Steering away from potentially inflammatory political content or street beef of the past on this high-profile wall with a New York street art/graffiti history, the current occupants of the Houston Bowery Wall are more focused on allegory, and community. Featuring a fleet of volunteers and a mural full of history and aspiration, Raul Ayala thinks of this wall as a teachable moment. The artist employed many of the 21 days that this mural took to complete to do just that: teach.
With ten talented young artists/activists from the locally-based Groundswell NYC community organization, Ayala planned and painted various phases of the mural together while under the gaze of curious New Yorkers who paraded by hour after hour while the artists painted. Included in that team were Gabriela Balderas, Charlize Beltre, Brandon Bendter, Junior Steven Clavijo, Jennifer Contreras, Maria Belen Flores, Hafsa Habib, Cipta Hussain, Karina Linares and Gabriel Pala.
Ayala describes the piece as “opening a portal,” and you quickly realize that it is a portal of the mind to imagination and inspiration. “For me, building imagination and sharing knowledge alongside a younger generation of artists is a great manifestation of the fruits of this shift,” he says. “With this mural, we are also bringing inter-generational participation into a future that honors our past while actively creating a different path of existence.”
BSA talked to Raul about the mural and his experience painting it. Below is the interview:
BSA: At both ends of the mural you have depicted two masked characters. One on the left is wearing what seems to be an Aztec mask with the skyline of Manhattan in the background as he pulls down a monument. The one on the right is a black man at the moment when he is either about to put an African mask on or at the moment when he’s taking it off. Could you please describe the significance of both characters and how they relate to each other in the mural?
RA: Masks have always been a part of culture and are the recipients of many powerful archetypes; they are a space of connection to different realms of existence. In recent times, due to the pandemic, the mask has become necessary protective gear and is part of the current cultural landscape. With the masks depicted in the mural, I wanted to drive the conversation towards a more ample understanding of the mask as it relates to specific cultural heritages. Black, brown and indigenous solidarity is a constant effort in my practice. I strive to practice solidarity in the themes I paint and also in the way a lot of my murals are made. I think of mural-making as a learning space, where I get to have conversations with my peers and my students. African and Indigenous (Wirarika/Huichol) inspired masks have a lot in common, as one of the proposals for the idea of “opening portals” that is the overarching theme of the mural.
also a symbolic connection. In the Andes, where I come from, the Jaguar is a
very powerful spirit animal related to water. The Black Panther as a representation
of Black Power has a lot of cultural relevance as well and I wanted to hint to
those connections. Many passersby have referenced one of the masked people as
Chadwick Boseman. Even though it was not necessarily my intention, I love that people
-especially younger generations- read that on the mural.
BSA: There’s a skeleton with his arm around a skull character in a suit holding what seems to be a scepter. What are these two doing in the mural and who are they?
RA: The whole mural is an allegory of our current times. For me, part of the work that needs to happen is to address systemic oppression and white supremacy as prevalent forces that are endangering our relationships to each other, to our ancestry, and to the natural world. The two characters represent these forces. There are also a lot of symbols relating to these structural powers: There is a big fish eating small fish and an Icarus falling, both as cautionary tales of a late capitalist society and its extractive, individualistic strategies.
BSA: Can you talk about the women that are making a quilt? Who are they? What do they represent? Why are they making a quilt?
RA: Textile arts at large, including practices like Quilting Bees have been spaces not only of resistance and resilience but also spaces to pass on knowledge between generations. I wanted to depict a pluricultural, multigenerational circle of women. I believe these are great examples of the kind of relationships that will sustain and create health in these times. Additionally, the designs are another type of “portal.” They are traditional symbols in different cultures; the women in the back are creating a “tree of life,” a traditional African American quilting design. The women at the fore are holding a Chakana, which is a very important symbol of the Andean cosmogony.
The central character is dressed in a Whipala, an emblem that represents indigenous peoples from the Andes. The animals that are coming out of the designs (with the exception of the hummingbird, which is a migratory bird) were part of the ecosystem of that very location before colonization. I took the information from the Welikia Project, a map that overlays the city with the ecosystem of Mahannata before 1609. I would also like to acknowledge that my partner Fernanda Espinosa, an oral historian and cultural organizer has been a great help in imagining this side of the piece, and with who I often collaborate.
BSA: The flowers on the mural are very similar to the Moon flowers one sees in NYC in full bloom at night during the summer. Are these Moon Flowers?
RA: It is great to hear all the different readings the public has. In the end, it is about what people take and interpret themselves, I love that the flowers can also be Moon Flowers. I wanted to bring the idea of passing on traditional knowledge through generations. The plant depicted is Guanto, a plant that has been used as medicine in the Americas for millennia.
BSA: The female character holding a seed or a seedling. Can you talk about her and the seed she is holding?
RA: This is another allegorical character that is both using plants as medicine and holding the seed as a symbol. For me, it talks about the idea of the future. The title of the piece is “To Open A Portal,” this seed may be seen as a sort of key to that portal; a key that requires sustained care so the fruits of the labor can be enjoyed in a possible future.
In Kichwa, one of the indigenous languages of the Andes, we can say that we are living through a Warmi (female) Pacha (time/space) Kuti (shift). These seeds also represent that Warmi Pachakuti. In a way, this speculative approach to the future that has a strong female character at the center is an homage to Octavia Butler’s oeuvre. The figure above is also a historical character, Harriet Tubman. These are proposals to enter a new monumental landscape, not necessarily to depict one main person, but the sets of relationships and changes they have created through their actions.
was your experience painting in such a prominent spot with so much noise and
RA: I really enjoy working in public space! The conversations that I witnessed and that the mural and activity sparked were very interesting. A lot of people told me that they see themselves in the characters and that was one of the biggest compliments I have received. There were also some people triggered by what was perceived as an attack on “white culture.” For me to question white supremacy and celebrate protests in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, allow us to place this shift in the context of History. When monuments are brought down, a sort of portal to a different reality is being created. I see this seemingly aggressive act also as an opportunity to manifest different futures: when a symbol that stands for the values of civilization is put into question, domination and power imbalances are being contested too. This portal allows us to walk through the pain and find futures where we consider the way in which we are not only connected but also dependent on each other.
BSA: Your assistants were also your students. Where do you teach?
RA: While I am a visual artist, teaching has always been an important part of my practice and one that I center often. I started first teaching art in a project I started in detention centers in Quito many years ago. Since then, I have taught with multiple projects and organizations. With Groundswell, I have had the pleasure to teach for about 7 years. This project was in collaboration with them and it really was the only way it made sense for me to do this wall. I have been witnessing the growth of these young artists for some time now and I feel very proud of them and what we have done together. My responsibility as an artist is also to educate the younger generations of artists of color.
Street artist and conceptual artist John Fekner participated in student demonstrations and peaceful moratoriums in New York in the 1960s, with his first outdoor work completed in 1968. When younger generations of artists are feeling inflamed about this spring and summers’ demonstrations it is helpful to remember that artists of each generation have been a crucial part of many, if not most, movements of social and political change.
With his new mini-retrospective in a space limited by Covid-19 considerations the exhibition is available to see only by appointment in Bayside, Queens, you can see that Fekner’s dedication to drawing our attention to our behaviors as citizens, cities, politicians, and corporations lies at the root of his advocacy.
Putting your mark on
society is an ironic way of describing the literal act artists and vandals engage
in when putting their work on the streets. While “getting up” for many is an
act of self-promotion or marking of territory, Fekner has often used his spray
paint and stencils to critique, to call-out the failure of societies to care or
take responsibility for their actions or inactions, and may trigger you to bear
Spraying “DECAY” on a rusting hunk of detritus breaks through the psychological defense systems you may array against “seeing” history and outcome. A blunt aesthetic written in a large format makes an impression – the simple act of tagging objects and surfaces of industrial and urban neglect is radical, a defiant gesture that calls the state and the citizen to account. By drawing attention, even cryptically, you may cause one to question – or even to regard these layers of debris as violence toward others, toward the natural world.
For A CHANGE, the show takes his 1981 painting and applies it broadly
to the running narrative throughout his work, as a proponent of self-reflection
and advocate of positive change.
“The economic imbalance,
the energy crisis, health insurance, pollution, and global warming increase
exponentially every day,” Fekner says in an overview of the exhibition, “all
compounded by the coronavirus pandemic. Many of our issues boil below the
surface, making it convenient to turn a blind eye.”
Meticulously curated, the exhibition is showcasing a selection of Fekner’s paintings, mixed media sculpture, and ephemera as well as a “sampling of art objects, photographs, books, and a glimpse into Fekner’s personal archive spanning a fifty-year timeline,” viewers can get a broader overview of the artists’ sincere belief that his art in the streets has the power to affect the world. “Although some of the work is decades old, their relevance resonates today, maybe with even greater urgency,” says his description.
