Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Scandal and Effectiveness: Interview with "Declaration of Immigration" Lead Artist Salvador Jimenez

If anyone is wondering what the image is behind the title of the blog it is the "Declaration of Immigration" mural, a Yollocalli production, on 18th Street in Pilsen, Chicago. It was painted during the summer of 2009 following an exhibit at the National Museum of Mexican Art, also in Pilsen. The mural was vandalized before it was completed, with an unsophisticated black spraypaint scrawl: "Mexicans are racist" it read, which generated a lot of attention. However, after the defacement was removed, the mural went on to be the backdrop for important immigration rallies in Chicago spring of 2010, and likely continues to be. This mural is interesting for many reasons: its lack of human figures, its bold polemical text, its clean execution, making it look almost machine, not handmade, among others. However rather than continue to totally speculate (I wrote a far too long MA thesis on the mural that was completed in the winter of 2010) I finally got a chance to interview Salvador Jimenez, the lead artist. My recorder failed so this transcript is based on my written notes and so is choppier than usual, many many apologies to the reader, and to Salvador, for not getting down all of the complexity and sophistication in his very thoughtful responses.

Interview with Salvador Jimenez about “Declaration of Immigration” Mural

CB: So I just wanted to start with the design process for “Declaration of Immigration,” its role in the community, reactions by people, and things like that. So I was hoping you could sort of start by talking about how the idea for the mural came about.

SJ: the director of Yollocalli wanted us to create a mural that would represent more of the community, The actual idea came from the previous exhibit at the NMMA which had the same title, and they had created a statement. We selected some phrases from the statement and condensed them so that there was less text, so it was smaller, and treated it like a billboard—I have a graphic design background—that was typographical, in order to get the message across. We selected a set of powerful words, decided on that part, and designed it on the computer based on wall measurements, figuring out the phrases and starting to trace out the letters.

CB: To what degree was this project funded by the NMMA? If not where did the funding come from? Did that create any constraints on the content?

SJ: We were able to use extra funding that Yollocalli had, which is different than in the past when we receive other funding and have to portray something that is watereed down. This funding was private, so we were free to say what we wanted to say. The museum didn’t have much say in it. It was more what Yollocalli wanted to say.

CB: I was struck by the lack of figurative images in the mural—almost all of the other murals in Pilsen have people in them—what motivated that decision?

SJ: We wanted to do something different, it is kind of an inversion of what the big muralists of the Revolutionary period did—they used a lot of figures and very little text because many people at the time could not read. Those great muralists told stories. Now most people can read and most people can write so we decided to use text, and it was kind of a commentary, we live in a time where we are bombarded by commercials and advertisements, we also wanted to be direct and use typography to get attention.

CB: I read that the mural was vandalized before it was completed—what are your thoughts on that—how did you react and how did the students?

SJ: I got a call, and was told that someone had vandalized the mural. The first reaction is that you are mad—we were working so hard. Then I had to think, what would I tell the students? I was thinking about that a lot, so when we met that day to work I gathered the group together—I had shown them videos of other very political artwork that had caused some controversy prior to that, from a documentary about “The Power of Art”—that powerful art creates some kind of attention—and said that this vandalism was a clear example of that, that someone didn’t agree and had decided to deface the mural. The students got really mad. I tried to turn that around, to explain that it was proof of the mural’s success, because despite that reaction people had looked at it. In reality the physical reaction caused people to talk more about it, to post online, to create blogs…it created a broader audience. Because we got more media attention than if something hadn’t happened.

CB: What was the documentary?

SJ: It’s called “The Power of Art” and has different artists. I showed them the part that explained what happened with Picasso’s “Guernica” mural, about World War II.

CB: What were your hopes for what this mural would do?

SJ: Like any other public mural it is a social thing, it is a way to think about community and a way to get to know the community, and to listen to the people. Through art we can create images, or murals or symbols that people can relate to and empathize with. They might like it or hate it. No matter what it creates some sort of dialogue. I hoped that people would talk about it, and that it could educate people outside the community, that they could learn about the the community.

CB: To educate outsiders about immigration?

SJ: The location of Pilsen has an important history—Pilsen is an immigration bridge for many cultures. First the Czechs, the Italians, and later the Mexicans—it is a landing point.

CB: Did you anticipate that the mural would be a backdrop for many immigration protests in Chicago after its completion?

SJ: I didn’t expect that it would create such attention. The mural has done its job. [It would be good] if people created more in that direct form [of address] in different places of in the United States. Public murals [are powerful in that they] promote something 24/7. One thing that we did was design the text into posters and stickers and massed produced it to give the stickers away so that people could take them, put them up, and take a picture in different parts of the United States. This part of the project is still in progress, I still am receiving pictures. It is the idea, the concept of a sticker migrating to different places as the same thing that people do, and to mass produce it will have more people post them, to create more dialogue.

CB: Do you have any ideas about what the mural means to the neighborhood residents? To the students?

SJ: Like all art people will look at it and make their own opinion about it, and it will represent something different to each of the viewers. Some people who live there might not even care about it, they might care about it and like it. People from outside Pilsen might see it and understand what the neighborhood is going through.

CB: Do you think the majority of outsiders will understand the mural?

SJ: They should understand unless they don’t speak English—immigration has been going on for decades.

It is obviously a broken system that needs to be fixed, and people have been hurting from it. Its been an issue in past election years and its like a ball that keeps being passed around, which started with Bush and now with Obama, who made a lot of promises but is doing nothing.

CB: have you received any criticisms of your work, or encountered any people with problems with it?

SJ: I have gotten all kinds of comments, good and bad. As an artist I will look at any project and think that it could be a lot better. But with only eight weeks, it is not easy, to complete the painting, composition and color…with this mural though what I see in it is a quick reaction to a situation, saying something that needed to be said, and it doesn’t matter how wells executed it was.

CB: What were the students’ reactions?

SJ: For that project the student volunteers were outstanding. They were interviewed by the radio, and were in the papers, and their work proved how art could have an impact on people, and how art can provide a powerful voice especially for people that don’t have a voice. Many came back to Yollocalli for other programs, they enjoyed the art and making it. Yollocalli isn’t about telling students that they have to be artists, its just inviting them to come and learn something different and develop their creativity. That is especially important now that we are in an economic crisis like this: we need people who are more creative and can do more than one thing. We try to promote different programs all year round.

CB: As someone who has worked in Pilsen for a long time, are you concerned about the potential commodification of murals?

SJ: Since I live in Grand Rapids now I’ve been able to take a step back. My heart is there, in Pilsen, and I know I will come back, but I have mixed feelings knowing that every year there is more gentrification, and what you get with gentrification is that many people living there cannot afford rent, or the high property taxes. I am wondering what will happen with that. It has been a place where artists live, and I don’t know if gentrification will make it better or worse. If people are going to Pilsen just to get a sense of what it is like there, I do not see why it is bad. One thing that is [positive] is that people are paying more attention to the neighborhood, there are more cops, and the city is doing things now that they didn’t do before. Now there are more upper middle, upper class young people. I’ve passed people there for years, and some like it, and some complain. But public works are a perfect way to engage the community, and make a dialogue about community development and gentrification.

CB: Thank you so much for your time, and insight.

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