SINCE DECLARING of war against Mexico in 1994, the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico, have hosted several gatherings of Indigenous activists from all over the world that the group has referred to as “encuentros intergalacticos” (intergalactic encounters). Artist Rigo 23 initiated a collaboration with the Zapatistas by posing a question: What if they were invited to attend a gathering that was actually in another galaxy? How would they get there? The community’s emphatic answer: with a rocket ship fashioned from a gigantic ear of corn.
A twenty-foot-long, mostly wooden craft is the center of Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program (2009–12), the artist’s poetic and playful installation made in collaboration with Zapatista painters and weavers, now on view at University of California Riverside’s ARTSblock. The rocket is surrounded by smaller paintings, tapestries, sculptures of the sun and moon, and videos of Zapatista marches and women sewing.
The objects assembled resulted from ongoing conversation with Indigenous artisans and the autonomous government of Chiapas on ten visits over three years. The rocket, for instance, is based on blueprints by a Zapatista artist. Mural scenes were conceived and painted by a pair of village youths. Most of the tapestries, which include designs specifically dreamed up for the show, were woven by craftswomen. All contributors were paid for their work. As the art world has been riven by questions of appropriation, Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program offers an admirable ethics for political art. For more than fifteen years, Rigo has made work about former Black Panthers and the struggles of Indigenous communities and imprisoned activists, in some cases depicting individuals involved in those causes. But in his recent work he has rejected the strategy of depicting his subjects and their struggles. Instead, he engages them as collaborators. Rigo leverages his privilege as an artist to transfer material resources from powerful cultural institutions to political prisoners and Indigenous communities, and to produce platforms where these oft-ignored stories can be heard.
RIGO 23 was born Ricardo Gouveia in 1966 on Madeira Island, Portugal—a colony turned tourist resort, closer to Africa’s coast than to Europe’s. Though he was just a child during the Carnation Revolution, the 1974 coup that deposed Portugal’s military dictatorship, Rigo remembers the exhilarating era of transformation that swept across Portuguese society. Suddenly, new African leaders were speaking nightly on television news as Portugal withdrew from most of its African colonies. Rigo moved to San Francisco in the mid-1980s to attend San Francisco Art Institute. There, he came of age in the city’s vast constellation of DIY venues and artist-run spaces, alongside artists like Alicia McCarthy, Barry McGee, and Chris Johanson, with whom critics often group him in the Mission School. But while those artists pushed at the boundaries of painting or made rollicking installations that captured the city’s countercultural spirit, Rigo was the group’s conceptualist. He became widely known in San Francisco during the ’90s for a series of Pop-inflected murals that fused gnomic texts with the iconography of traffic signs to deliver witty, site-specific punchlines. Many of these works, often several stories tall, survive to this day—most notably One Tree (1995). Painted on a wall next to a freeway on-ramp, the mural features what appears to be an arrow from a one-way sign. But the sign reads one tree and points not onto the freeway but at a lone tree, bravely surviving somehow in a tiny patch of soil amid a sea of concrete and the traffic often backed up on Highway 101.
Upon arriving in the Bay Area, Rigo sought out many of the legendary participants in the Black Panther Party and American Indian Movement he had read about back home. He became friends with artist Emory Douglas, the former Black Panther Minister of Culture who had created the Panthers’ provocative imagery, and later began a correspondence with imprisoned former Panther leader Geronimo Ji-Jaga. Ji-Jaga’s dubious 1972 conviction for murder was vacated in 1997, and he was released from prison after serving twenty-seven years. In honor of his release, Rigo painstakingly rendered a striking seven-foot-square portrait of the Panther leader made entirely from colored pushpins (Geronimo Ji-Jaga, 1997) for display at Watts Labor Community Action Committee in South Los Angeles. While nominally referring to the other activists imprisoned as a result of the FBI’s COINTELPRO attacks on the Black Power movements of the ’60s and ’70s, the repetitive act of hammering more than twenty-eight thousand tiny pins into place movingly brings to mind the minutes of tedium that comprised Ji-Jaga’s sentence, as if each pin marked time in an uncertain wait for justice. At the exhibition’s opening, Rigo finally met Ji-Jaga, who was then less than a month out of prison. Impressed with the portrait, Ji-Jaga told Rigo, “This is what you do. Your job is to spread information to free all political prisoners.” 1
Rigo took Ji-Jaga’s words as a mandate. His next cause was the imprisoned American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier. In a 1999 telephone conversation with Peltier arranged by his supporters, Rigo was surprised to find that Peltier was more interested in talking about art than his case or his conditions in prison. Peltier is an avid painter, making new work even while in solitary confinement. Rigo and Peltier collaborated on Rigo’s contribution to “Museum Pieces: Artists Consider the de Young” (1999), the final exhibition at the old de Young Museum in San Francisco, which invited artists to envision what the museum would be like once it reopened in a new building a few years hence. For Rigo and Peltier’s project, the exterior of the old museum was painted sky blue and festooned with two-story-tall promotional banners announcing a retrospective of Peltier’s work called, “American Indian Centuries: Leonard Peltier” in a future de Young renamed the Tate Wikikuwa Museum, after Peltier’s given name in the Lakota language. His paintings of Plains landscapes, wildlife, and tribal elders were on display inside. The gesture contrasted the museum’s significant holdings of Native American arts and crafts with the lack of attention to the present state of Indigenous communities in the United States.