BSA had the opportunity to ask Mr. Fekner about his work and worldview as we appear at a nexus of profound change.
Brooklyn Street Art: Looking back on the issues you contemplated fifty years ago, we can’t deny that things have indeed changed – but we are also discovering that things really didn’t change, especially when it pertains to race and poverty. How do you, as an artist confront this reality? Are you despondent?
John Fekner: The greatest ferment of change, I believe, is the risks that people are willing to take in the face of tremendous setbacks. This has been true throughout history whether it’s the storming of the Bastille to the toppling of Confederate monuments. I’m heartened by the courage I see today and despondent art doesn’t help.
BSA:What do you think about the concept of “voluntary human extinction”. Is it possible to just simply stop making more humans to save the earth?
John Fekner: I believe that optimism and the survival of the human race are hard-wired into our nature.
BSA:Rich countries are on a heavy diet of “consumerism” fueled by the endless appetite of tech giants for quarterly profits to appease shareholders. People spend money they don’t have. Most people don’t have savings and live paycheck to paycheck. What went wrong?
John Fekner: This is nothing new. The exploitation of the poor by the rich is the perennial struggle of humanity and will probably always be. There is no reason to stop fighting. We should never lose our courage and vigilance.
BSA:On Wednesday the CEO’s of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google will testify before Congress. If you were the one asking the questions what would you ask them?
John Fekner: The greatest safeguard of capitalism in our country has always been the resistance to monopolies. My question would be: ‘What are you going to do to insure that your companies don’t monopolize and dominate every market?’
BSA: Can we still have hope? Is there still time to change course to save our communities?
John Fekner: If I didn’t have hope, I would stop making art.
Mr. Fekner asks us to “remind everyone they have to REGISTER in order to VOTE. Do It. Make A Change.”
You have been seeing a number of rooms in this old Victorian home regaled and reimagined by a number of artists over the past few weeks as we have featured the installations for a unique exhibition called disConnect. Today we have artist Aida Wilde who speaks extensively here about every aspect of her installation and world view and how she created her work for this project .
“The inaugural exhibition at Schoeni Projects’ London space, a Victorian townhouse in South West London, the exhibition, Titled disCONNECT, transforms the period building – currently under renovation – with new site-specific works from ten urban artists working across seven countries.”
BSA: First tell us which room(s) were designated to you?
Aida Wilde: We were sent very concise floor plans and video of the house as were initially asked to state out preferences to which rooms we would like to take over.
From the off-set, I
was drawn to the most unusual and challenging spots in the house, like the walk
in master cupboard which was a little narrow with mirrors along it and a window
at the end of the little annex ….I also liked the wallpaper in the library but
again, that was a pretty conventional room- I’m not a big fan of the 4 walls/
window/box formula in spaces that I show art work in.
I like working with a
space that can interact and speak with the work… also sometimes I find that a
space can enhance and influence the kind of work being made…. They should go
hand in hand for me, especially when it comes to this kind of installation- in
a house….& if it doesn’t, it can shift context/perception and only be seen
conversations about stair cases and toilets which I have been know to have been
drawn to in the past so Nicole had suggested the downstairs loo (That she had
previously dubbed as the Nanny Loo) and it’s surrounding area which I was very
open to- so I began work based on the photos and videos I had been send. It
wasn’t until the very socially distanced site visit to the space that I knew we
had made the right decision. Everything clicked and was perfect for me.
BSA: Were the spaces intimidating, challenging, hunting or a walk in the park?
Aida Wilde: The spaces weren’t intimidating….I was more concerned about trying to execute the ideas that I had in a middle of a global pandemic, with a lot of the resources that I needed were either closed or operating on a skeleton capacity. There are still a couple things I could fabricate just because what I need was closed.
Fortunately for me, I
have a fully self-contained print studio to work from so I at least I knew that
I would be able to make most of the work here.
BSA: What first came to mind when you saw the space? Did you change your approach to the space a number of times?
Aida Wilde: I was very excited by the space, in particular the fixings and fixtures that were already there….. I had initially completely dismissed the small cupboard under the stairs, until the site visit and where I saw the big heavy safe inside. I don’t know a lot of houses/people who have a safe like that inside their house, so that sparked a lot of ideas about what I could put inside. I started playing with the idea of being safe/locked in/out, and that is when I came up with the idea of the “Pandemik Panik Room”. A contradiction in itself…. Where you would let out all your fears whilst still locked in inside…. But also, a place for safety, hiding and taking refuge inside of it, under the stairs. Made me chuckle.
It was always my intention from the beginning, that I would be doing asking people to be involved with the installation, initially via my social media platforms but later as lock down started to ease in the UK, I was able to run a Panik & Fear poster workshop for my neighbours. I live in a pretty sheltered artist warehouse complex, so I spread the word, put some posters up and people turned up outside my place on the day to get involved and make me posters to go inside the “Panik Room”. It was a beautiful sunny day, we shared, talked, created, laughed and got a little emotional, a very rewarding day. I love the fact that it is not only my voice in the house.
BSA: How did you arrive at the final concept?
Aida Wilde: In all honesty, it was very quick and organic. After initial conversations and half jokingly coming up with names like Nanny Loo and Granny Alley, these things already sparked off a lot of ideas. Dissecting the space into “Zones” / areas also helped with creating a pandemic narrative. I wanted each zone to represent a different idea and feeling that most of us might have gone through during our time in lock-down. There are several personal and emotional elements in the narrative like the Red flower/text pieces transcending up the stairs towards the light from the big window. Those pieces are my exploration of my thoughts about life, love and hope, mixed in with verses from the Persian poet and philosopher Rumi. I guess, it’s all about observation, silence, stillness and contemplation (which came with being in lockdown)
The Staying Alert
serigraphs were mostly sparked off by what I read and saw in the news… I call
these your infomercial doctor/school, you know the ones you may see in a
waiting room….warning you against the perils.
Also, I had started
to pick up a lot of discarded objects and materials that people were leaving
out on the street during the “Lockdown Spring Clean”. I know the thought of
bringing something inside your house left outside in a pandemic is absurd, but
it was good stuff and I had a little ritual where I would obviously pick them
up with gloves, bag them then disinfect immediately once I got them home. A lot
of the things I found also determined what I made them into and how I used them
in the installation.
I was going to print
some of my wallpaper poems to act like banners in the house on paper but I
found a big bag of beautiful white lace curtains one day… so this idea evolved
and I finally wrote them on the curtains which look so beautiful and haunting
on the lace with the light shining through them- They are like ghosts, so I
called them “Notes From A Phantom”
I think the curtains
are a great example of how ideas grew and evolved just by the substrate and I
love what they symbolise & the initial function of what curtains are
supposed to do…. So many correlations between lockdown and the outside world
and taking these curtains and placing them somewhere where they are completely
dysfunctional yet representing an ideology.
BSA: The wall papers are all so ornate…until you look closer…then all sinks in. Who would have thought terror could look so decorative. Like candy in a Florida motel. Did you have fun designing the wall papers?
Aida Wilde: I tend to have a lot of hidden sinister meanings behind most of my work- My fine art editions have undertone references to class, colonialism and the taboo. I also like to dissect things within my work. I want to make people stop and look a little bit harder. You know, we’re so used to everything being fast, especially visually; scrolling/swiping etc….. but this has been the perfect time for everyone to slow down and take in the things that we may have dismissed a million times before….so it’s a little bit about discovery and a surprise in the everyday. I wanted to capture this idea in the install. LOOK HARDER.
And I guess when you’re making work about a deadly invisible killer, you can’t instill any more fear and hysteria into people can you! I’m always striving to find a balance between creating something to communicate as well as making it desirable enough for you to want. I want my work to communicate in the most digestible, relatable and clearest way as possible. Art needn’t come with an instruction manual for you to understand it and feel it.
The “Pink Pop Spots”
as I call them have been with me for almost 15 years, they’re kinda my calling
card on the street as I don’t sign any of my work that’s put out, but people generally
recognise its me through them, and it was totally serendipitous that they resembled
the Covid-19 virus cells, and this is how we turned them into these little
mutating playful things. Forever involving.
With the emoji “Pandemik Mausoleum” wallpaper, I wanted to make something that was a nod to the houses past and complemented the original wallpapers that were already within it, but take it into 2020 obviously. As mentioned before, I really like the damask wallpaper in the library, so that sparked the idea of designing something based on the traditional damask design. Fortunately for me, my degree was in Printed Surface Design where I specialised in pattern for textiles and wallpaper, so again, this was a very comfortable and organic process for me.
I have been using Instagram and emoji subtly through out some of my street work for a few years now- For me, they are the ultimate universal world language to communicate through. From young to old, even my mother sends me an array of emoji based text messages. I had a terrible vision that what if the human population got wiped out because of Covid and a small section of my wallpaper was found some years later…. What would they be able to decipher from it?
