This spill and these events did not happen in San Diego, or Palm Beach. The story doesn’t affect wealthy white families and cannot be used to sell shampoo or real estate. That’s probably why we don’t see it in the press and never on the talking-head news. Street Artist Jetsonorama is not only a photographer who has been wheat-pasting his stunning images of people and nature on desert buildings for over a decade, he is also a doctor on the Navajo reservation, a human-rights activist, andan erudite scholar of American history as it pertains to the poisoning of this land and these people. Today we’re pleased to bring you this long-form examination from Jetsonorama’s perspective on a complicated and tragic US story of environmental poisoning and blight that affects generations of native peoples, miners, military personnel, and everyday people – and has no end in sight.
Most alarming is the news that current White House administration is endeavoring to mine uranium here again.
Stories from Ground Zero
Text by Jetsonorama
July 16, 1945 was an auspicious day in the history of
humankind and the planet as the US Army’s Manhattan Project detonated Trinity,
the first atomic bomb, in Jornada del Muerto, NM. (“Jornada del
Muerto” fittingly translates as “Journey of the Dead Man” or “Working Day of
the Dead.”) July 16 is also the day of one of the worst nuclear
accidents in US history with the Church Rock, NM uranium tailings spill in 1979
on the Navajo nation (occurring 5 months after the nuclear reactor meltdown at
Three Mile Island).
An earthen dam holding uranium tailings and other toxic waste ruptured releasing 1,100 tons of uranium waste and 94 million gallons of radioactive water into the Rio Puerco and through Navajo lands. Sheep in the wash keeled over and died as did crops along the river bank. According to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission report the levels of radioactivity in the Rio Puerco near the breached dam were 7000 times that of what is allowed in drinking water.
In an effort to end WWII and to beat the Soviets in developing a hydrogen bomb, uranium mining under the Manhattan Project began on Navajo and Lakota lands in 1944. Two years later management of the program was transferred to the US Atomic Energy Commission. The Navajo nation provided the bulk of the country’s uranium ore for our nuclear arsenal until uranium prices dropped in the mid 80s and is largely responsible for our winning the Cold War.
However, environmental regulation for mining the ore was nonexistent in the period prior to the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. During this time uranium mining endangered thousands of Navajo workers in addition to producing contamination that persists in adversely affecting air and water quality and contaminating Navajo lands with over 500 abandoned, unsealed former mine sites.
Private companies hired thousands of Navajo men to work the uranium mines and disregarded recommendations to protect miners and mill workers. In 1950 the U.S. Public Health Service began a human testing experiment on Navajo miners without their informed consent during the federal government’s study of the long-term health effects from radiation poisoning. This study followed the same violation of human rights protocol as the US Public Health Service study on the long-term effects of syphilis on humans by experimenting on non-consenting African American men in what is known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment from 1932 – 1972.
May 1952 the Public Health Service and the Colorado Health Department publish a
paper called “An interim Report of a Health Study of the Uranium Mines and
report noted that levels of radioactive radon gas and radon particles (known as
“radon daughters”), were so high in reservation mines that they recommended
wetting down rocks while drilling to reduce dust which the miners breathed;
giving respirators to the workers; mandating daily showers after a work shift,
frequent changes of clothing, loading rocks into wagons immediately after being
chipped from the wall to decrease time for radon to escape and for miners to
receive pre-employment physicals.
Sadly, the recommendations were ignored.
By 1960 the Public Health Service definitely declared that uranium miners faced an elevated risk of pulmonary cancer. However, it wasn’t until June 10, 1967 that the Secretary of Labor issued a regulation declaring that “…no uranium miner could be exposed to radon levels that would induce a higher risk of cancer than that faced by the general population.” By this time, it was too late. In the 15 years after the uranium boom the cancer death rate among the Diné doubled from the early 1970s to the late 1990s while the overall U.S. cancer death rate declined during this same interval.
As high rates of illness began to occur workers were frequently unsuccessful in court cases seeking compensation. In 1990 Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act which seeks to make compensation available to persons exposed to fallout from nuclear weapons testing and for living uranium miners, mill workers or their survivors who had worked in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona between January 1, 1947 and December 31, 1971. An amendment to this bill is awaiting Congress after its recess that will expand years of coverage from 1971 to the mid 1990s as well as expanding the regions of the US covered.
At the other end of the life spectrum
the Navajo Birth Cohort Study is the first prospective epidemiologic
study of pregnancy and neonatal outcomes in a uranium-exposed
population. The goal of the Navajo Birth Cohort Study (NBCS) is to
better understand the relationship between uranium exposures and birth outcomes
and early developmental delays on the Navajo Nation. It started in
2014 and has funding through 2024.
