by Leo Bernal
The most valuable lesson learned in this course was the value of empowerment through art and activism. I wanted to focus on contemporary art such as graffiti and tagging. As I conducted my research, I came across Votan Henriquez. Henriquez is a Mayan and Nahua, Los Angeles based artist who expresses his voice primarily on city streets in the form of murals. His work is validated by his studies of street art and graffiti culture. He uses his Native perspective and combines it with a mainstream U.S. perspective to create art pieces that are compelling and empowering.
Henriquez work includes murals, street art, clothing designs as well as accessories such as phone cases. I was personally intrigued by Henriquez work because it definitely reflects two aspects of Native Activism that I consider very important, passion and devotion for his community. Henriquez describes his work on his Facebook page as follows: “L.A. is full of art, crime, justice, abuse and many other things like any other city, but this is where we live, so make it a beautiful place!” (Votan.) His goal is to provide images of people who look like him and his community so that other Indigenous peoples can relate to his work. During an interview he said, “I want to represent that strength, in what we create and what we design.” (Votan.) This is very empowering as he validates a culture that is often ignored. Another aspect of this work that is very astonishing is the fact that he believes in education through art, “We really have lost a lot of that through our history books. We need to educate our kids through our art” (Zeigler.)
His work is extremely valuable because he mixes politically minded murals and street art to provide strength to a community that has been silenced and oppressed for so many years. His work is positively impacting the lives of many individuals who come across his work. He recently completed a massive mural at the Minneapolis American Center Indian Center. He says that as he was finishing up this massive mural, a woman from the center approached him and said, “We need this. This is going to empower our community,” he recalled. “Then I understood the reason we did that mural and sacrificed so much. It wasn’t until you had to go through it that you really understood the bigger picture”(Zeigler.) His testimony and own experience has contributed to the success of his art. I think Henriquez’s work absolutely exemplifies what it means to be a Native activist because his work allows him to be in tune with his heritage and family history through art.
Native contemporary activism is rooted on the Alcatraz occupation and what it caused. This movement reshaped the lives of many individuals who were impacted by this event. At the same time, the events of Alcatraz transcended beyond belief, as it created a national movement, National Indian Activist Movement. Since then, this movement has attracted attention on a national and global level (Johnson, 128.) This is important to me because this movement places emphasis on Indian rights, which ultimately is the goal of Native activism, protect and validate human rights. It is important to mention that the roots of American Indian activism come from centuries of mistreatment of Native people, such as the relocation program of the 1950s (Johnson, 130.) Artists, such as Votan Henriquez, base their work on events
such as the Alcatraz occupation to document the past and shine light on issues that affect entire communities, such as the Indigenous community in the United States.
I chose to focus on Native activism because it has allowed and will continue to allow people to voice their opinions. It enables people to document and tell their own stories. Most importantly, Native activism humanizes Indigenous people, which is something that Indigenous people have been striving for since colonial times. “It’s important for us to have our [own] narrative, to [define] exactly who we are as indigenous people” (Henriquez.) Activism is also very important to me, especially as a college student because college students have the ability to be change agents and impact the lives of many people in our communities. College students have done a lot in regards to activism and mobilization of ethnic groups. Native American studies are a possibility today due to the efforts of young college students who strongly believed that Native history written and taught by non-Native instructors was not longer acceptable. These students were awakened to the possibility of a social movement that would bring attention to the terrible treatment of Native people in the United States.
The biggest thing I learned while completing this project was that activism is necessary in order to make sure any oppressed group is respected and treated with justice, in this case activism is necessary in order to ensure and protect Native rights and the status of sovereign nations. The most important thing about activism is that it could be in the form of music, art, and peaceful protests.
Johnson, T. R. (1996, June). Roots of contemporary Native American activism. American Indian Culture & Research Journal. p. 127-154.
Votan | Facebook. (n.d.). Retrieved November 28, 2016, from https://www.facebook.com/Votan.art/
Zeigler, Steve. (2016, November 22). Native American Street Artist Honors the ‘Strength’ of Legendary Indigenous Leaders. Retrieved November 28, 2016, from https://www.linktv.org/shows/artbound/votan-henriquez-native-american-artist-nsrgnts