A bit like the hieroglyphics you know, what information could you extract, so that was what was going through my mind when I was making it. It was very challenging to get the initial shape and repeat to the way that I wanted it. It did take weeks to complete but I had so many laughs along the way, the mere fact that I was sitting there making an emoji based design with a yellow man clutching a loo roll and Poo’s coming out of a toilet being showered was just ridiculous and surreal, I laughed a lot, still am. One of the hardest challenges was that I wanted to include so much more of the emojis that I really love, but I had to be very brutal and concise with the story that I wanted to tell, it was hard to strip it way back to what it is now. I am happy with it… it seems balanced.
systematic racism have been brought to the forefront causing further
questioning of our institutions and causing rifts between friends and even family
members. The global balance is definitely shifting with internal instability on
the rise. With the usual
deterrents of conflict on the decline, a possible uprising could take place globally…
so warfare indeed.
BSA: How can you explain that a Pandemic can devolve into political warfare? Shouldn’t it all be left to the scientists and the doctors?
AW: This is a very thought provoking question so thank you for asking this as I haven’t talked about the piece of work in the installation that you are referencing.
Seemingly a very accessible and disposable substrate, but a t-shirt has a multi-faceted role which can bring forth and highlight personal or political ideals… even becoming a walking billboard in the communication of subcultures and beliefs etc… I always say, “never underestimate the political power of a T-shirt.” Obviously, how you present the said T-shirt as part of an installation is another matter- In this case, I have displayed it in a zip lock Vacuum Seal bag which is supposed to encase and preserve it in a “germ and dust free” environment.
The original design
referring to ‘Germ Warfare’ was
made by Keith Haring in 1987 in reference to the AIDS epidemic and we even had
to consult Annelise Ream the director of collections at the Haring Foundation
to clarify the origins etc… as I could not find any information during my
research into the t-shirt. It really spoke to me and I was very clear that I
needed to adapt this design and bring it into 2020. There were just too many
similarities and circumstances between the epidemic and the virus that struck
an unnerving chord. Shivers…. It was very emotional.
Regarding the scientists…
we are at the mercy of them and on our leaders. Yes, we are in a race, the race
for a vaccine and a cure. We really don’t know the atmosphere and tension
that’s going on behind those secure lab doors but what I feel is that imagining
once a vaccine is discovered! The first question is going to be “who” &
“Where”. The next thing is going to be, will they share this finding freely, and
at what cost? Is it going to become about POWER & control, commodity and
ownership? It’s a bit like someone knowing how to make gold! The power is going
to lie with the people/country, which will discover the vaccine first.
I really don’t want
to think about the worse case scenario & which country finds it first-
because if it is the US and if in particular still under it’s current
leadership- WE ARE ALL FUCKED.
Perhaps not a germ
warfare but a political one for sure, especially in regards to disparity, who
and what is effected and deaths. We need to consider the demographics too…. Those
living in poverty, women, the youth & the displaced like the refugees all
come into mind.
With this great
power, conflict may arise- we have already witnessed what took place in our
shops & the carnage of empty shelves, the fights, the diversion and looting
of PPE/Masks from airports etc… so imagine what conflicts can arise from
someone finding a vaccine.
If things like democracy and economic independence have been keeping the peace thus far, the global recession and depression caused by the virus; these degradations could shift the economic balance within many countries, affecting trade and peace within nations. Especially with the fall of trade, Trump has already waged trade wars as we speak with reconfiguring the US supply chains from China and defunding WHO and widening the economic inequalities, which are a direct consequence of the pandemic.
BSA: How best would you describe your installation besides the obvious messages?
Aida Wilde: I would like it to be seen as a narrative. It’s a time capsule that captures a moment, thoughts, emotions, loneliness, pain, love and politics. It’s about collaboration, community and the voice of the many. The work will speak and shout…. And I really hope it stands the test of time. I tried my best to present a sympathetic and mindful view of what many of us have experienced during these unsettling and unpredictable time in our history. Our individual experiences, memories and traumas have been so varied, so I hope there is something in there that people can relate to individually. I also hope that I have brought some light & humour into the installation- We need to remember how to feel laughter again.
When Jan Sauerwald, Urban Nation’s Artistic Director, began making plans in earnest for the new facade for the museum, he was pondering what the art on the walls should convey. Given the difficult Covid-inflicted times we are living in he thought that possibly something fun and humorous was what Berlin needed. Indeed, humor has the power to provide levity, but humor is also an exceptionally effective vehicle to impart knowledge and spread a positive message without appearing to be lecturing.
So it seemed most appropriate to gift the denizens of Berlin a fresh, humorous new mural, especially considering that collectively, the whole city had just endured months of lockdown, and they are just now slowly coming out to play outdoors and drink some beers with friends in the parks. Luckily Sauerwald knew who to call. Dave The Chimp. A Berlin-based artist, illustrator, and skateboarder who is known on the streets of Berlin for his simple but street-smart orange characters shaped like a bean. He calls them “Human Beans”.
We reached out to Dave The Chimp and asked him a few questions about the artists he invited to paint along with him and about his experience being able to get up and to get dirty again on the streets.
BSA: How did it feel to get up after the lockdown? How was the experience of working outdoors for the first time in many weeks?
DtC: I don’t work outside often. My work practice is constantly changing, sometimes painting, sometimes drawing comics or creating skateboard graphics, writing the text for zines, and in the past, I’ve organized costumed wrestling parties, played in a punk band, directed pop videos and tv commercials, compiled books… painting outside is just one of a constantly changing set of fun problems to solve!
I personally enjoyed the lockdown. I started meditating again, I was stretching and doing yoga and working out almost every day. Sitting on my balcony in the April sun, reading, catching up on all the movies I don’t have time to watch, helping plug the gaps in my son’s education, trying new recipes. All my projects and exhibitions were canceled so I figured “ok, guess I’m on holiday for a few months, so let’s forget about work”. I realized that this was a very unusual time, so why would I try and carry on with my usual life?
Germany locked-down early. Berlin was quick to organize an emergency fund for freelance workers, so most were able to receive money that meant they could survive a few months without worry. This lessened the fear. Fear shuts down the immune system, and during a pandemic, the one thing you need is a strong immune system!
It was great to come out of the lockdown here and be straight on a worksite, mingling with people, getting dirty, laying in the street. After two months of washing my hands constantly, it was fascinating to feel just how grimy I get just living a normal life! We’re a bunch of filthy little monkeys!
BSA:UN invited you to paint the UN facade for the first time. In turn, you invited four artists to join you. What were your criteria for inviting the other artists?
DtC: Due to Corona, the new museum exhibition had to be delayed until September. They had planned to paint the facade for this exhibition with other artists, so had the city permit to put the lift in the street at the end of May. The crisis has meant that all government offices are running slowly, and a new permit wouldn’t be possible until early 2021. Jan called me and asked me if I could paint the facade two weeks before work had to begin!
The first idea was for me to paint it with Flying Fortress, but unfortunately, he wasn’t available. This sowed the idea of working with others in my mind and I figured “if it would have been fun painting with one friend, why don’t I invite four?” I chose people I like, and whose work I like, and that I could see working with the theme I wanted to portray on the wall.
Originally I had a team of two boys and two girls, but one of the girls wasn’t available, and I couldn’t find another making the kind of thing I needed. Luckily my friend Matt Jones had recently sent me a zine of his doodles, and I saw how some of these could work as a kind of ancient alien language etched into my Stone Henge “stargate”. I invited Mina to paint her powerful females as prehistoric rock paintings, got my skateboard buddy Humble Writerz to chisel the faces he bombs in the streets into stone columns, and had Señor Schnu paste his posters onto boulders. And then I added my own characters so it looked like they were doing all of this work! 😉
BSA: The mural has a playful tone to it which goes well with your character but it also has a message of a team effort in order to build a better world. Is that right?
DtC: I’m pretty sure we don’t need to use fear and anger to change the world. As PiL said, anger is an energy, but I’ve learned that it’s one that is soon burnt out. Much better to try and make the world a better place with love as your fuel. There’s an endless supply of love in all of us. Political action doesn’t need to always be a raised fist, a black, red, and white stenciled shout at the world. Why can’t protests be a fun day out, just like a festival, a carnival of change?
BSA: Can you tell us about the genesis of the concept for the mural? Did you have a brainstorming session with the other artists or did you know what you wanted and just told them your idea and they jumped into action?
DtC: I pretty much see complete ideas in my head. I knew I wanted to paint rocks, and I knew the work of the artists I wanted to paint with. And I had a week to work out the design of an 8 meter high by 50-meter long wall, with three doors, six windows, various corners, and parts inaccessible by the lift! I didn’t have time for brainstorming! I came up with concepts, told the artists what it was I’d like them to do, and then trusted them to do their thing. I had way too many things to think about – five artists with different schedules, a lift that took 20 minutes to move each time, and three days when we were not allowed to use the lift, created an organizational nightmare! Plus I had to try and paint huge structures that I’d never painted before, and 25 characters, all doing different things. But that’s kinda what I like. Painting is setting myself problems, then trying to solve them. It’s fun! If I know what I’m doing, how exactly to do something, and how it will turn out, in advance, then it just becomes work. Better to keep yourself on your toes, make it play!