Efforts to mine uranium adjacent to the
Grand Canyon have accelerated during the Trump administration. The most pressing threat comes from
Canyon Mine located closely to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Because of the plethora of abandoned
mines on the reservation the Navajo Nation banned uranium mining on the
reservation in 2005.
However, it’s possible still to transport ore from off the reservation across the reservation. Approximately 180 miles of the Canyon Mine haul route would cross the Navajo Nation where trucks hauling ore had 2 separate accidents in 1987.
For more information on these and other
uranium related issues at Ground Zero, check:
Street Artists have a natural affinity for abandoned places.
Sometimes they wander through them to find the right spot to create a piece.
Other times they wonder who used to live here. Who used to work here. Where are
they now. You may never learn the truth, but you can rely upon your observation
skills – and the stories of others. Sometimes you meet someone who used to
This one room school house was built in the 1930s, according
to artist Chip Thomas, and was used until 1959. More than six decades later,
the Street Artist/Installation artist interviewed people here in the community
of La Isla in southern Colorado to learn about their heritage. Many are
descendants of the Spanish who passed through during the last few centuries, commandeering,
trading with, and enslaving Native Americans.
Chip says he installed images of people who attended this
one room schoolhouse, some of them wheatpasted, others fluttering in breezes
over the dirt floor. A simple structure, it is still full of many memories for some
who live in the area.
“It’s a gorgeous spot,” he says of the San Luis Valley. “It’s
at about 7,800 feet above sea level and the valley is 122 miles long and 74
miles wide.” In the images are old and new portaits of students who went there.
He calls it the “La Isla Memory Project.”
It’s BSA Film Friday! Now we present the best of the year, according to you. We bring you new videos each week – about 240 of them this year. The beauty of the experience is that it can feel quite random and exhilarating – rather like the serendipity of finding new Street Art.
You helped us decide who made it to the top 15 – and we feel proud to see some of these because we liked them too. When we take videos on the road to different cities and countries doing our BSA Film Friday LIVE we also like to share these in classrooms or theaters or lecture halls with locals, students, city leaders. Nothing can beat seeing faces light up, a person thrilled to finally get the sense of something, better understanding the scene, helping people with a new way to look at art in the streets.
The best part is many of these videos encourage you to create, to co-create, to actively participate in public space with meaning and intention. As a collection, these 15 are illuminating, elevating, riveting, strange, soaring, secretly otherworldly, and achingly beautifully human.
Special congratulations go out to artists/directors Kristina Borhes & Nazar Tymoshchuk who landed on the list two times this year, including the number 1 position. Their work is about the intersection of art and theory and life, how to create it, to see it, and how to re-see your world.
We hope you can take some time to enjoy some of the best Street Art videos from around the world and on BSA this year.
“Listen, my only request…. When you’re done doing your thing, do an Italian flag with my daughter’s name on it,” says a guy who is shouting up from the street to the roof where two Hungarian graff writers are preparing to hit a wall with a giant rat in Jersey. That rat looks fantastic as it basks in the blinking glow of the marquee for Vinny Italian Gourmet on the streets in the Newark night below.
That scene alone can stand as their American iconic moment for the US Tapes, but Fatheat and TransOne documented a number of golden moments on their trip this winter to New York, Wynwood, LA, and Las Vegas. Travel with them as they try to square the television mythology of modern America with the one they are encountering in all its ridiculous free-wheeling self satisfied unreflective emotional consumerist funkified freedom*. Standby for sonic blasts from the cultural pulp soundbook and prepare for a celebrity visit.
Slyly they observe and sample and taste and catalogue the insights by traversing the main stage and the margins, smartly not taking it too seriously, finding plenty of places for wide-eyed wonder and wiseguy sarcasm. Steeped in graffiti history with mad skillz themselves, this is all an adventure. Generous of heart, they also share it with you.
“And lost be the day to us in which a measure hath not been danced.”
~ from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra
Every day since the shootings of artists and journalists at the Charlie Hebdo offices on January 14, 2015, dancer Nadia Vadori-Gauthier has made sure to dance for a minute or more. It sounds like a good idea.
“Without editing or effects, in the place and state of mind I find myself that day, with no special technique, staging, clothing, or makeup, nothing but what is there,” she says on her website.
“I dance inside or outside, in public or private places, alone or with others, strangers or people I know, sometimes friends.
I dance as protesters demonstrate, to effect a living poetry, to act through sensitivity against the violence of certain aspects of the world.
This is the solution I found: an action to my own measure, a concrete, repeated action that may redraw lines, disrupt the design, shake up the norms.”
Here she is in Paris on Esperance Street in front of a mural by Street Artist Seth.
