Double Trouble: Enrique Chagoya and Kara Maria, Sonoma Valley Museum of Art’s current exhibition, sits at the intersection of political unrest and visual art.
Chagoya and Maria, a married couple and long-time art-activists, each bring their own striking and unforgettable interpretation to the ongoing issues of migration, extinction, climate change and economic disparity.
Chagoya has been active in the art world since he first came to Berkeley at the age of 26. Full of well-known cartoon characters and ancient indiginous symbols, his work is at once comical and deeply unnerving.
His use of characters such as Donald Duck and Dopey—from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves—juxtaposed with hanging bodies or hungry children, calls attention to the American capacity for disconnection through distraction, pleasure seeking, laziness and other vices. He and Maria produced a series, on display in this exhibition, depicting each of the seven deadly sins. Chagoya’s images are full of skeletons, cigarettes, Winnie the Pooh and glass eyes. His work, though overtly critical, is also inviting, though not all viewers share this opinion—a collection of his painting critiquing the sexual abuse cases in the Catholic Church was destroyed in 2010 by a woman with a crowbar.
A Mexico City–native and a current professor at Stanford University, Chagoya was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship this year for his contributions to the art world.
Maria’s paintings, by contrast, have been described—by the Sacramento News and Review—as a visual representation of human emotions. Large, vividly-colored and teaming with motion, Maria’s pieces call to mind neurological activity.
To engage with this work is to take a much-less immediately directed journey through concepts of environmental crises and extinction. The colorscapes, which feature myriad different shapes and representations of animals and buildings, offer a wide space for introspection and interpretation. As a viewer, traversing each work and coming across unexpected images, I felt I was looking at an externalized map of my own cognitive activity.
Originally from New York and a graduate of UC Berkeley, Kara has served as an artist-in-residence at Recology, in San Francisco, and her work can be found in permanent collections at the Crocker Museum and the San Jose Museum of Art.
Kara and Enrique are married, making them a powerhouse couple in the world of art activism, and viewing their work side by side offers a powerful opportunity for multi-dimensional reflection on our current socio-political and environmental situation.
Recognizing the pertinence of this exhibition, and the potential for community dialogue, SVMA went a step further, and earlier this month hosted Every Murmur Becomes a Wave, a discussion panel named for one of Maria’s featured works. This discussion, moderated by SVMA’s Director of Development and Marketing Debbie Barker, featured Chagoya, Maria and two UC Berkeley professors and climate activists—Miguel Altieri and Clara Nicholls. The intent was to address, in no uncertain terms, past, present and future circumstances of climate change, species extinction, farming politics, and immigration issues.
Each participant brought a specific voice to the discussion, and several responses particularly stood out.
Barker asked Professor Nicholls, who specializes in agroecology and entomology, if she could elucidate on the extinction of critical insect species in the last 50 years. Nicholls explained that the macro-scale monocrop production in the United States—and abroad—was drastically affecting the lives of pollinating insects. Cornfields, soybean fields and other macro-scale monocrops in America all leave the soil exhausted from lack of nutrient diversity and pollinators struggling to find the flowering plants that used to grow in the now-monopolized fields. This mono-production of crops has further detrimental international impacts on immigration and migration issues. Barker used the example of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which, when it went into effect, required Mexico to open its borders and allow in massive amounts of American corn. Highly subsidized U.S. corn then flooded Mexico’s economy, pushing a previously thriving population of corn farmers out of their home country and into the United States to seek work. Chagoya picked up this thread, further expanding on the detrimental effects of macro-scale monocropping and GMO farming, using a historical perspective for emphasis:
“Consider the transformation of the economy that took place over 500 years ago with the arrival of the Europeans. Consider all of the Native American cultures that had very stable economic systems. For example, Central Mexico, Peru, most Native American systems in the North, they didn’t have private property of the land. The land was stewarded communally. Chief Seattle, in his famous speech, was confused about why European colonizers wanted to buy land. He said that in Native American cultures the land was not something to be owned, but something to be worshipped, to be taken care of. This kind of concept was destroyed in the establishment of European economic structures—centuries-old systems that survived the changes in climate successfully. The diversity in crops—onion, zucchini, tomato, beans—was taken over by cotton, coffee, sugar cane and wheat. And the part that puzzles me is that all of this knowledge was wasted, when it could have been integrated. Even if the colonization of the Americas was inevitable, it would have been wiser to really adopt and learn from what was practiced by these cultures for centuries. And to note that they were not experiencing climate change.”
Strikingly, Chagoya also said, “We’re not going to change the world with art, but we can at least create some thought-provoking situations. Because these issues, they’re all connected. The world has been divided into producers of materials, usually pushed to be mono-producers, exchanging with manufacturers. And this unequal exchange creates massive poverty problems in countries that were former colonies, and in places affected by something like NAFTA, when these farmers are displaced because their communal land became privatized. The only way they could survive was in coming to the U.S., but the U.S. was inhospitable to them. These issues are symptoms of the transformations that have taken place worldwide.”
After this context from Chagoya, Professor Altieri reiterated the current gravity, in no uncertain terms:
“Twelve percent of the growing population has produced 50% of the greenhouse gases that have caused the 1.2-degrees celsius elevation of temperature over the last 100 years. The countries that are suffering climate change—farmers in Mexico, South America, Asia, Africa—they are the most vulnerable and have only contributed about .25% of greenhouse gases. We have around 21 million ecological refugees in the world at this point. And that number is expected to go up to 1 billion if we don’t control the situation, which isn’t looking promising. And I want to give you an idea of what these numbers mean: 1.5 degrees celsius means that on average, in the world, we’ll have two months of drought and 41% more wildfires. The yield of industrial agriculture will decline by about 40%. If we go to 2 degrees celsius it will mean four months of drought on average in the world, 52% more wildfires and a further decline in crop yields. If we go to 3 degrees, we’re looking at 10 months of drought on average and 97% more wildfires, no crop production and a great deal of hunger. These environmental crises displace people, fleeing for their lives.”
Professor Nicholls impressed Altieri’s point, speaking specifically to the jarring imbalance in greenhouse gas-emission perpetrators, saying, “Often agriculture is cited as the activity causing the most issues, but what they don’t say is what type of agriculture. Corporate farms are responsible for these emissions. But the small-farm agriculture that produces 50% of the food that we eat, they actually cool the planet. They are not responsible for greenhouse emissions.”
Barker, in response to this, cited a 2015 report from the Pentagon which acknowledged the grave nature of the mounting climate crisis. “Global climate change will aggravate problems such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, and ineffectual leadership,” it stated.
The message becoming more and more apparent with each passing year is that corporations, governments—macro-scale players—impact the planet most and remediate the least. A poignant final question from the audience drove home the deep sense of uncertainty felt by all. “So,” an audience member asked, “What can we do? We’re here, we’re listening, but what can we do?”
The answer given by the panel is one I’ve repeatedly championed in my last few articles—work within your community. We face significant hardship, and endeavoring to reach too large of a scale diffuses and exhausts our efforts. When we scale down and work within our community we see real change, in our lives and the lives of those around us. In addition, we can continue to ask for more from our local and state government officials. This sort of action is far from fruitless, and may perhaps be the only thing we can do.
SVMA recognizes the need for community collaboration and takes their role as a community museum deeply to heart. “Providing programs that are relevant to our region is one way of building community around art, which is SVMA’s mission,” Barker said in a follow-up conversation.
Look for more events like these at SVMA and beyond. Join your community, in conversation and in action.