BSA: Where do you see public murals/outdoor murals going after Covid-19 and the worldwide protests about racial injustice, racism, and police brutality?
DtC: I’ve always thought of graffiti and street art as a political act. It is a reclaiming of the commons. In our cities only those with the money to buy the walls around us – public space – get to have a voice. Advertising is designed to make you require more, to feel like what you have, who you are, is not enough. This is psychological oppression and we are exposed to it thousands of times a day. If we can use walls to make people feel less than, can’t we also use them to feel greater than, to inspire, to cheer, or just simply to help people be satisfied that they are ok? Like Picasso, I believe art can be a weapon to wage war. Bad people win when good people stay silent.
I have been known to make political work and to use a lot of slogans and messages in my work, but right now, in 2020, I find that I am overwhelmed with things that need to be spoken about, with things that are being spoken about, and, frankly, I don’t feel able to speak. Things are changing so quickly. It’s all too confusing. So I am trying to keep my use of words to a minimum, and to try and communicate on a more subtle level. The rocks in this mural represent our belief in the human-built structures and systems of life. The scaffolding, the planks and ropes, represent just how fragile all these systems are, as we have been seeing, and show our need to work together to make life function.
A mural like this couldn’t have been made without a huge network of people. The group of artists I worked with, the production crew at YAP, the lift hire guys, the factory workers that made the brushes, the chemists who brewed the paint, the people that built the wall, the people that cooked our lunch, the people that farmed the food for our lunch, the people that made the bikes we rode to the site every day, that built the roads we rode on… thousands of people are involved in every single human action.
The world is a crazy place right now, and it’s important to remember that we’re all in this together. Maybe it’s better we stop finding ways to divide ourselves, and instead unite.
While New York has always been a melting pot of cultures and languages and people from all over the world, it’s also a fundamental responsibility to also keep our eyes and ears on the folks who are “born and bred” here as they say.
They hold a deeper sense of the DNA of an ever-evolving city and its history, its true nature; the lowdown of what it means to be from this place.
We’ve been hit hard. Some much more than others.
The economics and their implications of this Covid-19 disaster are devastating to many of us, but the mourning and human loss compounds our sense of sadness, even while we are resolute to overcome. If we are all metal in that melting pot of New York that explains how we create a powerfully strong alloy of humanity. We know how to triumph together in times of need and we are unbeatable and loyal allies, despite our sometimes aggressive side.
Artist Oliver Rios was raised in El Barrio of New York from Puerto Rican parents and grew up as an artist drinking in the color, sounds, smells, and style of late 70s Hip Hop culture. Shaped and formed by the beauty and the devastation that life can bring to us, he has channeled his spirit into memorial wall painting, illustration, photography, advertising, digital design.
Profoundly moved by the events that Covid-19 has spun into existence here, Rios is sharing with us a dense and meaningful piece of art that speaks to his history, his heroes, his fears, and his passion for this city and the people in it. Using a subway map for canvas, he depicts first responders – in this case people he knows personally or admires sincerely.
“The image of the nurse is my wife Carol Rios,” he tells us. “She is a Nurse Practitioner at the John Therur Cancer Center in Hackensack, NJ. The police officer is PO Ramon Suarez who perished in 9/11 and who was also my first daughters’ grandfather. The image of the fireman is inspired by a retired fireman and childhood friend from East Harlem who helped at Ground Zero in the days after 9/11. His name is Dennis Mendez. The subway train is an homage to the Late Great Dondi White.”
We asked him more about the creation of and motivations behind “Native New Yorker 2020”:
Brooklyn Street Art: As a Native New Yorker you’ve probably seen and experienced this city being hit hard by different crises while living here: Financial crisis, economic downturns, 9/11 etc…This pandemic is possible New York’s biggest crisis during our lifetimes. What do you think makes New Yorkers get up and fight every day? Oliver Rios: In order to survive you have to be “NY Tough”, to quote Governor Andrew Cuomo! It’s a different kind of toughness that not many people understand. To live in NYC you have to understand and go through the city’s everyday grind! Understanding the everyday hustle, the history, the diverse cultures, the crime, the rats, the pigeons, the parades, the clubs, the bars, the historical sites, the crowded subways, the cabs… everything. Once you live in NYC and understand that lifestyle – to overcome anything is possible.
Going out to party in the greatest city in the world also helps ease the daily stress. We as New Yorkers protect and love the city and that’s why we get up every day and fight!!
BSA: Your work on the poster sends a message of unity and perseverance while at the same time it honors those who are at the forefront of the pandemic. Can you tell us what was your inspiration to create this artwork? OR: This project was really about painting a piece on a subway map. As I tuned into Instagram and join DJ DNice’s “Club Quarantine”, I heard him play “Native New Yorker” by Odyssey , a favorite song of mine. I immediately started with the “Native New Yorker” theme and decided to give it a 2020 version. I wanted to really honor my wife Carol Rios who’s a Nurse Practitioner at the John Theur Cancer Center in Hackensack NJ, my Brother-in-Law who’s a Fireman/Veteran in Belleville, NJ, all the first responders and essential workers dedicating their lives to help fight this pandemic.
I started with my wife who is on the top of the poster and it evolved from there.
BSA: You mentioned that your wife is a nurse. How has it been for the family to see her every day going to work knowing the risks and dangers she will confront at the hospital? OR: It’s an uncomfortable feeling every day, knowing that your loved ones are heading out the door to face danger every day. I try to keep the kids busy with school work and video games as we wait for her to get home to have dinner, watch our favorite TV shows, or play board games. We appreciate all she does and her patients do as well.
BSA:By including some members of your family and friends in your artwork you are honoring them and their work, preserving and commemorating their memory, and at the same time you are persisting with your creativity. How does an artist find the motivation to create works like these in such challenging times? OR: For me, it’s never easy… the inspiration is around me every day in my studio; I have a framed photo taken by Martha Cooper of a memorial mural dedicated to my good friend Juan Anthony “TEE” Castro that I painted during 1993 in El Barrio (East Harlem). On the frame, I have prayer cards of family and friends who have passed away during the years. Next to it I have a photo of my brother who was murdered by gun violence in 1981. My oldest daughter’s grandfather PO Ramon Suarez is there too; He perished saving lives during the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers. The UPS worker is the guy I see driving up and down the street delivering packages. Fireman Dennis Mendez is a childhood friend from East Harlem who helped dig out debris at ground zero days after 9/11. The Subway train is an homage to the Late Great Dondi White.
I find that as artists we have to remind ourselves how we are all connected. This is my way to thank and connect to my Native New Yorkers. God Bless!
Thinking outside the box is a prerequisite for most graffiti writers and Street Artists. You may say that they are so unaccustomed to the prescribed routes of reaching an audience with art and ideas that they simply barge into new ones, and bringing the art to you.
The same can be said of the Berlin creative laboratory YES, AND … productions (YAP), and their forward-thinking cultural partners at the newly mobile Museum of Now (MON). Together they are presenting new ways of bringing art to the people.
Now thinking outside the museum, the team brought the museum outside to Berlin streets this week thanks to their new nighttime programming that mixes classical western standard-bearers like Michaelangelo with modern masters of new forms like the light artist Multiscalar. The end result is a newly energized city block that projects both artists on facades just outside your living room, viewable from inside it.
Allowing museum-goers to stay home and stay safely physically distanced from strangers, MON director Denis Leo Hegic tells us that the neighborhoods where MON has been this week have become suddenly alive. People are attracted to their windows by the blasting music and continue hanging out of them to watch the show, looking out at the few stragglers on the sidewalk who are likewise smitten by the unannounced exhibition suddenly stealing their minds for a moment, away from the mundane worries and credible fears of COVID-19.
Because of the heaviness of our time right now, Multiscaler chose a message that was optimistic – which you can see here. The artists’ messenger is Michelangelo’s David – writing a letter to us as he would perhaps send today.
Hegic tells us that the whole project was set up, planned and produced within just a few days as a joint venture between the Museum of Now and YAP. “Without the YAP crew, this project would never have seen the light of night,” he says.
With a projector and speakers in the back of a van, many an
anarchist and artivist is familiar with using their voice to protest. For the
museum, it is about making art accessible to everyone, and Hegic says that many
institutions are committed to this, yet very few of them actually put this into
“I believe that the post-Covid world will be different from what we know now, and it is up to us how we want to shape it, “ he says. “For my part, I will fight for a culture that is alive and vivid – and accessible to everyone and always.”