All the subversive drama of a terrorist cell, all the color of Mardi Gras, all the pomp and ceremony of an Olympic triathlon. Wielding the long-handled roller like a javelin in the hands of Järvinen, weight lifting multiple backpacks full of paint cans, climbing and jumping walls with speed and dexterity, the 1UP team goes for the gold.
Debuting today on BSA is the flaming new 1UP crew video directed by the ingenious Selina. Slicing the streets with the drone camera like a hot knife through butter, she follows the unruly yet highly organized vandals from overhead in a manner more melodic than menacing as Miles lines up one shot after another in this instantly classic continuous thread of aerosol mayhem.
Passing the aerosol can like a baton, this relay race puts 1UP over the finish line while many rivals would have just blasted out of the blocks. But will those Olympian circles turn into golden handcuffs before the closing ceremony?
A quick overview to catch you up on the 7 most recent pieces attributed to Banksy in Paris. He’s said to be creating work more attuned to the plight of migration, but others have observed it is a return to the classic Banksy sarcastic sweetness that has characterized the clever sudden missives he has delivered since he began. See Butterfly Art News’ coverage here: Paris: Banksy for World Refugee Day
It’s an Italian movie directed by Luchino Visconti in 1960, yes. It is also the name of a crew of Berlin graffiti/installation artists whose satirical interventions play on issues propriety and property – and on social experiments that dupe the media, the public, and banks.
Did they really set up an apartment inside the subway? Is that really the tracks and wall of a metro inside a gallery? Is that Wagner playing in the mobile war arcade set up in the Christmas market? Are those hand grenades being lobbed by children? Is the bank facade blinking red every 20 seconds?
Rocco und seine Brüder (Rocco and His Brothers) have you engaged. Now you have to answer the questions.
The Uruguayan Street Artists/muralist Florencia Durán and Camilo Nuñez are “Colectivo Licuado” and here in the middle of Oviedo in Northern Spain to create a new mural for the Parees fest this September. As is their practice they study the culture that they are visiting and create an allegory that is familiar to the community, if still rather mystical.
In this case they visit Colectivo Licuado & Nun Tamos Toes for a visit of great cultural exchange – sharing sketches, songs, and learning the history of women’s roles in traditional Asturian culture. The resulting mural project is collaborative in nature and powerful in person.
“I pay attention to the intensity of the gaze and the posture, so the passerby is challenged and seeks to question the project.”
A sociological experiment and intervention on the streets by the French Street Artist YZ takes place in Abidjan and camera work in the crowds allows you to appreciate the action on the street. A city of 4.7 million people and the economic capital of Côte d’Ivoire, the city has a lively culture of street vending that is unregulated and often populated by children.
YZ speaks with the folks she meets who are vending, who she refers to as “girls” although many are women. Her goal is to better understand them, she says, and to create a Street Art campaign of their portraits.
“I realized that their situation was very different from the men. So I wanted to know more about them. So I started the project ‘Street Vendors’,” she says.
Chernobyl is a nuclear disaster that figures profoundly into the modern age – and for centuries into the future.
Today not so many people talk about this man-made horror that killed a Russian town and chased out its survivors in 1986 just 90 kilometers northeast of Kiev. Called the most disastrous nuclear accident in history, it evacuated 115,000 and spread a radioactive cloud around the Earth, with European neighbors like Scandinavia, Switzerland, Greece, Italy, France and the UK detecting the effects of radiation for years afterward. Three scientists at The New York Academy of Sciences have estimated that over time the number of people killed by effects from the meltdown was almost a million.
Because of the nature of radiation, Chernobyl has been estimated to not be safely habitable for about 20,000 years.
A short documentary today taking us through last autumns On October 7th in Marseille, France in collaboration with Galerie Saint Laurent and Spanish artist Gonzalo Borondo as they presented Matière Noire. A massive collection of individual installations that took over the top floor of an exhibition space normally used for shops, Borondo’s influence in the selections is throughout, a story told in three acts on Projection, Perception and Interpretation.
“When I was just a baby, my Mama told me, ‘Son, always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns.’ But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” Johnny Cash sings with some bravado in Folsom Prison Blues on an album released 50 years ago this year. Street Artist Shepard Fairey honors the album and here in Sacramento, California to raise consciousness about the outrageously high rate of incarceration here. “The United States has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of it’s prisoners,” he says, making you question the system in the Land of the Free.
MZM Projects – Kristina Borhes & Nazar Tymoshchuk/”Wasteland Wanderers”
This week we feature a couple of new film pieces from the Ukraine based duo of Kristina Borhes and Nazar Tymoschuk which fairly present an insightful treatise on a particular flavor of Post-Graffiti. Think of it as a two volume textbook and your professors will guide you through the darkness into the light.
