5 Questions for Contemporary Practice

5 Questions (for Contemporary Practice) with Rigo 23

Front cover from Backtracking 1985, ARC/AIDS Vigil, UN Plaza. Courtesy Rigo 23.

I first encountered Rigo 23’s work this past summer staying with friends in San Francisco’s Mission, where Rigo 23 partially got his start as an artist through his engagement with the 90s “Mission School.” Before I left town, my friends gave me the artist’s box-set of zines, which he had made in 2007 with the activist and scholar Erick Lyle for an exhibit of his large-scale charcoal drawings at The Luggage Store, Backtracking 199485.

Reading the box-set, which consists of eight discrete staple-bound zines and one staple-bound booklet with essays by Rigo 23 and Lyle, I felt an immediate kinship. This was partly because the collaborators were taking up the zine, a format that I had grown-up with and which felt familiar to me. But they were also using the zine in a way that I think it most wants to be used; as a high impact format for critique, communication, and documentary/historiography.

What was unique about Backtracking was that it was not conveying something that needed to be said immediately and circulated among a particular community that would get the message, as zines typically do. But, rather, the zine was being used as much as twenty-three years after the fact to show how events had been represented by participants and popular news sources.

Back cover from "Backtracking 1985, ARC/AIDS Vigil, UN Plaza." Courtesy Rigo 23.

The events dealt with through the booklets in the box-set form a natural unity, as they foreground changes in the civic terrain around the Bay Area from 1985 until 1994. The first of these events is the ARC/AIDS Vigil at UN plaza, one of the first effective demonstrations of and for people with AIDS and AIDS-related illnesses in the United States, which lasted for over a decade.

Other events include: the Columbus Day demonstrations of 1992 led by Native American activists; the chronicling of peace activist Brian Willson’s career from the time of his service in Vietnam to a protest against the Concord Naval Weapons Station in 1987 that would claim his legs and fracture his skull; the murder of Black Panther leader Huey Newton; the beating of United Farm Workers leader Dolores Huerta by SFPD; the persecution of the organization Food Not Bombs by SFPD; the emergence of Critical Mass; the Gulf War protests of 1991, which shut down the Bay Bridge twice; and the car bombing of Earth First activist Judi Bari, where the Oakland police immediately arrested the victims as the prime suspects of the crime.

Recognizing the richness of this zine project—the intensity with which it unearthed social histories that risk being lost and the way it looks backwards with an eye to future possibilities for social action—made me want to be in touch with Rigo 23 and learn more about his work. Searching for him online doesn’t yield all that much, though there is some wonderful documentation of his 2007 show at The Luggage Store, and documentation of the hyper-literal (and counter-digital) billboard-sized murals that he made in the mid-nineties, which depict “one way” signs with words like “one tree” and “birds” on them (the “tree” sign points to a tree; the “birds” sign points to the sky).

"Isto o Povo Não Esquece (This the People Will Never Forget)" mural. Courtesy Rigo 23

Though much activist writing and art can suffer from too much levity, this is entirely untrue of Rigo 23’s work, which ranges from the sublime—as in the case of many of the writings and images from Backtracking—to the playful—as with the murals of “one way” signs. These qualities converge in a recent work by the artist that he made in Brazil with the help of Human/Nature—a partnership between environmental and contemporary art organizations that put artists in touch with local communities in Brazil in order to address ecological questions and problems—and installed in San Diego at MCASD Downtown.

In this work, Rigo 23 employed inhabitants of the coastal village of Cananéia, as well as nearby Guarani Indians, Quilombolas (descendents of escaped and freed slaves), and Caiçaras (traditional fisherman of mixed Indigenous and European descent) in Southeast Brazil to help him build a model of a nuclear submarine, the same kind that Lockheed/Martin produces trident missiles for just south of San Francisco. Evoking a startling difference in scale between the wealth and power of San Francisco, where Rigo 23 after all lives, and that of the small community of Cananéia, what resulted was a hybrid sub modeled after the nuclear one of Trident Lockheed/Martin fame, but handmade out of mud and bamboo with the collaboration of Cananéia villagers. The sub’s name given to it by Rigo 23 and the villagers, “Struggle for Life,” poignantly reflects the pragmatic utopianism of the artist’s body of work.

"Teko Mbarate - Struggle for Life" installed at Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego. Courtesy Rigo 23

Two other current projects, which Rigo 23 touches upon below, involve what I see as two fundamental intentions of his work. First, the ability to make art out of conditions that respect local values and traditions, as well as community structures which transcend the “individual.” Second, that the art may both historicize and create conditions of possibility by which social justice can come into being.