We had an opportunity to talk to Hegic more about the
BSA:This is an ingenious solution to having a museum experience at a time when museums are necessarily closed. How do you choose the location of your exhibitions?
Denis Leo Hegic: At a time when we all have to stay at home to reduce the spread of the virus outbreak, our cultural participation also decreases. Therefore, it is very important that we do everything we possibly can to keep art and culture from coming to a standstill. When choosing the locations, it is very important to have spots with great visibility from a large number of windows and balconies. We want the largest possible audience to be able to see the exhibitions from their homes
BSA:Have you had the opportunity to speak with any audience members?
DH: We have not spoken to anyone in person as we keep physical contact to a minimum. But digitally, via social media and email, we have had a lot of exchange with the audience.
People are surprised and thankful to see a positive message. In times of crisis when doomsday news is omnipresent, it is art and culture that brings people together.
BSA: Projections are often used for commercial pursuits as well today. Is it a challenge to communicate to people that this is intended as public art?
DH: Not at all. Everyone immediately understood what it was about. This is probably partly because we play quite loud music and sounds – which would be rather uncommon for advertising projections in housing areas.
BSA: As a philosopher, academic, and aesthete, what or who was your inspiration for this project?
DH: The word “inspiration” comes from the word “muse”. And the muses reside in “museums” – the temples of inspiration. My inspiration, my muses are always the people, and if they can no longer come to the museum, we will bring the museum to them.
It involves taking advantage of a monstrous shock to our social and economic system while we are too preoccupied to stop them. People behind corporations actually “game” the future like this – methodically planning to force through changes to society that they always wanted but couldn’t find an acceptable justification for while you were looking. A crime committed right under your nose – while you are worrying about losing your job or paying your rent or your grandma getting sick from Covid-19.
In the case of today’s story of a Brazillian Street Artist named Mundano, the earth, and soil that he used to paint his new mural comes from the region destroyed by a dam break of toxic sludge last January. With hundreds of townspeople and workers swept away by tens of millions of tons of toxic sludge and earth, the people of the area held searches for weeks after and had public meetings full of accusations and fury. They also had funerals.
A similar dam owned by the same company had failed only three years earlier, and many more dams like this are holding immense reservoirs, or poison underground lakes, across Brazil – each potentially breaking apart and poisoning land, water, wildlife, and communities for decades after.
Mundano’s mural honors the workers killed in this man-made environmental disaster and he tells us that the 800 square meter piece references another painting Brazillian modernist called Tarsila do Amaral. Painted in 1933, her work titled “The Factory Workers,” depicts a sea of stern faces with gray clouds rising from factory smokestacks in the background. Mundano says he’s proud of his mural, of the mini-documentary here, and of his neighbors and country people who have raised attention to a situation that appears corrupt, and well, toxic to life.
“In January 2019, Brazil has suffered one of the worse environmental crimes of its history,” says Mundano, “when Vale do Rio Doce’s mining dam broke, contaminating the Paraopeba River with a sea of toxic mud, and killing everything that was in the way, including almost 300 people who lost their lives that day,” he tells us. We talk to him about artists using their work to educate and raise awareness to advocate for political or social change, a term often today called ‘artivism’.
Brooklyn Street Art:With reason, there’s a lot of anger against the government and the owners of the mine about this fatal catastrophe. How did you get involved? Mundano: The environmental and social causes are a big part of my activism or artivism, and I’ve always been a critic of the exploitation of lands for mining purposes. We have over 200 mining dams operating today in Brazil under the risk of breaking. In the last four years we had two of the biggest catastrophes of our country, both in the state of Minas Gerais; Mariana in 2017 and most recently in 2019 in the city of Brumadinho, where a “tsunami” of toxic mud contaminated the Paraopeba river with 12.7 million cubic meters of sludge, dragging everything that was on the way, including almost 300 people who lost their lives.
As an artivist it is really important for me to be present and see what happened with my own eyes, feel the pain of the victim’s families, follow closely to the inquiry and use the platform and reach that I have as an artist to help these people find justice, and most importantly to put pressure on governments and big companies so that they’re held accountable, preventing this from happening again.
Brooklyn Street Art:What is the role of an artist should be in his/her community? Should art respond to social needs? Mundano: For over 13 years now, I’ve been practicing artivism in several cities across the globe. My actions and the art I create need to have a bigger purpose. For me, art has the power of bringing reflection into society and impact people’s lives, make them think and reflect on their part in society. That’s how I see my art and how I believe I can contribute to bigger causes. I wouldn’t say it’s every artist obligation, but with these huge global challenges naturally we’re gonna need to become more artivists.
Brooklyn Street Art:The community felt betrayed and abandoned by those who were supposed to protect them. How did they get the strength to rise up and fight in the middle of their pain? Mundano: I can’t speak for them but I feel that they don’t have other options than to fight for their rights. Brazilians are quite resistant to adversities by nature. One of the main subjects of my work is the cactus, a plant that, like a big portion of our population, survives with little and still manages to share beauty with flowers to the world. It is hard to see a whole city and it’s people destroyed by such a horrible crime, yet, it was such a strong image to watch mothers, wives, sons, daughters, and friends united, marching a year later, screaming for justice, not giving up on the memories of their loved ones. That gave me strength and inspired me to create my biggest and most important work up until today to honor them.
Brooklyn Street Art:Your mural honors and remember those whose lives were lost. Yet there’s some poetic beauty in it with the pigments you used to paint it. You made the paint from the sediment in the river and the earth around it. What were your feelings as you were painting these people faces these materials? Mundano: The whole process of collecting the mud from the lakebed of Paraopeba River was delicate. I felt the need to talk to residents, local activists, and the families. It was important that I had their consent and that they understood my intentions. The mural was a way of keeping the subject alive, and to honor them in one of the biggest cities in the world, Sao Paulo. I believe that the respect I’ve shown was recognized as I started to receive messages from Brumadinho’s residents about the video, thanking me for the painting, and for me, that’s the biggest recognition of all, it made it all worth it.
Puerto Rico, “La Perla del Mar” (The Pearl of the Sea) Or “La Isla Bonita” (The Beautiful Island”) had a huge earthquake on January 7 and many vital services and systems have not been restored, causing 8,000 people to be homeless and 40,000 to camp outside of their homes, according to rescue agencies. The power plant that supplies a quarter of their needs is still shut down.
Given those challenges to humans, you don’t usually think about the animals who live on the island.
But ROA does.
The urban naturalist has long championed the marginalized animals of any culture, and since the Belgian Street Artist has basically made Puerto Rico his second home, it is no surprise that he has painted a number of the island’s animals on run-down, neglected structures to remind neighbors who their neighbors really are.
Globe exploring photographer Martha Cooper was in Puerto Rico for other pursuits this January and managed to meet up with a number of ROA’s more recent friends on her journey.
We were lucky to speak to ROA to ask him about his new pieces and his affinity for the people and climate of Puerto Rico and here we share his responses along with Ms. Coopers’ photos with BSA readers.
BSA: There have been a few major natural disasters in Puerto Rico recently. First the hurricane and most recently the earthquake. What sort of negative impact do these natural disasters have on the fauna in Puerto Rico? Are the resources in Puerto Rico available to help the animal species that are in danger? ROA: Undeniably, the island was hit by the disaster, but to tell exactly how great the impact is on the fauna is difficult to estimate. For example; the local green Puerto Rican parrot that was listed as critically endangered for many years and whereof were only 200 left, most of these were reintroduced in El Yunque Rain Forest as result of a recovery plan, but the hurricane completely blew out the population and we are back to point zero, and almost no PR parrot has been seen in El Yunque since then. Recently I’ve read they released 30 parrots out of captive conservation programs into the El Yunque rainforest.
BSA: Speaking of the impact that natural disasters have on animals, would you say that the largest disaster that animals face is the humans and their disdain for the preservation and the protection of our natural resources?
ROA: Of course, the greatest threat on earth for nature and all animal species, is humanity. Though we are also animals. For example, Puerto Rico: from the moment people arrived on the island the number of animal species declined dramatically and when the Europeans arrived; the original ecosystem became completely destroyed: lost natural habitat and the introduction of cattle, etc.
BSA: Are these new paintings on walls part of a personal project and if so could you talk a bit about it? ROA: My love for Puerto Rico started when I was invited by Alexis Dias en Celso for Los Muros Hablan in 2012. I returned in 2015 for an art residency organized by JUST KIDS in San Juan and this resulted in a very long residency and during that period I painted my first walls on the island and that’s how I got stuck in Puerto Rico, and that’s super great! So, since the beginning, I started to paint around in different places on the island and in San Juan, and this project is naturally grown out of road tripping, painting and meeting Stefan from Elegel in 2018 by painting the Red-Tailed Hawk in Humacao (Grita Walls).