“The place tells you what to do,” is a poetic and truthful phrase uttered in “Night” on the relationship a vandal has to an abandoned factory, school, home, medical facility; it is spacial and alchemical.
It is also personal, says the female narrator. “The presence of their absence,” is something that every Wasteland Wanderer will be familiar with, the knowledge and feeling that others have been there before you. The work is undeniably affected, even created in response.
“I’ve started a new series called ‘On the Road’ which looks at life behind the scenes in street art culture,” Doug Gillen tells us about this debut episode. Look forward to Doug’s unique perspective on Street Art festivals, art fairs, and studio visits as he expands to the world of urban contemporary.
Not typically who you think of as a Street Artist, here we see Add Fuel and Doug talk about his first book and you see examples of work from this tile maker who infuses traditional Portuguese techniques and pattern making with pop-modern cultural references and cartoon archetypes.
He has a hat, sunglasses, and he has been creating huge black and white photo installations of people wheat-pasted to the sides of buildings for how long? Surprising to us that Jetsonorama is not more of a household name in Street Art circles – his work is solidly tied to biography and human rights, uses his own photography, and routinely elevates humanity – and has been doing it for some time now.
Why isn’t he in huge museum exhibitions?
Today we have a new video giving you a good look at the work and the artist along with the genuine connection and presence that he has with community, taking the time to share their stories.
“The speed of ruin is just something else,” says Street Artist Vegan Flava, and it’s an exasperating realization. Extrapolated to thinking about the enormous war industry, and there is such a thing, you realize that pouring money year after year into ever more sophisticated and destructive weaponry only results in broken bridges, buildings, water systems, vital infrastructure, lives.
Construction, on the other hand, can be arduous and time consuming, takes vision, planning, collaboration, and fortitude. Like great societies.
How quickly they can be eroded, destroyed.
But since Vegan Flava is creating during this destructive enterprise, you get a glimpse into his creativity, and sense of humor. Similarly the psychographics of this story and how it is told reveal insights into the artist and larger themes.
“A drawing, an idea on a piece of paper, can swiftly grow into something larger, thoughts and actions leading to the next. But creating something is never as fast as to tear it to pieces. The speed of ruin is just something else,” he says.
MZM Projects – Kristina Borhes & Nazar Tymoshchuk /”Aesthetic of Eas”
“We wanted everything to occur naturally in this movie. We wanted to achieve spontaneity,” say film makers Kristina Borhes and Nazar Tymoshchuk about their up close look at graffiti writer/abstract painter EAS. In this new film they have captured the creative spirit in action as unobtrusively as they could, allowing the artist to speak – in a way he never does, they say.
Today on BSA Film Friday we’re proud to debut this new portrait by three artists – one painter and two film makers – to encourage BSA readers to take a moment and observe, inside and outside.
“Yes, I’m an infowarrior,” says the African American yelling about how CNN is promoting Sharia Law in downtown Manhattan for the #MarchAgainstSharia and a short distance away someone is wrapping the “Fearless Girl” statue with a black burka. The infowarrior is wearing a red “Make America Free” baseball hat and very much seems like he might be gay. And then your head explodes.
Otherwise the weather has been gorgeous and Street Artists have been getting up in New York, when they are not too busy fighting about the David Choe wall and calculating new ways to spray over it. We have brand new mural works from people like Dasic, Cekis, and Case Maclaim, and there is a lot more political content in the new free-range Street Art that we are seeing, with much of it focused on the corruption at the top of the national government, racism, environmental matters, the growing police state.
So here’s our weekly interview with the streets, this week featuring Adam Fujita, Beast, Blanco, Brandon Garrison, Cekis, Dasic, Dirty Bandits, El Sol 25, FKDL, Jetsonorama, Jerk Face, Joe Iurato, Logan Hicks, Mataruda, Mr. Toll, Myth NYC, Opiemme, S0th1s, and She Wolf.
Street Artist and activist Jetsonorama (Chip Thomas) saw his work pull together a number of people in Durango, Colorado on October 10th as the city and the college celebrated their first ever “Indigenous People’s Day”. His photograph of an indigenous youth named JC Morningstar swinging and kissing her dog was chosen by a group of students from Fort Lewis College, where 24% of the population is indigenous.
The unveiling ceremony for the mural began with a traditional pow wow prayer by a drum circle and Chip says “the highlight of the day for me was having JC, her dog and her family travel 4 hours to Durango to attend the unveiling before going to the Tribe Called Redshow that evening.”
Being more knowledgeable about the dessert variety of yellow cake than the desert variety of uranium contamination, we turn to Street Artists Jetsonorama and Icy & Sot to educate us about the active uranium mines that are at the North Rim of The Grand Canyon. The three worked jointly in June to create new public works addressing the topic and we have each of them here for you to see.