Since then, Rigo has organized several touring exhibitions of Peltier’s work and often responded to commissions from institutions for his own work by sending Peltier’s in its place. This recurring strategy of self-erasure or substitution of the work of others for his own, developed during his nearly two-decade collaboration with Peltier, has become one of the defining characteristics of Rigo’s practice. His resulting reputation in activist circles as a trustworthy collaborator led next to his ongoing pivotal work with the Angola 3, three former Black Panthers imprisoned in the notoriously racist Louisiana State Penitentiary, where they each spent several decades in solitary confinement, for their alleged roles in a prison yard murder, until Robert King’s and Herman Wallace’s sentences were overturned and Albert Woodfox pleaded no contest to a lesser charge. All three were freed, though Wallace died of liver cancer just days after his 2013 release.
When King was freed in February 2001, Rigo traveled by Greyhound bus from San Francisco to New Orleans to meet him. Their nascent friendship resulted in Truth (2002), a work that synthesized Rigo’s early murals and his mission to support political prisoners. Truth is a mural consisting of only the titular word painted in Rigo’s familiar bold road-sign text. Painted several stories tall on a building on downtown San Francisco’s busy Market Street, Truth can easily be seen from the street below. But Rigo’s mischievous intent becomes most satisfyingly clear when the work is viewed from the steps of City Hall a few blocks away. Neatly framed by the rows of trees in Civic Center and the open space of United Nations Plaza, the mural reads as an oversize protest placard, broadcasting its simple challenge directly to the city’s seat of government. It sets up a staring contest between truth and power—one that truth will inevitably win.
Eventually, the ongoing conversation between Rigo and King led to what is perhaps Rigo’s best-known work, The Deeper They Bury Me, The Louder My Voice Becomes (2009), a replica of King’s solitary confinement cell installed at the New Museum in New York. But for Rigo the collaboration goes beyond the production of an object for display. Rigo worked to initiate a fund to help King buy a home in New Orleans, and, after King lost that home in 2005 to Hurricane Katrina, Rigo hired King as his art assistant. Last year, King, now an entrepreneur making praline candies, helped fund Rigo’s efforts to make a statue of imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier for public display at American University in Washington, D.C. 2
Rigo also credits King with the movement of his art practice toward total collaboration. He says he is inspired by King’s description of his supporters as “justice-loving people.” 3 This conception of group identity does not involve affiliation based on skin tone, class status, or language; rather, it is based on shared belief in a righteous cause. Moving away from the impulse to honor heroes like Ji-Jaga by depicting their likeness, Rigo has instead resolved to organize group efforts to depict the values and vision of a better world his heroes fought for.
A 2009 PROJECT at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) was Rigo’s first work made in collaboration with an Indigenous community. For the exhibition “Human/Nature”—developed through a partnership between MCASD, the Berkeley Art Museum, and environmental activist organizations—eight artists traveled to United Nations World Heritage sites to highlight the efforts to conserve these places. Rigo went to the Atlantic Forest Southeast Reserves of Brazil, where he employed Guarani craftspeople to fabricate a thirty-foot-long sculpture of a nuclear submarine out of mud, banana fiber, bamboo, feathers, and other materials readily found in the rain forest. The installation also featured sculptures modeled after real weaponry manufactured by Lockheed Martin, including a woven cluster bomb filled not with explosives but with tiny wooden owls, anteaters, jaguars, and other hand-carved jungle animals. Hung in a gallery just a few miles from where US Navy nuclear submarines are stationed in San Diego’s harbor, the playful banana-fiber sub neatly cast into relief the vast difference in scale between the carbon footprints of European civilization and the jungle tribesmen, reframing the Guarani as the true defenders of the Amazon’s resources.
The submarine—named Struggle for Life by the Guarani villagers—provided a model for Rigo’s next project, the aforementioned Zapatista corn rocket, first exhibited in 2012 at REDCAT in Los Angeles. The rocket appears to be piloted by a pair of handmade Zapatista dolls, visible through the window in the metal nosecone and lit by electric lights. On the rear of the ship, a couple of balaclava-wearing snails hitch a ride, a tribute to the creatures that have been long used by the Zapatistas to symbolize the slow and steady nature of their revolution and their conception of spiraling, nonlinear time. Through portals in the side of the rocket, we glimpse its cargo—a classroom, dirt roads, a tree, a basketball court—and see that the Indigenous astronauts, like the snails, will also carry their home life on their backs into space. The rocket’s surface is marked by several dozen individual kernels of corn made of woven baskets, each emblazoned with the face of a ski-masked Zapatista.
A Zapatista space program is a provocative reminder that while the modern Mexican state slips into a miasma of corruption and narco-terrorism, it is these supposedly primitive or impoverished villagers who have devised a way to live sustainably and in harmony with each other and their environment. It is a characteristic reframing strategy for the artist, who says that he chooses to make art with prisoners and Indigenous communities because he feels that theirs are the most actively suppressed voices within modern society. 4 Rather than making work that seeks to call attention to the suffering of these subjects, Rigo seeks to show them as stronger, more resilient, and more creative than their oppressors.