Stefan started helping me with getting around the island and to gather material in order to do this, somewhat a very natural project arose, that now just gets more site-specific over the island in a way that actually ties together all the different places in Puerto Rico where introduced, non-introduced and endangered animals are living, so that’s how we came across the people from “Recursos Naturales y Ambientales’, an organization that saves manatees and sea turtles… so it’s a naturally grown project started out loving being in Puerto Rico, and about being much into road trips!
BSA:For an artist and specifically for you and your work what are the advantages of living in a country with year-round sunshine and nice weather? ROA: I consider Puerto Rico one of the places I call home. I spend time during the year there to relax between certain intense projects and meanwhile, I can go snorkeling, go scuba diving, and paint around any moment of the year. So that’s the advantage of good weather, so it allows you to be and paint outside, so you don’t have to deal with a “winter”, not in a European way where you get obliged to spend much of your time inside, and I am just happier outside.
BSA:Have you found the people in Puerto Rico to be helpful with your work? ROA: Los Muros Hablan, Alexis Dias and Celso, Charlotte from JustKids who brought me here, and now with the help of Stefan Lang (Elegel) and the new art residency, I definitely have felt support in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans are very warm and jovial people and it has a unique ambiance.
psychiatrist, and anthropologist – probably in that order – DONT FRET is more
invested than you may appreciate at first, and the underside of American
division and inequality bubbles quickly to the surface when he is asked if the
country is beyond class.
“Whoever is saying that clearly has the luxury to do so.
Look at our cities,” he says.
~ Steven P. Harrington in the introduction to DONT FRET’s monograph, “Life Thus Far”
His Brooklyn residency has been a blur full of old buds from college, new bars in Bedstuy, and of course, sausage makers. He stands in the middle of an artist’s hazard zone of crumpled paper, opened pots of paint, and discarded laundry with brush poised in hand describing his recent quandary about finding a meat mecca in Bushwick and realizing that he couldn’t buy everything he saw once he spoke to the owner.
“She just started her own sausage company and we
definitely want to do collaborations,” he says. “There were so many sausages at
her place that I wanted to buy.” So you know he’s feeling comfortable here,
surrounded by fine meats.
His characters are all here, wondering aloud about physical
insecurities and decoding social navigation; cryptically critiquing the
absurdities of our class system and the underlying savagery of corporate
capital and the perverting power of cloying advertising across the culture. In
so many words.
Some hand-painted posters are still wet, some boards for future magazine covers (Thrasher, Sportsball Weekly, The New Yorker) have backgrounds prepared for him to paint featured personalities, a scattered pile of painted lottery players are grinning gamely from shiny Lotto cards, and larger new canvasses are built up with dense color and swarming symbols that dance around the heads of his imagined sitters.
“In this kind of stuff I wouldn’t say it’s autobiographical but they are definitely my generation of people navigating the city, looking at life and nightlife,” he says as you look into the rolling eyes of figures that have transformed into slot machines, perhaps hoping to win the jackpot. He points to his enthrallment with “The Simpsons” as he grew up and sees the bewildered savviness of the players in himself and in most of his peers as they navigate “adulting”. It’s chaos, but an entertaining one.
“There are clips of the Simpsons that go around in my head
again and again,” he says. “There is one with Bart and Millhouse find twenty
dollars and they get a Super Squishy, which is basically a crack squishy, and
they go on this bender,” which makes him laugh. He turns to the blottoed bloke
on his new canvas and describes the scene.
“It’s like a song and dance. They’re singing (and he breaks
into singing) Springfield! Springfield! It’s a helluva town! – and there is
this scene of them wandering Springfield,” he says.
You can see this is a stand-in for this month in the BK in this case and DONT FRET’s active imagination about the lore of this dirty metropolis. “You see this neon popping up, and the animation just swirls. And then it just wakes up to Bart, hungover in bed.”
“I don’t know, I always just like those images. For me, these are like Brooklyn and Manhattan,” he says with glassy star-struck dizziness in his eyes.
Catch DONT FRET tonight at his opening at the Bedstuy
Artists Residency, and you can swirl around colorfully with other symbols of
this time, and this electrified city full of promise. BSA co-founder will be there to sign his
introduction essay inside fresh copies of “Life Thus Far”, DONT FRET’s giant
A hummus plate is promised.
Thank you to Kathy, Erwin, and Marshall at the BedStuy Art Residency for your love and support to the arts. Always.
A retrospective at Brooklyn Museum currently showcases the photographic works and public projects envisioned and created by French Street Artist JR. Covering roughly two decades of work, JR: Chronicles dedicates an in-depth examination into his practices and personal philosophies when creating – as evidenced by this collection of his murals, photographs, videos, films, dioramas, and archival materials.
His most recent and one of his most original ideas has been to use the techniques of professional film compositing to impart a permanent, living aura for what may otherwise be static collaged works. With high res digital works working in concert, the life of the subject takes on an additional dimension, juxtaposed as it is with other figures they may or may not have ever interacted with.
Often in these recent projects you have the opportunity to see and/or hear personal recordings of the person through interviews for the piece. The centerpiece and partial namesake of this show is the new large-scale mural of more than one thousand New Yorkers whom he chose to feature, accompanied by audio recordings of each person’s story as told to him and his team.
Many of these concepts and philosophical observations, including sociopolitical commentary on a number of hot-button issues of the day, may feel familiar to fans and Street Artists around the world – particularly over the last decade and a half. Here you can see that with the number of resources and teams that he can amass, JR is able to create the ideas with a sense of largesse and garner greater audiences, putting many of his works before many more.
Epic is a word often used to describe the projects, and when you see the JR: Chronicles exhibition you can understand why.
We spoke with the curators of the exhibition Sharon Matt Atkins and Drew
Sawyer about their experience with this exhibition and how JR is defining new
areas of photography with his use of it in public space.
Brooklyn Street Art:JR created a new digital collage for this exhibition featuring a thousand or so people individually interviewed and photographed. Can you tell us about what criterion he used for selecting his subjects? Sharon Matt Atkins: JR’s main focus was on capturing the rich diversity of New York City. As such, he photographed people in all five boroughs of the city, including many neighborhoods that were new to him. While he did invite some guests to participate, most of the people were passersby, or business owners and workers of local stores.
Brooklyn Street Art:It may be that there has been a return to
black and white photography in
the last decade – so much so that one may not register the significance
that JR employs it for expression almost exclusively. How do you think
the limited palette aids his work in telling his narratives? Drew Sawyer: In
many ways, JR’s use of black and white photographs is in direct
opposition to contemporary photojournalism and the digital circulation
is images. His close-up portraits may recall the work of earlier
documentarians, such as Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange in the United
States, but JR’s decision to print them on inexpensive paper and paste
them nearby counters they ways in which images often circulate in the
global media far away from the places where his collaborators live. Also,
the monochromatic images certainly stand out against the colorful built
environments in which JR typically installs them.
Brooklyn Street Art:As you deeply analyzed his career and its
various phases, what would you
say is one of the through-lines that you see in his practice as it
evolved? Sharon Matt Atkins:
Our show is centered on his projects that have been created in
collaboration with communities. From his earliest photographs
documenting his graffiti writer friends to Inside Out with more
than 400,000 participants in 141 countries to his most recent mural The
Chronicles of New York City, JR has sought to give visibility to those
often underrepresented or misrepresented.
Brooklyn Street Art: How has JR used his work in a new way that may prove to be inspiring to photographers and fans of photography? Drew Sawyer: For JR, photography is just one part of his collaborative process. His work is really about bringing people together, lifting the voices of others who rarely have control over their own representation, countering narratives in the global media, and shifting the discourse around specific issues and events. He started his practice before there were social media apps like Instagram, which now provide platforms for many people to do the same in a digital form. Since then, JR has explored how new technologies can help him tell and share more stories. I hope his process inspires other artists to use photography in similar and new ways.
“Since 2017 JR has been creating participatory murals inspired by the work of the Mexican painter Diego Rivera in the first half of the twentieth century. In the summer of 2018, JR and his team spent a month roaming all five boroughs of New York City, parking their 53- foot-long trailer truck in numerous locations and taking photographs of passersby who wished to participate. Each was photographed in front of a green screen, and then the images were collaged into a New York City setting featuring architectural landmarks. More than a thousand people were photographed for the resulting mural, The Chronicles of New York City. The participants chose how they personally wanted to be represented and were asked to share their stories, which are now available on a free mobile app.”
– text courtesy Brooklyn Museum
“In January 2009 JR carried out another iteration of Women Are Heroes in Kibera, Kenya, one of the largest slums in Africa. Following close dialogue with the community, JR covered rooftops with water-resistant vinyl printed with photographs of the eyes and faces of local women. The images both transformed the landscape and provided protection from the rain.
