In Conversation with Enrique Chagoya

Enrique Chagoya is a professor of Art at Stanford University. His work ranges many media, and is currently in the collections of the country’s most major museums. The exhibition “Borderlandia” which surveys his work of the past twenty five years will be visiting the Berkeley Art Museum from February 13 – May 18, 2008. 

Leland Quarterly: I was hoping you would start by describing your childhood and how you first began your artistic pursuits?

Enrique Chagoya: Yes well, I grew up in Mexico City throughout the late fifties and early sixties. During these years, my father was definitely the greatest influence on me. He gave me my first paint set and my first art lessons when I was seven years old. He studied art quite a bit, but he never made it as an artist, though I think that’s what he would have wanted—he ended up working at the Central Bank in Mexico. It allowed him to pay the bills, to feed us—we had a large family—and to send us to school. But he would paint at night, landscape paintings and some architectural drawings; I wanted to do the same as a little kid but I don’t think my father wanted to encourage my artistic instincts too much because he saw no future in it. It was only because I was so persistent in bothering him that he decided to teach me. He had no choice, I was in love with art, and I knew I was in love with art, even before I was old enough to know anything about what that meant.

LQ: What art was it that inspired you besides your father’s work?

EC: Primarily cartoons and comics actually; some Mexican ones and the famous American ones like Batman and Superman. I began to make comics and I also sold my old comic books at my home door; it allowed me to get new comics. I also liked to get the forbidden “underground” comics; occasionally they could be found in the record sleeves of risqué American vinyls like Janis Joplin. Some of my friends in elementary school and high school shared the same interest, so often we would make caricatures of each other and our teachers—it got me into trouble more than once, I can tell you that. But we would spend most of our free time drawing and painting, or at least I would; it was never a chore, always something that I reveled in and waited for when I wasn’t making art.

LQ: Nevertheless though, you chose not to pursue art during college?

EC: Well not immediately. Yes, that’s true… During my undergraduate years I studied an array of subjects—anthropology, sociology, history. I finally settled on political science and economics. I was offered a job before the end of my last year; I went to work as an economist in the countryside. Not strictly an economist in the American sense of the word, it was social work. The rural class was extremely poor and I was involved in a program to help bolster their incomes. The world and capitalism was speeding forward and they were being left behind, so I tried to facilitate the development of low income business cooperatives.

LQ: But you stopped that work in order to come to the San Francisco Art Institute. What kind of a change was this for you?

EC: Yes, that’s right. It was an enormous change. I felt a huge sense of guilt at the beginning. My wife at the time, an American sociologist, didn’t want me to go to art school; I’d met her in Mexico, and she was doing the same kind of work that I was in the countryside—so when I mentioned the idea she was not very encouraging. In Mexico she had gotten very sick, because we’d been living in such harsh conditions in the villages in which we worked. She contracted a parasite that nearly killed her. So moving was less the issue, we had to for her health, but my choice to switch careers only happened after we got to California—I think she thought it was selfish of me, or that I’d stopped caring. And to be honest there was a part of me that agreed with her. I couldn’t help feeling the whole thing was somehow frivolous. But the schools of economics in the Bay Area were not as exciting to me nor the kind of work that would be available to me after graduating from them, so I decided to take chances and change course. It wasn’t an easy decision. It was the beginning of the end of my marriage for one thing. However, for me it was the right choice, I do not regret it, not at all. I am a better artist than the economist I could have been.

LQ: When you say you that you realized how difficult it is to effect real change, is it that sentiment that catalyzed a shift in your work towards content which was socially and politically motivated?

EC: Actually, I think 1971 really caused that shift. I was taking part in a demonstration with other students from my university in Mexico; we wanted changes in the curriculum, and we were contesting a set of new fees the university had recently put forward. Our protests happened to coalesce with the electric workers’ strike and it turned into a kind of social outpouring… something much bigger than we expected. The army came to quell the disturbance, and I remember being chased by paramilitaries dressed in civilian clothes, armed with bamboo sticks that had long blades at the ends, and hand guns. About seventy people were killed… It was a real massacre. That’s the first time I can remember feeling that I could die for my ideas… and it changed my understanding of society, my artistic ideas as well.

LQ: So you came to the San Francisco Art Institute with political and social motivations?

EC: Yes and no. One of the earliest series at the SF Art Institute was for a group of Salvadorian poets who were touring the country protesting the invasion of Central America by the Reagan Administration, and I made a couple of drawings for their show. The greatest reward of the experience was that I would not be killed, I would not even be threatened, for my ideas—art was a kind of exorcism for me, an excavation of the anxiety that had formed inside of me during my time in Mexico about the state of the world and my powerlessness to change it all. So it wasn’t with a sense of empowerment that I took to my graduate education in art. I was in need of a therapeutic outlet; it takes a very tough spirit to do social work—to not become overwhelmed by the grandness and intricacy of the world, the underlying sensation that one is barely, if at all, significant. So while my work was politically and socially motivated in terms of the content, I was really making art for myself… exercising my freedom of expression. Occasionally I feel a bit guilty about the self-indulgence of it, but I think we must be self-indulgent in exercising our rights, our political and social voice. And I welcome others to be self-indulgent in that regard as well. Vive la difference!

LQ: How did these feelings manifest themselves in your work?