The first intention is embodied fully by a project Rigo 23 has been making in Madeira Island, Portugal, where he is originally from, which involves the making of a statue to commemorate a dispute between the local community and the Catholic Church of Portugal (This the People Will Never Forget). In this project, the artist erects a statue of the Virgin as seen from the back of a pick-up truck, commemorating the fact that locals were slighted by the Church authority by not being able to host the statue, and were treated instead to a passing glance of the statue’s backside upon the truck’s flatbed. Rigo 23 also foregrounds the community’s sense of injustice by employing local embroiderers to embroider all the signatures from a petition to the Church upon strips of raw linen —an act which, as the artist tells us below, also reflects the conditions under which the embroiders labor.

"This the People Will Never Forget" installation. Courtesy Fundação de Serralves – Museu de Arte Contemporânea, Porto. Photographer: Filipe Braga

The second intention is embodied by a “museum” that Rigo 23 has been exhibiting since 1999, currently on view at the Warehouse Gallery at Syracuse University. This impermanent museum (it unfortunately has not found a permanent host yet) houses the works of Leonard Peltier, a Lakota tribesperson and American Indian Movement activist falsely charged and tried for the murder of two FBI officers on a Lakota Reservation in 1975. As with many of the zines that first attracted me to Rigo 23’s work, the Leonard Peltier museum (titled Tate Wikikuwa Museum to reflect Leonard’s Lakota name) seeks to effect social justice by drawing attention to the plight of a particular juridical travesty. In the process, as with many of Rigo 23’s works, the artist’s would-be subject becomes a collaborator—Peltier’s paintings and the dialogue established between “audience” and “artist” through them being an integral component of the work.

Tate Wikikuwa Museum - North America 2024. Currently at Syracuse University. Courtesy Rigo 23.

1. What is your background as an artist and how does this background inform and motivate your practice?

I started by making drawings on the backs of post-office envelopes. This was early on, before elementary school.  Some days, my brother and I would travel with our father to his job at the neighboring village’s post office. I consider those special days. We got to travel and draw all day. I was about five and we lived on Madeira Island, Portugal.

While in high school, I collaborated with other students and teachers to self-publish zines and comic books. I also joined CACF (Center for Cultural Action, in Funchal), which resulted in my meeting and collaborating with artists and writers who were considerably older than myself.

After high school, I left the island for Lisbon and soon after I left Portugal for California. The Bay Area’s intense level of civic participation during the late eighties and early nineties, the tactics of ACT-UP and other culture jammers, the strong presence of Latin American organizing, the punks on bikes, and the cultural diversity all left a profound impression on me.

Leonard Peltier's paintings exhibited. Courtesy Rigo 23.

2. Do you feel there is a need for the work that you are doing, given the larger field of visual art and the ways that aesthetic practices may be able to shape public space, civic responsibility, and political action? Why or why not?

Yes, but the need is a rather personal one, too. I need to make this work in order to participate. The process of the artwork is the engagement with public space, with civic responsibility. The making of the work is the action. The artwork also participates in a movement towards a more realistic and just global citizenship. The need is less to integrate the field of visual art, and more to participate in the life of our times.

For instance, when preparing for Oglala Oyate, an eight-hour outdoor video projection for the 01 SJ Biennial in California last year, I spent six weeks at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. During that time I met Lakota musicians, craftspeople, tribal leaders, educators, traditionalists, AIM members, survivors of alcoholism and PTSD, and I listened. What I heard there I tried to bring with me to East Jerusalem, where I recently participated in The Jerusalem Show IV. I discussed my time at Pine Ridge Reservation in regards to the plight of the political prisoner Leonard Peltier of the Lakota Oglala Nation within a context of checkpoints, travel passes, and watch towers.

I have come to realize that, often, the further one comes from an area of intense conflict, the more likely the locals are to give you the benefit of the doubt. So, as one talks about Leonard Peltier in East Jerusalem, or about going to Palestine in Wounded Knee, links and kinships that are invisible to most manifest themselves in wonderful and affirming ways. There is a mutual recognition that one is globalized in an entirely different way. In the United States, for instance, corporations have the same rights as human beings (they have legal personhood!), yet in many places of the globe—including the United States—many human beings are denied these very rights; they still struggle to gain personhood.