“The issue of uranium contamination and nuclear waste is timely as there is an active uranium mine at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon presently and a proposal to start mining at the South Rim,” explains Jetsonorama (Chip Thomas), who is a local artist, a practicing doctor, and a social activist advocating for the people who live on the reservation and the natural environment in general.
For the last few summers Thomas has been hosting “The Painted Desert Project”, a selection of national and international Street Artists to create works in this region that respond to the communities, history, and geography of this part of Arizona and the Navajo Nation,
It would appear that the introduction of such contamination into communities, national monuments like the Grand Canyon, or local water supplies – whether by design or negligence – would be considered a provocative act by any rational person. So too is this series of art interventions by Icy & Sot meant to be provocative. The brothers, for example, attached the “Radioactive” symbol onto the branches of a tree overlooking the canyon to dramatize the integral effect that such poisoning is having on natural elements.
In two video performances recorded onsite in the desert the visuals are much stronger, including a typical consumer floor fan you could pick up at the local Best Buy store that is blowing radioactivity freely in the same way that desert winds are carrying radioactive dusts from many sites across the land. The second performance sees a jump-suited figure unceremoniously dumping a Yellow Cake, presumably made of yellowcake, upside down onto an American flag that is draped across a card table in the open desert – leaving a messy affair that is not easily cleaned up – and then walking away.
“There are over 500 abandoned uranium mines on The Navajo Reservation and more than 80% of the mine sites have not been cleaned up,” says Sot when describing the issues they are addressing with their new works. “There are currently no federal laws that require clean up of these hazardous sites and they continue to pose significant danger to the Navajo people.”
“In a region with an unemployment rate around 50% investment by private industry is hampered by not being able to build around these contaminated lands,” says Jetsonorama, “While Icy & Sot chose largely ephemeral installations to dramatize the situation of uranium contamination, I chose installations focusing on the subtle, insidious effect of living, working, playing on contaminated land.”
A statement accompanying the video:
“No More Yellowcake”
“Yellowcake is a product of uranium mining. Many Navajo people worked at the mines, often living and raising families in close proximity; they were unknowingly exposed to dangerous levels of radiation and chemicals. Uranium mining and yellowcake processing continues today and threatens the environment and the health of communities across the U.S.” Icy & Sot
“Toxic radioactive particles left over from abandoned uranium mines on Navajo land take the form of dust which travels with the wind for hundreds of miles. It can be inhaled or blow into streams or onto nearby ground spreading radioactive contamination.” Icy & Sot
Using a more subtle approach to the topics at hand, you’ll see Jetsonorama’s photographic image of “radioactive” green sheep, an image of girl on a home-made swing, and a local guy named Jamison feeding his dog on contaminated land that he says is “near AUM.” The artist explains that AUM stands for Abandoned Uranium Mines and then shows us a link to a map that contains record of 521 such sites scattered across the land in this region.
We noted previously in an article about Jetsonorama’s work that the New York Times did a story about this area in 2012 entitled “Uranium Mines Dot Navajo Land, Neglected and Still Perilous,” but very little appears to have changed as a result of it. Says Jetsonorama, “There are still over 500 abandoned uranium mines on the reservation spewing alpha, beta and gamma radiation contaminating land, water, animals and humans.”
In describing their various stencil works and installations in the area, Icy & Sot told us they were struck by the lack of knowledge of the local community who in danger of being exposed to these deadly and sickening man-made disasters.
“The Navajo people did not have a word for radioactivity and did not know about the dangers of radiation in the 1940s when mining companies began surveying their land,” they said in a statement. “Today the mines are closed but their toxic legacy persist in contaminated soil and drinking water with elevated levels of radiation.”
The government has created an education program aimed at kid wandering or playing near such radiation sites, including a new cartoon character named “Gamma Goat”. It may capture the imagination of a youth and deter them from inadvertently exposing themselves to this multitude of sites, many poorly marked and not guarded or sufficiently protected.
“There is an insightful documentary on uranium contamination on the Navajo nation by a young Navajo woman called ‘Yellow Fever’ which refers to the illness uranium workers would get that is characterized by flu-like symptoms,” Jetsonorama tells us. “In the film the filmmaker talks of recent efforts by the EPA to educate children living on the reservation to the dangers of uranium exposure. To this end the EPA developed a comic book/coloring book the protagonist of which is called “Gamma Goat” who warns kids to stay away from abandoned mine sites.”
BSA has been supporting and donating to the organization Young New Yorkers and many of the participating artists who are in tonight’s auction for a long time through our work for a number of years. This year BSA Co-founder and editor of photography Jaime Rojo is also donating something else – his own photography.
