"Everything is Politics"
By Shibani Dagalur
In the words of renowned artist, Ai Weiwei: “Everything is art, everything is politics”. Many contemporary artists have turned towards this mantra to create thematic works boasting a message beyond the piece itself.
In recent months, artist Diego Marcial Rios intended to do just this with his exhibition at San Mateo City Hall, California in mid-July. Rios is well-known for his political art, presenting pieces that boldly challenge social and economic policy, as well as promote social justice. Through an adoption of surrealism and Mexican-American contemporary artistic styles, Rios has championed his moral beliefs via mediums like wood, canvas, and even paper mache. While many in the field shy away from difficult themes– Rios embraces them, embedding them into his art and continuing to fight the issues beyond the studio as well.
However, after his intended six-week exhibition was up for just two days, the installations were removed by the curators.
The center informed Rios that some of his works centered on police brutality, specifically the ones titled “Stop Killing Us!” and “Will Kill Blacks and Mexicans Cheap” were noted to be of concern. It has been presumed that complaints from local police officers drove the decision. Rios was frustrated with the backlash and many have dubbed the exhibition’s removal an act of censorship.
Should a political artist like Rios have the right to freely express their social commentary even at the cost of the comfort of some individuals? The ACLU and National Coalition Against Censorship say yes. In their letter to the mayor of San Mateo, they claimed that “Access to the arts — including works that spark debate — is crucial to a vibrant and democratic society” and thus sided with Rios. The organization continued on to advocate for more protections to artist’s perspectives and their engagement with political material in the rest of the letter, “urg[ing] the city to restore its Public Art Exhibit Program and prevent such cancellations in the future”. However, the city of San Mateo now intends to refine its selection process for the program to create a more “welcoming” and “inclusive” workplace environment.
While debates about what constitutes appropriate artwork still loom, artists like Diego Rios continue to breach the boundaries of the societal role of “artist” and mobilize their talents to foster social justice. Siloing artists from socio-political spheres with an expectation that good or respectable art should always be “comfortable” destroys the purpose of art: to share a story worth hearing.
To hear more about Diego Rios’ story, tune into Shibani’s interview with him .