The work for The Jerusalem Show IV dealt with these types of realities. I was to work with a group of art students from the International Art Academy of Palestine, yet they were not allowed to come work with me in East Jerusalem. I ended up painting a portrait of the brand new “separation” wall onto a historical wall within the Old City of Jerusalem. It was, in a very literal sense, a contribution towards the preservation of history in a context where it is under assault by both genocidal politics and tourism.

"A portrait of the brand new 'separation' wall." Courtesy Rigo 23.

I collaborate with individuals and communities in resistance through art, but they collaborate with me through their own practices. What results, therefore, can’t be measured only through visual or aesthetic lenses. Together, we nurture relationships that need strengthening. Each brings their own context and expertise, their personal and collective history, their regrets and aspirations. A work of art results, sure; but so does a network of social relations, a set of shared experiences, and a community of concerns and possibilities.

For instance, for This the People Will Never Forget at the Serralves Foundation in Oporto, Portugal, I worked with a group of embroiders from a small community in Madeira Island who have long been in resistance to the dominant political establishment of the island. Over time, their traditional craft has lost economic viability, and their once shared afternoons embroidering have become more solitary. For this project, within a fairly tight time-frame, they had to embroider eight hundred-plus signatures onto pieces of raw linen. The signatures were from a petition submitted by members of their community, and included their own. When I asked about compensation, they refused to accept pay, and it quickly became clear the project would be conducted on their terms. Their commitment to the timeline we had established became one more demonstration of their collective resolve and capacity to face and surpass obstacles. The work became both a celebration and a demonstration of their determination. At our final meeting, one of the bordadeiras (embroiders) held me by the arm, brought me in closer to her, and whispered: “they want war…we give them war!” In contrast to the violent political regime that they would oppose, theirs is a war of gorgeous blue thread on raw linen expressing their refusal to surrender their parish and priest to the corrupt hierarchy of the island’s church establishment.

The bordadeiras holding up their petition. Courtesy Rigo 23.

3. Are there other projects, people, and/or things that have inspired your work? Please describe.

Yes, it has always been a shared journey, and the inspirations are too many to name. For the last decade, faced with constant war in the United States, I have been particularly looking for ways of thinking that do not involve war commanders or “enemy combatants.”

For a recent example of where I have found a way to think differently about US belligerence, on December 9, 2010, then-Brazilian President, Lula da Silva addressed the significance of Wikileaks and the way in which the world community was (not) reacting to the unfolding manhunt of Julian Assange. Lula’s words were not written nor read. He spoke them as they came to him—occasionally asking for help or giving instructions to his team. In doing so, the twice-elected President of Brazil — former mechanic, widow, political prisoner, and union leader— ointed to the nakedness of the emperor in much the same way a Guarani village leader communicates: with his entire body and soul, and without the help of the high-tech and ghostly tele-prompter.

To provide another example, for this same exhibit at the Serralves Museum in Portugal, the Colombian artist Carlos Motta invited Portuguese priests to read aloud texts central to Liberation Theology, a movement born of the suffering inflicted on Indigenous peoples of the Americas and Africa by proselytizing Europeans. The readings were recorded weekly throughout the City of Oporto, and the resulting videos made available inside the museum.

I find it very interesting to reconsider Liberation Theology now, at a time of increasing economic disparity in Europe, when religion is being brought into the mix as a way to define an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’ These texts remind us that there has always been another way to look at the world. One based not on belonging to a specific cultural, ethnic, or religious group, but rather based on a recognizable and shareable sense of what is just.

There is also Robert King, a US citizen of African descent who, after twenty-nine-and-a-half-years of solitary confinement at Angola Louisiana State Prison, was released in 2001. He talks of having traveled the world since he was freed and having met justice-loving people of all shapes, ages, and persuasions. His is a citizenship in this kind of global community that I ardently seek through my art practice.

Bordadeiras in front of their church. Courtesy Rigo 23

4. What have been your favorite projects to work on and why?

There have definitely been some projects I can’t help but recall fondly, and these tend to be the ones that allowed me proximity to locations and people I would have never been able to encounter otherwise. From 2005 to 2008, I visited Brazil six times to work on Human/Nature: Artists Respond to a Changing Planet, a project pairing contemporary artists working internationally with World Heritage Sites—threatened treasures of biodiversity. The idea was to see if a shared vocabulary might develop, which would in turn nurture greater awareness of the dangers faced by so many of our fellow creatures. But an unforeseen consequence of this project was my personal coming to terms with the shared histories of South and North America, and my own convoluted journey within it.

For the last ten years I have also been listening to, traveling and dialoguing with, and occasionally making art for and with Robert King—and that has been a journey I could have never imagined being included in before I began it.