Image courtesy Julio César Morales.

How Political Art Heats Up a Divided Arizona

Julio César Morales writes about the healing potential of issue-driven artwork along the US-Mexico border.

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Apr 4 2017, 8:31pm

Image courtesy Julio César Morales.

This article originally appeared on Creators.

As part of 50 States of Art, Creators is inviting artists to contribute first person accounts of what it is like to live and create in their communities. By deploying a range of media and visual strategies, Julio César Morales investigates issues of migration, underground economies, and labor on the personal and global scales.

In 2011 I drove with my wife and 2-year old child for the first time to Arizona from California. It was a beautiful drive, but once we crossed state lines, the climate started to change—not just the weather, but the culture as well. I noticed politically aggressive bumper stickers on huge pick-up trucks; the most memorable was one of President Barack Obama that altered Shepard Fairey's iconic image, rendering Obama in blackface, with a shooting target over his body.

The memory of this graphic agitation was awakened two weeks ago when artist Karen Fiorito unveiled her latest political billboard art project in downtown Phoenix during the Annual Art Detour art walk in downtown. The billboard features Donald Trump's face on a background of nuclear mushroom clouds and bookmarked by (Capitalist Right) dollar signs—now it's the other side of the coin to Obama's blackface. The artist has received nationwide coverage and some inevitable backlash, such as death threats by Trump's right-wing followers. The opposite side of the billboard is an uplifting graphic image with the slogan "Unite." Beatrice Moore, a longtime patron of the Phoenix arts scene, commissioned the billboard, which she owns, and she has vowed to keep it up as long as Trump remains in office. Most complaints have centered on the supposed "swastikas" next to Trump's image, yet this only reflects the media illiteracy of Arizonans who don't recognize that the imagery is a play on Nazi symbolism.

Julio Cesar Morales, Undocumented Intervention #7, 9"x12", Watercolor and Ink on Paper, 2007-17. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris

Politically, Arizona is a complicated state full of contradictions. From middle school kids marching in the street to protest immigration laws to "Fuck Islam" bumper stickers, there is a diverse population, and Arizona is reaching a turning point as a swing state. Artists in Arizona face similar challenges to other cities, in that there are not enough venues to support the work. While the burgeoning arts community comes together every third Friday for open studios and gallery receptions or public programing, is it enough to bring attention to the issues central to the artists's work?

Postcommodity, Repellent Fence, Inflatable Balloons, 10'x10' each, Variable installation dimensions, 2015. Courtesy of the artists

In my own art practice, I work with whatever medium lends itself to a particular project, from watercolors about failed human trafficking attempts, to dinners about California's history, to the experiences of Mexican migrants coming into Arizona. In my work as a curator at the ASU Art Museum, I have been working with international artists such as Superflex, Tania Candiani, Yoshua Okon, and Faivovich & Goldberg, while at the same time supporting local artists, such as the Native-American collective Postcommodity.

Gabriela Muñoz and M. Jenea Sanchez, Labor, Serigraph on bricks made with Mexican soil, 36 x 264 x 6 inches, 2016. Courtesy of the artists

Working with them to realize the astonishing public art project Repellent Fence epitomizes the energy, courage, and resilience of the arts scene here. The two-mile installation consisted of symbolic "Scary Eye" ten-foot wide balloons floating north and south across the US-Mexico border between the cities of Douglas, AZ and Agua Prieta. Recently, I spoke with the Mayor of Douglas, Robert Uribe, who ran for mayor on the heels of the Postcommodity project and the bi-cultural relationship sparked by city governments on both sides of the border. Trained as an artist, he is committed to continuing the momentum of using art as a form of social change by bringing artists to the region. When asked about Trump's idea for a new wall, he said he would rather spend the energy developing new creative economic models that feature art and culture to attract tourism.

M. Jenea Sanchez, Untitled 1-5, Printed on handmade cholla paper. Photo credit: Joe Trevino

Rafa Esparza, Reading Performance for Crossfade Lab, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and CALA Alliance. Photo credit: Chandra Narcia

Michael Lundren, The Algaeic Fox, 2006, 32"x40", pigment print. Courtesy of the artist

Check out more work by Julio César Morales at Gallery Wendi Norris in Phoenix, AZ.

All year, we're highlighting 50 States of Art projects around the United States.

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