hiding the truth, because the truth dignifies us all,” a statement that implied the parents of the 43 missing students had lied in their campaign to pressure the government.

Menchú went on to say that “the vote is a personal decision,” and that an election “is an opportunity to renew authorities.” She asked the parents of the 43 Ayotzinapa students to never forget their children (as if they would!), and to go out and vote, because “Gentlemen vote, and that is my message.”

The tables are turned. Ana Gatica, an indigenous Nahua from Guerrero, lectures Menchú on the meaning of democracy. Photographer unknown.

The tables are turned. Ana Gatica, an indigenous Nahua from Guerrero, lectures Menchú on the meaning of democracy. Photographer unknown.

At the close of her address, Menchú asked for a moment of silence for the 43 missing Ayotzinapa students. After the awkward silence there was a question and answer period, and a 27-year old woman, Ana Gatica, took the stage to deliver what turned out to be a rather fiery public rebuke; Ms. Gatica is an indigenous Nahua from Guerrero.

Shaking with emotion and choking back her tears, Ms. Gatica addressed the honored guest as Hermana Menchú (Sister Menchú), “I do not know how you can ask us to make a vow to vote,” she said, when disappearances and murders of civilians go unpunished. Ms. Gatica pointed out that 50 young people living in the state of Guerrero have been killed between October 26, 2012 and May 30, 2015. The first to disappear “was the daughter of a cousin, Gabriela Itzel Ortiz Vazquez, 15, the last to be killed was Gilberto Abundiz Sánchez.” Gatica began to cry when she spoke of Sánchez, her friend and fellow graphic artist.

Ana Gatica pointedly stated: “Ms. Menchú, the indignation and anger cannot be finished, and I know you understand. One more thing, we cannot keep asking for a minute of silence for the missing, because asking for a minute of silence for each of the disappeared - and for everyone murdered in our country, in our state, means that we will remain silent forever.”

The comments of the brave and courageous Ana Gatica were captured in several Spanish language videos of the Democracia y cultura de la paz conference. Ms. Gatica received a stirring round of applause for confronting Menchú, it was no doubt more enthusiastic and heartfelt than the polite clapping given to Menchú at the close of her speech.

The day after Rigoberta Menchú’s speech, Felipe de la Cruz, a spokesman for the parents of the missing 43 Ayotzinapa students, deplored the conduct of Menchú. He said that she “fell into the INE game of promoting the elections,” and that she “does not know how they have governed us in Mexico for many years.” De la Cruz had some words of advice for Menchú, “If you want the truth, ask those who are paying you to making your comments.”

In 1982 Rigoberta Menchú rose to international fame with the release of her book I, Rigoberta Menchú. It told the story of the impoverished Quiché people living under the boot of Guatemala’s oligarchical landlords and their armed goons. Menchú’s family became involved in the land reform movement, and so became targets of the regime. Her father Vicente was arrested and tortured, her brother was executed by government soldiers, her mother was arrested, raped, and killed by government troops, and ultimately her father was burned to death in the 1980 Spanish Embassy Massacre. In 1981 Rigoberta Menchú fled Guatemala for Mexico and then France.

While in France Menchú met Elizabeth Burgos-Debray, who not only convinced Menchú to write her memoirs, but became the ghostwriter for the book. At the time I found the autobiography to be totally convincing, the tome fed the international solidarity movement that was determined to end the butchery in Central America. For the events detailed in her book, Menchú received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.

Rigoberta Menchú Tum - Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919-1999). Oil on canvas. Detail.

Rigoberta Menchú Tum - Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919-1999). Oil on canvas.

Doubts about Menchú finally began to rise in 1999 when anthropologist David Stoll published Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, a book that pointed out discrepancies and inaccuracies in Menchú’s autobiography. The left-wing - myself included - dismissed Stoll’s book, but Menchú’s recent skullduggery forces a reconsideration.

In 2009 I attended Guayasamín: Rage & Redemption, an exhibit at the Museum of Latin American Art (MoLAA) in Long Beach, California. It was a retrospective of artworks by the Ecuadoran master painter, Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919-1999). Prominently displayed was the artist’s oil on canvas portrait of Rigoberta Menchú. Guayasamín, a social realist artist and a man of the left, would no doubt be outraged over the shameful antics of Menchú.

It should go without saying that I no longer support Rigoberta Menchú, who has become but a faded image of her former self. No, I stand with Ana Gatica, the spirited and outspoken indigenous Nahua from Guerrero who knows how to stand for the people’s rights.