EC: Well very early on the notion of words and language was under attack in my work, because I’d become so suspicious of rhetoric in my youth and even more so upon arriving in America. Words like justice, equality etc. when spoken by politicians, in any country, more often than not conceal manifestations of their opposites; and the greater the injustice in a country the more fervently these buzz words are used. The words freedom or democracy, for instance, may mean something different for, ancient Greeks, for the forefathers of this country who owned slaves, for Martin Luther King, or Nelson Mandela, or in the statements of George W. Bush. The same word may have different meanings in different times and places. I always had a feeling of how ambiguous words are and consequently I felt the need to address the falsity of language, and satirize it. I think the very visual mural-based art of the pre-Columbian books by the Mayans and the Aztecs were a great influence on me; if we look at the art of these cultures we can appreciate how they invested visual representation with exact meanings; its so easy to forget how insufficient words often are for describing the world around us; I think my art, though socially and politically critical, also seeks to remind people of this more basic fact.

LQ: And what did you do after leaving the SF Art Institute?

EC: First I went to the San Francisco country jail to teach art to prisoners for about three years. They were mainly low crime criminals; but they weren’t really criminals for me, they were just students. The experience made me realize, and would make anyone realize, that these people were sufferers of poor circumstance. They’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time; and it was extremely sad to see, because so many of them were smart, or talented, but they had more opportunities to go to jail than to go to school, falling into a cycle they couldn’t lift themselves out of. To see their hunger for education and the arts awakened me to the short distance between normal citizens and those that have slid to the margins, the collateral damage of a society’s structure, those for whom it doesn’t work out… we often believe they are to blame; but eighty or ninety percent of those who take any educational classes while in jail do not return (except for those with life sentences, or in death row). Many learn how to make an honest living thanks to the classes they take while in prison: gardening, art, creative writing, drama, computer programming, etc. Given the opportunity to learn from an interested teacher they really revel in it—ever since I’ve felt we need fewer prisons and more schools; but I think its going in the opposite direction.

LQ: And after working at the prison?

EC: After leaving the jail, I was offered the curatorship at the Galeria de la Raza, a Chicano gallery. And actually for my first show I displayed only work of inmates that I had taught. I negotiated with the jail to have the prisoners come over for the opening, accompanied by the sheriff of course… but nonetheless, they were overwhelmed to see their own work hanging in a real gallery and appreciated by people outside of prison; it was very rewarding for them, and for me. It was a great way to start, because it instilled in me a sense of always wanting to work with specific communities in my exhibitions; The Galeria de la Raza had a history of community oriented shows like the one on apartheid in South Africa right before I started. I did other shows like Puerto Rican political prisoner’s art , and organized an enormous and ever-growing annual Day of the Dead exhibition in the Mission, things like that. But I had also started to teach at UC Berkeley, and my job as a curator became overwhelmingly busy very fast. I decided to leave the Galeria de la Raza, after three years, just after starting the plans for a large Day of the Dead exhibition at the Smithsonian, which would have been a really major and wonderful exhibition—that was my only regret about leaving those years of work as a curator. Other than that show, I was thrilled to be done with it. So I left to teach full time at Berkeley in 1990, and it was soon after that that Cal State offered me a tenured track position; that gave much more time to make my art, and solidified my future in education.

LQ: And how did you get to Stanford?

EC: Well I was at Cal State for five years, and I truly loved it there; my students were amazing and wonderful people, my schedule wasn’t too burdensome, and I could support myself comfortably; so I was totally happy there and never even thought of leaving. But then I received a call from David Hannah in the art department here asking me to try out for the tenured track position. I turned the invitation down immediately, that’s how uninterested I was in moving and how much I loved Cal State. But then I said to myself, “maybe I should have asked what they were offering at the least.” [chuckle] So I called back a week later, I figured I might as well see if I’d get the job and then make a decision. Sure enough I became a finalist and got the position, even though deep down throughout the process I was thinking how relieving it would be not to get the job, and not to have to face my students and colleagues at Cal State that I’d grown so close with. What clinched it was the studio space Stanford offered, I couldn’t afford anything like it in the bay Area and their offer was just hard to refuse… So, when I got the job offer I left Cal State with a little bit of a heavy heart, but everyone there understood and supported me, and I managed to keep in touch with them.

LQ: Around that time your work began to undergo a somewhat meteoric rise in the commercial art world and the museum world. When was your first watershed exhibition?

EC: That was in 1989 in New York City, it was a solo exhibition at the Alternative Museum. And the experience of showing in New York at that time was so amazing. My reception there was astounding to me because I never expected to become a “popular” artist, only an underground artist or alternative artist. So when my work started to be purchased by the Metropolitan, Moma, the Whitney, I realized I’d been a bit too reticent in my expectations. But I think that was always a good thing for, I was never working in order to become successful. You know the Taoist maxim: if you want something you should not want it or the less you look for something the more it comes to you. I think that’s sort of how things have happened to me.

LQ: And now you are having a twenty five year survey at the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa…

EC: Yeah, to have my first major survey in the heart of the country is ironic and great; because I really first got notoriety in New York City and then in the Bay Area and have mainly been popular in those places. So to have it hosted in a state that’s perhaps more symbolic of middle America is a fantastic for me—as someone who has always felt torn between to cultures and two countries—I feel exceptionally grateful.

LQ: And what would be your advice for young artists out there who are experiencing doubts about pursuing what is often a very precarious future as an artist?

EC: I would say trust yourself. Trust yourself. It’s easy to say, but often it’s the hardest thing to do, and the biggest obstacle in our way. But if you are brave enough to trust yourself, and chose work that you love, you will get very good at it, and the rest tends to work itself out.

Download “In Conversation with Enrique Chagoya” as a PDF.

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