The train that ran along the Kibera line was also covered with photographs of the eyes of women who lived directly below, and images of the lower halves of their faces were pasted on the slope beneath the tracks so that as the train passed, their faces were completed for a few seconds. The idea was to celebrate, or at the very least to acknowledge their presence. Of his projects, JR has said, ‘I search with my art to install the work in improbable places, to create with the communities projects that promote questioning. . . and to offer alternative images to those of the global media.’ ”
– text courtesy Brooklyn Museum
“On October 8, 2017, for the last day of the Kikito installation at the U.S.-Mexico border, JR organized a gigantic picnic on both sides of the wall. Kikito, his family, and dozens of guests came from the United States and Mexico to share a meal. People at both sides of the border gathered around the eyes of Mayra, a ‘Dreamer,’ eating the same food, sharing the same water, and enjoying the same live music (with half the band’s musicians playing on either side). “
– text courtesy Brooklyn Museum
JR: Chronicles is curated by Sharon Matt Atkins, Director of Exhibitions and Strategic Initiatives, and Drew Sawyer, Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Curator, Photography, Brooklyn Museum. This exhibition is now open to the public. Click HERE for dates, times and directions.
Image Description A (see earlier in article) “As the first photograph in what would become JR’s Portrait of a Generation, this image launched his career. The series was initiated when Ladj Ly, a filmmaker, and resident of Cité des Bosquets (called “Les Bosquets”), a public housing complex in the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil, invited JR to collaborate on a project in the neighborhood.
JR said of the image: ‘I took this picture when I was eighteen. It was the first time I went to Les Bosquets. If you look carefully in the back, you can see small posters from Expo 2 Rue—and I wrote ‘Expo D Boske.’ The kids asked me if I could take a picture of them. This photo of Ladj Ly filming me was the first one on the roll of film, and I felt something special had happened. This image is very emblematic of my work and of the message of this project with Ladj.’
This photograph was also the first large-scale image that JR and his friends wheat-pasted in the neighborhood prior to the riots there in 2005. It appeared as the backdrop in photographs accompanying newspaper articles and television footage about the uprising, thereby becoming JR’s first published work. “
– text courtesy Brooklyn Museum
Image Description B (see earlier in article) “In 2013 JR learned that the housing towers in Les Bosquets were going to be demolished, so he revisited the Portrait of a Generation project. Using images from the original series, he and a team pasted portraits in the building before it was destroyed. He recalled, ‘We couldn’t get authorization to paste inside. So we got plans from the former inhabitants, and we entered at night, twenty-five of us, and spread out over all the different floors. We pasted eyes in someone’s kitchen, a nose in someone else’s bathroom, and a mouth in a living room. . . . When we came down, the police arrested us, but they couldn’t understand why we had just spent hours in this building that was about to be destroyed. The pastings were so big that they couldn’t see what they were. The next day, when workers started the demolition, the portraits were revealed, little by little, while the cranes were ‘eating’ the building. Only the people who were in the neighborhood that day witnessed the gigantic spectacle unfold.’ “
Little Ricky thinks Anna Wintour is someone important whom people consider significant or iconic in popular culture, which is already a humorous supposition. In his multiple street iterations of the fashion editor, he has dressed her as a sheep in Chanel, as a sheep in boxing gloves with Andy Warhol (replacing Basquiat), as an American Express fashion gladiator in stickers and wheat pastes on the Streets of New York.
Each tiny episode of his ongoing SHEEP series may bring a perplexed smile to the average person who is looking at them while waiting for the traffic lights to change. In the case of the Wintour character preaching and prognosticating and posing, an insider joke that appeals to the fashion gatekeepers in this city, of which many have self-appointed. The question you may ask is, who’s the sheep, who’s the shepard.
A Street Art icon/brand in the making, Little Ricky’s talisman-woman of a candy pink sheep character inhabits the new strata of 20-teens Street Art that reflects the ease of social media commentary here grafted onto actual walls, the fascination we have with visually sampling pop cultural references, and the time-honored practice of lampooning with absurdity. A California-based Gen X Street Artist with uncommon discipline and work ethos in his practice, Little Ricky has been studying, developing, archiving, formulating his campaigns in the Street and gallery for the better part of a decade now.
in New York to sample the late-summer fragrance potpurri of pot, urine, and Italian
sausages on the streets of Lower Manhattan, BSA had an opportunity to chat with
Little Ricky one night when we were gallery hopping with a buddy. He talked about new art on lightposts and
guard-rails, the nature of his one-off comical creations, and his deep desire to
launch a Keith Haring show here next year using his ewe-inspired interpretations
of Harings work and life.
Brooklyn Street Art:We’ve seen many Anna Wintour pieces recently by you on the street. How does the muse find you? Little Ricky: I never imagined that I’d be spending a year working with Anna as my muse. It’ll be weird once the year comes to an end. But I know that SHEEP will continue to surprise me and Anna will most likely keep popping up in my work. The connection will always be there.
She can find me on IG. But, since she doesn’t have a personal IG account, I hashtag her name #ANNAWINTOUR and I tag @voguemagazine. Maybe one of her PA’s will get the word out to her. A few months ago, I even sent her a large pink manilla envelope with a SHEEP zine/bio and stickers too. Whether she ever received it is another story. I don’t expect to hear from her, but I have a feeling that our paths may cross at some point. Either way, our stars are crossed, at least in my head.
Brooklyn Street Art:People are sheep, aren’t they? Little Ricky: I’d like to think that we’re all sheep but without the negative connotations. Sure we can all follow along with the masses, or maybe not fit in, but at some point we all crave to be ourselves as we are. At the heart and soul of SHEEP is that we’re ALL different. When Alexander McQueen referred to himself as a ‘pink sheep’ I understood that he was making a comment not only on his sexuality, but more importantly on the idea that he was different from even the black sheep. Reading that sentence in his biography altered the course of my life and is what inspired SHEEP.
After 51 years of life and almost 7 years of working on the series, I’ve learned this. (See if you can follow along or if it makes some sense) Being born is what we ALL have in common. Yet at that moment no one ever has or ever will be identical. In one moment we’re connected and different at the same time. We then spend a lifetime searching for meaning/purpose. The secret- to learn, embrace, and honor all those many little things about ourselves that make us…ME! When we do so, we go back to that moment of connection. So yea we’re all sheep finding our way back to an essence of being.
Brooklyn Street Art:Can you talk about your feelings toward Keith Haring and the impression he and his work made on you? Little Ricky: I feel a deep connection to Keith. It goes beyond being inspired by him. I feel him alongside me like he’s guiding me along. I first came across his work in the late ’80s. The simplicity of his images struck some magic in my soul. They still do. They felt familiar. Until now, I didn’t realize that Keith’s passing in February of 1990 coincided with my coming out the month before. Weird! Maybe he passed the torch along. My first boyfriend who I met in January of 1990 even drove Keith around SF the year before. I wasn’t into the art scene in any way, but I started taking art classes while at UC Berkeley. I imitated his lines and figures, but there was no ‘me’ in what I was creating.
With SHEEP, almost 30 years later, I can see his influence in my work, always will. But now I know, that I’m creating a world of my own with a little touch of his magic. It’s been an effortless process. For that, I give some credit to Keith. When the idea for SHEEP came to mind in 2013, I didn’t know what I’d be creating. I purchased a toy sheep and started doodling. After a while, a shape took form and it looked familiar like I had seen it before.
Thinking about this now, I realize that it was like finding my own Haring ‘baby.’ I wasn’t looking for it, but when I saw it, I knew it was the beginning of everything. P.S. Last year in May, I did a 31-day study I called SHEEPDOG. Each day, I painted an image combining Keith’s dog and my SHEEP. I was surprised that I hadn’t thought of it earlier. It was magical seeing it evolve.
Brooklyn Street Art:Recently Dusty Rebel has been traveling around the world speaking with and filming Street Artists from the GLBTQ community. Why is it important to know if a graffiti writer or Street Artist is GLBTQ? Little Ricky: As I get older, labels have become less important. I jokingly tell my sister that I’m the ‘+’ in the GLBTQ+ If I’m to label myself, it’s definitely queer over gay. I like qweirdo even better! When I started the series, I assumed the street art community was a bunch of heterosexual males. Other than the names Bansky and Shepard Fairey, I knew nothing about it. Knowing that the SHEEP were queer, I felt some hesitation about how the community would embrace them.
Unknowingly, I’d even censor myself so that they weren’t too ‘gay.’ That all changed after the Orlando shootings when I was reminded of the importance of living out loud and proud. But once I started meeting the artists, I came to find out that no one cared about how I identified or if the sheep were gay or not. All that mattered was that I was getting up and they loved what I was doing. Meeting all these artists, queer or not, has been one of the greatest parts of working on SHEEP. So, it’s not so much about knowing who’s queer or not, because in the end, we’re all doing the same thing. But thanks to Dusty, there’s a new found community.