YNY provides 16 and 17 year old people in New York State who have had the unfortunate occurrence of being arrested an opportunity to re-see themselves and society through an art-based program. The state has the unfortunate distinction of being particularly harsh with our youth, treating them as adults in some circumstances where other perspectives can and should come into play. It’s a mature and nuanced position that great societies can muster when we dig deep and we’re proud of the staff and volunteers who put in the huge amounts of effort to make YNY successful.
Shepard Fairey. Natural Springs. Print. (photo courtesy of YNY)
Joe Russo. Shepard Fairey, NYC 2010. Print. (photo courtesy of YNY)
This program is an opportunity to short-circuit a potentially harmful cycle of crime and incarceration because it recognizes the whole young person, not just a narrow aspect. If they qualify and graduate from the court-appointed program, graduates’ cases are dismissed and sealed, leaving them free of the collateral consequences of an adult criminal record.
Not surprisingly, graffitti and Street Artists and others familiar with the scene recognize the value of this kind of work and have given great pieces to the auction. Please consider the works here and go online to bid and attend the public auction in New York tonight!
Daniel Albanese. Larry The Bird Man. Print. (photo courtesy of YNY)
“I wholeheartedly support Young New Yorkers; not only as an art program and constructive alternative to teens being incarcerated, but it is also highly therapeutic. It builds problem solving skills that can boost self confidence and allow participants to feel more empowered to pursue their dreams as well as deal with their realities.”—Shepard Fairey
Fairey has generously donated a number of prints for tonight along with works by an array of artists you’ll recognize such as Ben Eine, Swoon, Cern, Pure Evil, Icy & Sot, Robert Janz, Know Hope, Daniel Albanese, Hellbent, Greg LaMarche, Joe Russo, LMNOPI, Li Hill, Dan Witz and many others for tonights’ event. Your support will actually help keep our young people out of jail and contributing in a positive way.
Swoon. Haiti Sketch (Older Man Collar). (photo courtesy of YNY)
This year’s YNY benefit auction show is curated by Lunar New Year, Ann Lewis, and Maya Levin.
Two new wheat-pasted and hand painted murals by Jetsonorama in New York State’s first capital call to memory the work of the abolitionist and former slave Sojourner Truth, who at one point called Kingston her home. Born as a slave she had a handful of white masters and endured untold sufferings for nearly three decades before escaping to freedom in 1826.
A powerful feminist and human rights activist who began her vocal advocacy in her 50s until her death at 86, Sojourner became an inspirational pillar of the peoples’ movement in the history of the United States and her words and life continue to be relevant and inspirational to many in our current generation of black women.
Working collaboratively with artist Jess X Chen, Jetsonorama bring today’s voices to the fore, writing the words of poets as halos around their heads and pasting their photos here as part of the O+ Festival.
“Over the course of a week Jess and I photographed the poets, created the composition, got the work printed, prepped and pasted,” says the artist about the portraits they did of three poets who speak their truth a century and a half after Sojourner: Mohogany Browne, T’ai Freedom Ford, and Jennifer Falu.
The artists ran out of time before mounting Falu’s mural, but will do so at a later time. Each of the poets were chosen because of the power of their expression to move minds and hearts today and because of their lineage to the legacy of Ms. Truths impact on the culture.
“In 1851 she delivered her best known speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio,” says Jetsonorama. “The speech was known as “Ain’t I a Woman?” in which she compares the value of her life as a hard working black woman to that of any man. Jess and I wanted to honor the legacy of Sojourner Truth in her hometown and we approached the 3 poets about contributing poems that speak to the challenges of black womanhood.”
From Mahogany Browne the came the poem called “Black Girl Magic,” from which this is an excerpt.
“You are a threat knowing yourself.
You are a threat loving yourself.
You are a threat loving your kin.
You are a threat loving your children.
You Black Girl magic.
You Black Girl flyy.
You Black Girl brilliance.
You Black Girl wonder.
You Black Girl shine.
You Black Girl bloom.
You Black Girl, Black Girl
And you turning into a beautiful Black Woman right before our eyes.”
T’ai Freedom Ford contributed a poem entitled “i sell the shadow to sustain the substance”, she says is dedicated to Glenn Ligon and Sojourner Truth.
“as black woman i am untitled – nameless
my heart a faint glow of neon wire
buzzing toward some shameless demise.
i stand against walls looking nonchalant.
flashbulbs mistake me for celebrity or bored whore,
as black woman i am installation art as negress.
my heart a black plastic bag ghosting streets.
what parts of me ain’t for sale as woman?”
