Some of these new murals are definitely monumental. As are some of the social ills addressed by themes such as immigration and the world refugee crisis. With a dozen international artists painting over the last two weeks, the debut show of the Monument Art Project in the New York neighborhoods of El Barrio, East Harlem and the South Bronx, some logistics have been equally immense, but finally the job is complete and people are talking about the new works they watched being painted.
Ever. Monument Art Project 2015. El Barrio, East Harlem, NYC. (photo © Jaime Rojo)
Not quite street art and not quite your local community mural, these finished opus works are more poetic than activist, more visionary than purely aesthetic; occupying a modern mid-way between those archetypes of public art we call the "New Muralism".
Following on the success of the Los Muros Hablan festival staged a couple of years ago in San Juan, Puerto Rico and New York, organizers Jose Morales and Celso González expand their international reach and bring it back home with the stalwart and vehement support of New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.
Argentina, Belgium, Los Angeles, Mexico, Puerto Rico, South Africa -- an admirable list of participants for a festival this size. What this dispersed program has that many recent commercial "Street Art" festivals have been lacking is a cognition of community, a connection- however refracted - to the people who are going to live with it. MonumentArt is aiming to engage the community with images and themes that resonate with many of the members -- perhaps sparking conversations among chance encounters.
Here El Mac channels his influences of Caravaggio and Chicano culture to collaborate with Cero on a portrait evocative of haloed church icons. This serious and thoughtful figure rising high above everyone's head is the well known Nuyorican writer Nicholasa Mohr, who has told many stories of Puerto Rican women, their travails and ascendency in the Bronx and El Barrio.
Notably Viajero's boy in a handmade boat of newspaper pages addresses the dangerous figurative and literal waters that refugees are facing today, including children. With his back turned to us and his distrustful glance over the shoulder he may be questioning our commitment to saving those poor and needy in ag country that congratulates itself for its religious roots.
While quite different stylistically, the mural reminds us of a 3D installation done by Lituanian street artist Ernest Zacharevic in Norway's Nuart Festival just last month.
The topic of immigration is hammered home by Mexican muralist Sego as well as he strips away the skin of the Statue of Liberty, as if in an attempt to see what lies beneath that oxidized copper exterior in New York harbor symbolizing "welcome". Look again and see the points of her famous crown are transmuted into a feathered headdress, similar to those of the continents original citizens. In a nation of immigrants, New York's multitude of populations typify the immigrant life and their plight intrinsically tied to our history.
The quality of work is here, as is the articulation of ideas and themes. Curated thoughtfully and selected carefully, the Monument Art collection gives back to the community it is nested within. Argentinian artist Ever appropriated local kids as inspiration along with photos taken by Martha Cooper of immigrants in the 1990s and themes related to Puerto Rican independence and the US occupation of the island of Vieques. His signature kaleidoscope visions and voices pile and wind around the head like folkloric waves of energy.
But even working directly with the community, Ever tells us that things don't go as smoothly as you might expect. He also discusses how intrinsic the topic of immigration is to his piece and to the story of New York.
The top figure on your mural is of boy. Can you tell us who he is?
This is funny. I was here doing some research and these kids were playing basketball on the courts and I saw one of them and he caught my attention and I decided to approach him. It was kind of hard for me since I'm not from here and I didn't think I'd have the right words to talk to him so I was a bit nervous.
I told him my pitch and his first reaction was, "No, I don't want you to take my picture." So it was hard for me because he was the one I wanted to paint on the wall. And he told me he didn't want to be a part of it. So I said cool. But when his friends, one by one came forward and told me that they would like to do it and got excited he then at that moment he changed his mind and told me he wanted to do it.
I was very happy but when I told him he had to pose of a photo first he said, "OK, but take only three pictures." I said to myself, "Come on, you are like Madonna." Finally he posed and I got my photo.
Then for the other kids I went to Martha Cooper's studio to do some more research on East Harlem and to find more photos related to the neighborhood. The other two figures are from photos Martha Cooper took in the '80s and '90s in El Barrio. One was taken during a Latin-American parade more than 20 years ago.
When I was on the plane coming here I had an idea of what I wanted to do. I wanted to talk about the issue of immigration in my piece. For me is insane that in the 21st Century we are still having problems with immigration. I'm a product of immigration. My parents came to Argentina from Spain. Most cities in most nations are created by immigrants. So it is crazy that there are still some people who see immigrants like the enemy. They are talking about people who live next to them, people who are their neighbors. So we must accept immigration as a reality of all nations and New York is a huge example of different cultures living together without big problems. In New York one can breath freedom. And that's the subject I wanted to approach.
We all move to different places all the time. As humans it is in our nature to be nomads. When we look up at the sky we see the birds flying around without papers, without limits. And we humans we have to be limited to a piece of paper that determines if we are allowed in or not.
These three figures on this mural represent the future of this country: The next generation. It is absurd to hear politicians when they talk about immigration and they make the immigrants their enemies. This is a beautiful country and for the most part people who come here are trying to find a better future. Furthermore I think that most people dream of someday being able to go back to their countries of origin.
I was recently in Tijuana and I noticed two individuals having a conversation but they were separated by this fence, this wall. You could see the two families on two different sides of the fence and it was something that made a big impression on me.
El Mac and Cero. Collaboration on this portrait of poet Nicholasa Mohr. The mosaic portion was done by Cero and the portrait by El Mac. Monument Art Project 2015. El Barrio, East Harlem, NYC. (photo © Jaime Rojo)
This article is also posted on Brooklyn Street Art.
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