Once I started, other than HomoRiot, I wasn’t aware of anyone else. It took me a few years before we eventually met up. Now, I have a new community of peeps that I get to call friends. I’m excited to meet many more along the way. I feel grateful to Dusty and all his work. He’s shedding light on an untold story and the many artists who often go unrecognized. It’s like the M&M commercial- we do exist!
Brooklyn Street Art:Which city is more fun for Street Art right now? Little Ricky: As much as I love my beloved city of LA, I feel like I’m living ‘in’ art when I’m in NYC. Art’s everywhere! Aside from SHEEP, walking is a great passion and there’s no better city than NY to combine my two loves. When I was there recently, I put in 20 miles in one day. The opportunity to paste-up SHEEP is everywhere and anywhere. LA’s different that way. Even though I do walk a lot and I paste-up wherever I go, it’s not the same. It’s very random. Plus you’re not going to see my work whiledrivingaroundd. SHEEP is definitely for the pedestrian and NY is the perfect place. Initially, I thought my little SHEEP would get lost in it all, but came to find out that New Yorkers do pay attention while walking.
When it comes to the queer art community, street or not, I often wondered if my work didn’t fit in because it wasn’t erotic or specifically depicting a ‘queer’ image/message. But I now know, that regardless, they’re queer and they’re pink! It’s in the heart and soul of the each SHEEP. Whether this is conveyed when coming across my work is not as important as the feeling you have when seeing them. Feel the JOY!
Brooklyn Street Art:In what way is your work political? Is it commentary? Critique? Little Ricky: This was a tough question. I don’t see it as being overtly political or even commentary. There are some pieces that may be so, but overall they’re expressions of joy. I keep it simple. If you smile or laugh out loud when finding my pieces on the street, I know I’ve done my job. I often laugh out loud when creating them. There’s such silliness. For example, the idea of Anna Wintour as a pink sheep in roller skates makes me laugh. When I began the series, they started off as ‘gay’ sheep and now they’re more a symbol about a feeling.
I’ve always felt different, it goes beyond my sexuality. As I age, I feel more and more different. And the more different I feel, the more connected I am. So the SHEEP being out and about, regardless of the character or message, are a symbol of that feeling that we all feel. Being different, feeling different is a beautiful thing!
A unique private/public protest/memorial to raise awareness since 2005, the founder of The Pansy Project has planted the namesake flower, in some circles a pejorative term against gay boys and men, in thousands of locations around the world to commemorate a place where violence or intimidation toward LGBT people took place. Where it is difficult to find a good place to plant or to buy live pansies the gifted illustrationist simply paints one.
Understated and symbolic, the political and personal Street Art act bears witness to the brothers and sisters and others who society fucks with because they don’t fit traditional expectations of gender conformity. After nearly a decade and half, Paul says he will keep doing this work until it’s not necessary. You’ll probably need to help.
Recently we spent time with him on his visit to New York,
watching him plant pansies and asking him questions about his practice.
Brooklyn Street Art: When we think of monuments to historical events we often place them in locations that correlate with things that happened there. Can you talk about the similarities that this act of planting an ephemeral flower has to huge hulking brass statues in recalling our feeling and our memories?
Paul Harfleet: When I began to think about how to respond to my experiences of homophobia on the streets, I became interested in the particular nature of my memories of these attacks, they were rapid and fleeting and therefore I felt my response should be temporary and non-permanent. It felt archaic and overly municipal to begin making ‘permanent’ memorials to my own relatively minor attacks. A small unmarked living plant would add to the conversation, the flower could live and grow as I do through my experience. A tiny pop of color, unsanctioned by the city would reflect my own apparently illicit position in the urban environment.
I’m interested in how ‘permanent’ memorials became invisible over time*, their meanings sink into the fabric of the city, they become street furniture, their significance evaporates over time, unless they’re re-activated by an occasion or anniversary. Particularly when flowers are placed at war memorials, this and floral road-side memorials are echoed in The Pansy Project.
exact location was loaded for me, so it was essential that each place
should be altered by my intervention, it’s this that transformed how I
remembered the streets. The ritual of planting a pansy has become a
performative reparation on the street.
Brooklyn Street Art: Do you know of someone else who was inspired by your project and began a new one of their own?
Paul Harfleet: It’s difficult to know if and how my work has inspired others. I know that people have planted pansies to mark their own experiences of homophobia and I’m aware of some students that have made very different work that has been informed by The Pansy Project which is humbling.
am aware of other actions that explore homophobia, I was touched by the
work of Nando Messias, “Sissy’s Progress” is a performance where the
artist revisited the location they were attacked with a marching band,
though I don’t think they were informed by the project, I enjoy the
absurdity of the response to homophobia, which in itself is an absurd
reaction to difference.
Brooklyn Street Art: In the US we have had a serious and fiery debate about historical memorials that glorify a period of racism, a sort of glorification of figures who championed racism. How does our perception change when we learn about the significance of location and events that took place there?
Paul Harfleet:This has been an fascinating debate, it challenges the idea of a memorial becoming invisible*, this is an example of the memorial being re-activated by context. I think it’s invaluable to have these discussions. It’s a shame that the debate seems to be so binary; keep or destroy. As an artist I would be interested in reinvigorating these memorials rather than removing them.
The fact they celebrate the achievements of a racist society should not be forgotten, it should in my opinion be remembered and challenged through art and education, small additions or amendments to these memorials could re-contextualise their meaning, there is an opportunity here to allow these memorials to a racist culture to become something that acknowledges the behavior of previous generations and act as a warning to future ones. We only have to look at the fragility of human rights at the moment to know how important it is to retain knowledge of previous injustices.
Brooklyn Street Art: When one considers the long period that this campaign has persisted, you may wonder how Paul Harfleet continues to have enthusiasm for it. Do you ever lose interest? What inspires you to get back to planting pansies after you discontinue for a while?
Paul Harfleet: I’ve been working with The Pansy Project for almost fifteen years, for me the repetition is vitally important for how the work is read. Everyday someone is experiencing homophobia or transphobia, whether it’s micro-agression, government sanctioned or the most violent of murders, it’s always happening, so I feel I have a responsibility to continue using my art to highlight this injustice.
I’m not completely altruistic, I do have to maintain my own interest, through the project I’ve explored various ways of working from garden, jewellery and merchandise design to the writing and illustrating of a book; Pansy Boy that reveals The Pansy Project in a completely different way, most recently I’ve been exploring painting the pansies on walls where homophobia has happened.
All of these actions keep me interested. I am always trying to take the ‘perfect’ picture and document my work in new ways. I’m inspired by artists that work in very similar ways their whole careers, Sean Scully speaks about repetition; ‘I want to express that we live in a world with repetitive rhythms and that things are existing side by side that seem incongruous or difficult.’
Brooklyn Street Art: New York has an incredible story in the modern LGBTQ rights movement. Can you tell us about one of the places in New York where you planted a pansy that was particularly meaningful to you?
Paul Harfleet: My visit to New York was incredibly important for me, unusually I funded this visit myself. I usually wait until I’m invited by a festival or for an exhibition, though I wanted to be in New York during the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall. I first came to New York in 2006 to plant pansies for the Conflux Festival.
These were the very early days of the project, some of the photos I took then were bad, since then I’ve gotten better at taking the pictures so I wanted to re-plant and document the pansy I planted at the Stonewall Inn to properly mark this historically significant location. Though I also planted new pansies, it was moving for me to plant one at Christopher Street Pier for Marsha P. Johnson, their life and death was complex and seeped in the injustices of time. This seems even more significant in America today when black trans women are so under threat.
As I write, we await the decision by the US Supreme Court on working rights for trans people, the fact that there’s even a discussion about this is an anathema to me. To quote the hashtags; Trans rights are human rights, we’re not equal until we’re all equal. In the US alone there has been 19 reported trans women murdered in 2019 alone – It’s staggering and heartbreaking.
was also fascinated by the queer history of Brooklyn as described by
Hugh Ryan in ‘When Brooklyn Was Queer’. I love the picture I took of the
pansy I planted under the Brooklyn Bridge to mark the multiple stories
of homophobia I heard about in his book, the quote comes from the
complaints of local residents of how the Brooklyn Promenade was being
used by men for cruising; “Misbegotten Pansies” was just such a perfect
quote for this planting.
I do more now is make a film about the places I visit, this has the
ability to explore more of the story of each planting and helps share
the project to new audiences, I’m working on a New York film now.
Ultimatelty I adore each planting, they all mean so much to me as they
all contribute to the entire body of my work.
Paul Harfleet’s short film ‘The Pansy Project Canada’ will be shown at the Inside Out Film festival in Ottowa, Canada in October and his work will feature as part of the Homotopia Festival in Liverpool in November. For more information visit www.thepansyproject.com.
a 1927 essay, acclaimed Austrian philosopher Robert Musil famously
declared, “The remarkable thing about monuments is that one does not
notice them. There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument.”