But so far Lola has exceeded her charge and performed beyond other sheep dogs here in Cow Springs, says artist Jetsonorama – so much so that she’s become a bit of an artistic muse for him lately. “She is revered here,” says the photographer and street artist, who prefers to spell her name with an exclamation point at the end (Lola!). “Coyotes don’t bother trying to steal any sheep from her flock,” he says, “whereas most flocks of sheep have 3 or 4 sheep dogs per flock, Lola herds several hundred sheep solo.”
Radioactive dust and contaminated water is scattered across a large expanse of the Navajo nation, say locals, with many of the 500 or more of these sites estimated to be open and unprotected – or rather protected from people and animals breathing in the air and drinking the water there.
In 2012 the journalist Leslie MacMillan reported in the New York Times about many of these open sites emitting dangerous levels of radiation and folks like Jetsonorama and neighbor ranchers were given a little hope that something would come of it.
For now, Lola is Jetsonorama’s emissary of spreading this radioactive message – and she is going strong and rather purple-ish in this desert wall campaign. He’s calling her an atomic sheep dog.
“I first pasted Lola in January of 2014 at cow springs. I used a wall where I paste regularly and local members of Bloods and Crips go over my work – and then I go back over them. When I paste Lola I tint the background with a graffiti-patterned magenta, then I cut her out of the photo.”
It’s unclear whether the presumed radioactive water that Lola laps up has contributed to her performance on the range, or if Jetsonorama has found an effective PR spokes-dog for his campaign to raise awareness of these unprotected uranium mines, but Lola seems like she is owning it.
Right now she’s running solo, although Jetsonorama says she does some occasional socializing. “However, since becoming atomic,” he says, “Lola is THE super sheep dog!”
As marches have continued across the country in cities like Ferguson, Oakland, Baltimore, New York, Dallas and Cleveland in the past year addressing issues such as police brutality and racism, the south is taking down confederate flags on state houses and the US is mourning another mass shooting.
Now as Americans everywhere are pulling out and waving the stars and stripes to celebrate freedom, this new powerful installation on a Brooklyn wall reminds us of what New York poet Emma Lazarus said, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”
Freedom and equality were the goals of those three marches from Selma to Montgomery, pivotal to the passage of the Voting Rights Act signed into law on August 6 1965, a turning point in outlawing discriminatory voting practices. But our legacy of racism cannot be easily legislated out of our hearts or institutions, nor extracted from our systems.
In preparation for this new public piece, Chip Thomas AKA Jetsonorama told us about his take on the undeniable similarities of the state of the struggle then and today.
“A quote by James Baldwin comes to mind,” he says, ” ‘…To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.’ Though the times have changed, issues such as institutionalized racism as evidenced by discriminatory law enforcement practices, poverty, high unemployment rates, challenges to voting rights have not. The struggle for respect and equality continues.”
The original photograph by Dan Budnik that he replicates across the wall comes directly from those marches to freedom fifty years ago. “Frederick Moss, a 54-mile core group marcher, rest from exhaustion on Dexter Avenue, the Terminus of the Selma to Montgomery March (25 March 1965)” says the handwritten description of the black and white photograph of a young man lying on his back with one hand behind his head and with his other hand balancing a small American flag perpendicular above his stomach. Jetsonorama wheat-pasted that description on this wall as well.
The original image tells of the fatigue and determination of one marcher in a moment of respite, confident and asserting his place at the American table, willing to endure threats, insults, the fear of reprisal. By itself it can also feel solitary, abandoned.
Using the visual language of contemporary art on the streets Jetsonorama ingeniously updates the image through replication and repetition of the silhouetted photographic image, evenly spacing the image across a deep red wall. Like Magritte’s Golconde, Warhol’s Cow Wallpaper, or corporate advertiser wildposting all over our cities, the repeated image evokes the impersonality of the mass production of everything, cheapening a life and lessening its importance. When multiplied like a mere decorative motif across a diagonal grid it hints at the callous disregard for a huge number of black bodies beaten and bloodied. The addition of a flag calls to mind a graveyard in high contrast, full of nameless lives cut short. The placement also implies that the graveyard extends further than your eye is seeing.
We spoke with Jetsonorama about the genesis of this project which was many months in the making:
Brooklyn Street Art: On the one hand the 50th anniversary of the marches from Selma gives the events an even stronger resonance. But it may also seem distant from the concerns of a new generation. How do you hope to re-ignite the conversations with this work? Jetsonorama: I chose to work with a visual metaphor in this piece. By repeating the image of Selma to Montgomery marcher Frederick Moss who was photographed exhausted, lying on his back in the street at the completion of the march, I’m referencing Eric Gardner, Michael Brown and other African-American men who have died on American streets by the institutions that are tasked with protecting all citizens. I like the fact that Frederick Moss is holding an American flag – emphasizing his status as a citizen who is deserving of equality. and his faith in the promise the flag represents. Granted, most viewers won’t know who Frederick Moss is but I think the poignancy of a black man on his back holding an American Flag, ad infinitum, will resonate.
