Chicano Arts Pioneer Takes On Globalization and War
Malaquias Montoya’s Show at Centro Cultural Looks Forward and Back
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Pioneering Chicano artist Malaquias Montoya is still doing political art. That comes through loud and clear from the title of his show, “Globalization and War: The Aftermath,” through March 4 at the Centro Cultural de la Raza, 2004 Park Boulevard in Balboa Park. But when he appeared for the opening reception January 22 and was invited to speak for 45 minutes, he talked as much about the past — the heady days of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when Hispanics first started calling themselves Chicanos and the Chicano art movement that gave rise to the Centro Cultural was getting under way — as about Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and the other modern-day inspirations for the art he was showing.
Montoya’s art blends a brutal toughness and a desperate compassion in dealing directly with political themes — torture as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy (plus the denials that we engage in torture — one piece uses the actual words of someone accused of torturing detainees at Abu Ghraib who said “we’re just softening them up for interrogation”), the growing gap between rich and poor in the U.S. itself and the brutality and viciousness with which Americans, especially the military, throw their weight around the world and demand other countries bend to their will. Among the influences he cited were Mexican muralists José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siquieros (two of the three great painters of the Mexican revolution who were called Los Tres Grandes — the third was Diego Rivera), along with newer artists Elizabeth Catlett and Kathe Kollwitz.
One name he didn’t mention as an influence, but whose stylistic footprints were obvious in Montoya’s work, was Ben Shahn, who in the 1930’s and 1940’s pioneered a style of political art relying on bold, often deliberately ugly imagery, rendered in stark monochromes. The monochrome pieces in Montoya’s show especially resemble Shahn’s work, and he acknowledged the influence when he took audience questions. “Ben Shahn is someone I’ve always admired,” said Montoya, who studied him towards the end of his career in the 1960’s and read his 1960 art book, The Shape of Content.
Montoya was introduced by the pioneering Chicano poet Alurista, who paid tribute to the RCAF — “Radical Chicano Artists’ Front” — a group of radical Chicano artists which started in Sacramento and San Francisco, and which Montoya helped organize. In 1970 Alurista and some of his fellow activists staged the takeover of the small strip of land under the freeway in Barrio Logan that is today known as Chicano Park. He was also instrumental in starting the Centro Cultural. In his introduction, Alurista recalled that the inspiration for the Chicano Park takeover came from, of all sources, the California Highway Patrol.
“They wanted to put a station in the middle of the barrio, where Chicano Park is now,” Alurista recalled. “We took over Chicano Park, but had it not been for the RCAF and Los Elas Dunstas of Los Angeles, Chicano Park would not be what it is today.” He paid tribute not only to Montoya but to Victor Ochoa and Mario Torero, local San Diego artists who were part of the original Chicano movement and helped paint the famous murals on the pillars holding up the freeways over Chicano Park. At first the authorities wanted to whitewash the murals; today San Diego regularly promotes them as a tourist attraction.
“I was here many years ago in the 1970’s and met several people, including Victor Ochoa and Alurista,” Montoya recalled. Though he was committed to the RCAF because his brother held the title of “general” in it, Montoya explained, his principal affiliation back then was with an Oakland-based group called MALAF. The initials stood for “Mexican-American Liberation Art Front,” Montoya said, but when he pronounced them it sounded like the Spanish words “mala jefe” — “bad chief.” According to Montoya, most of the members of MALAF had grown up as farmworkers but had moved to the urban barrios and had ultimately put themselves through college.
Montoya said MALAF organized one major exhibition, called “A New Symbol for La Nueva Raza,” but its major influence was through the long dialogues and rap sessions its members had with each other. “We would talk about ourselves, how we grew up, how we weren’t allowed to speak Spanish, and how we hated ourselves for looking ‘different’,” Montoya recalled. “But in this fellowship we talked and found the humor in our situation.” He recalled that MALAF’s members weren’t immune to their own internal racism; one member was “castigated for looking ‘too Indian,’” he said.
“We were proud of who we were, the food we ate, our work in the fields and how our parents contributed to the wealth of the country,” Montoya said. “We started to take pride in who we were. We were looking for something we could use as a symbol, and [we took it from] Miguel Gomez, a young man with a brown beret and a bomber jacket, someone who a few years before that we would have called ‘cabrón Indio.’ He had a face that looked like it could have been the subject of a Mayan sculpture. We looked at him and he became the symbol. All five of us in MALAF went and did portraits of him for ‘A New Symbol for La Nueva Raza.’ It was a successful show.”
Today Montoya teaches at the University of California at Davis, near Sacramento. It’s a career he fell into almost by accident. “In 1970, when I started teaching at UC Berkeley, I had no idea I’d end up teaching,” he acknowledged. He had come to Oakland from San José in 1968 and found that his reputation and some of his work had preceded him when he started organizing on the Berkeley campus in support of the boycott against grapes called by César Chávez and the United Farm Workers union. Berkeley hired him, he recalled, “because they wanted to develop a Chicano arts program,” and he launched an oral history project in which he interviewed Chicano and Latino artists not only in the Southwestern U.S. but in Mexico as well.
Alas, Montoya said in response to a question from the audience, many of the tapes of his interviews and the slides he shot of the artists’ works disappeared into the maw of academe. “Professor Juan Martinez was an historian who got interested in art and wanted to do a book about it, and ended up with the tapes and the slides,” Montoya recalled. “Some of the tapes and slides were eventually returned, but others were lost, and I had to write the people I’d interviewed that the material had been taken out of my hands. Fortunately, no one sued.” Montoya said that one of the people he interviewed, Nino Padilla, had just returned from Viet Nam and had done a series called The People of Viet Nam in Black and White, which he recalled as “very powerful work,” but he hasn’t heard of it since and doesn’t know what happened to it.
One audience member asked Montoya how he felt about UC Berkeley, where he started his academic career and which still has a reputation as a progressive institution, hiring John Yoo from the George W. Bush administration as a law professor. Yoo’s memos to Bush, outlining a theory of executive power that basically said that during a time of war the President is above the law and can order virtually anything, including torture, that he feels is needed to save the country or win the war, made his name a flash point for the controversy over the harsh interrogation methods used at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. “I know about him,” said Montoya, “but I look at my work as a collaboration with the people of the community and people who influenced me. I pretty much work in my studio alone. That’s what gives me solitude and allows me to think beyond what I hear in the news.”
Not that Montoya is — or would ever want to be — an ivory-tower artist living and working in lordly isolation from political and social movements and events. “We live in a society that on a daily basis for the things we will commit later, without realizing that’s the direction we are being taken in,” he said in a statement that sums up the theme of his show. “Without an understanding of the progressive side, we will participate in that training and even be involved in that slaughter. That’s how young men can join the military and do those horrible things.” Referring to the assault on Congressmember Gabrielle Giffords and the murder of Judge John Roll and five others in Tucson January 8, Montoya added, “The Right says they can’t have caused what happened in Tucson, but when you say those things often enough — when you call your political adversaries ‘enemies’ and say they should be ‘eliminated’ — crimes like that will happen.”