Brooklyn Street Art:Can you talk about Dan Budnik and his work and why you thought it would translate well to a wall as “street art”? Jetsonorama: I was raised in the 1960s reading Life and Look magazines. The work of documentary photographers like Eugene Smith, Gordon Parks, Charles Moore affected me such that when I got my first 35mm camera at age 12, I started shooting black and white film, wanting to be a visual storyteller like them. For 22 years I maintained a darkroom where I live and work now on the Navajo reservation and I became part of a community of photographers based in Flagstaff, Arizona. A long time friend and photographer told me about this guy named Dan Budnik who had moved to Flagstaff.
The first time I met Dan I found him to be an unassuming, gentle spirit. I had no idea of the breadth of his work until a year later when he approached me about wheat pasting some of his work in Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the march. I saw a copy of his book “Marching to the Freedom Dream” that documents approximately three years of witnessing the Civil Rights Movement and I couldn’t believe this guy was in Flagstaff. I mean, here was one of the photographers from the humanist photography movement that influenced me – living only 2 hours away. When the possibility of getting work up in Selma fell through I started looking for walls elsewhere to get some of Dan’s work from the march up. Dan’s images are powerful and timeless. They’d work well in any context.
Brooklyn Street Art:The country is gripped in a conversation about police brutality and its use against communities of color and the poor. How can an artist address such a prevalent systemic racism and classism? Jetsonorama: You know, like Bob Marley said “…Who feels it, knows it.” I think it’s especially true for artists of color that we don’t have the privilege of pretending like we’re living in post-racial America now that we have a black president. The challenge really is how to get a conscious message out without alienating wall owners (for those people working on legal walls). Personally, I still find inspiration in the utopian ideals of artists like Diego Rivera and the witty criticism of Robbie Conal + Blu who chant down Babylon.
Brooklyn Street Art:Do you think of this work as appropriation? Collaboration? Repurposing? Jetsonorama: It’s straight up hip hop and punk in that Dan gave me the source photo and I remixed it. I think of it as a collaboration. Dan saw the mock up for the piece and was cool with it.
Brooklyn Street Art:With this topic and Dan Budnik’s photographic work, you could have prepared a show in a more formal setting. How does the experience of your art here on the street differ from seeing it in a gallery, museum, or a home? Jetsonorama: After presenting work indoors for 22 years I started getting up outdoors in 2009 and haven’t looked back since. I started working on the Navajo nation in northern Arizona in 1987 and have been photographing people from the tribe since that time. I’ve had shows of that work in various places around the county but the people who I was photographing never saw the work. Now that 95% of what I do is pasted images along the roadside on the reservation of people from the reservation, the work feels more honest and has deepened my relationship with the community. The dialog with the community and the level of trust have grown through the project.
Brooklyn Street Art:What do you hope a viewer will take away from this piece? Jetsonorama: The piece speaks to parallels and patterns. A successful intervention might be for the viewer to be prompted to recognize patterns of behavior in his/her life and to consider whether those patterns are contributing to or detracting from humanity. On the other hand, not getting tagged would be a good thing.
Jetsonorama and BSA wish to extend a heartfelt Thank You to photographer Dan Budnik for the use of his photo for this project. Also to LNY, Nanook and Jess X Chen for their assistance and to Joe Ficalora at The Bushwick Collective for facilitating the wall in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Happy Holidays to all of you charming and sparkling BSA readers!
It’s been a raucous sleigh ride with you and we thank everyone most sincerely for your support and participation this year. A sort of tradition for us at the end of this December we are marking the year with “14 from 2014”. We asked photographers and curators from various perspectives of street culture to share a gem with all of us that means something to them. Join us as we collectively say goodbye and thank you to ’14.
Jetsonorama is a regular contributor to BSA and a cultural curator in the desert of Arizona and on the Navajo Reservation with his “Painted Desert Project”. For a few consecutive years he has been inviting Street Artists to create contextual pieces that relate to the culture and history of the community, and fostering an exchange – a few of his many talents. Additionally, he is a photography-based street artist himself, using his portraits in unconventional ways to bring a dynamism to cityscapes and rural settings with local personalities in a way that has earned him respect from both artists and the community. We asked Jetsonorama to share his favorite shot of 2014 and, no surprise, it combines and celebrates those constituencies as well.
“This photo is by Nellie Higgenbotham of a performance by Illumicirque in front of an installation I did on Friday, June 13th on an old church now converted into a church of art in Hotchkiss, Colorado (population 923). It’s the friendliest town on the western slope!”