cito gonzales dragons

The Cadence of ‘Cultural Cannibalism’

At the Coachella Valley Art Center starting April 8, six desert artists explore ideas of cultural absorption, depletion, appropriation, and transcendence.

Susan Myrland Arts & Entertainment, Current Digital

cito gonzales dragons

Cito Gonzales began creating dragons from tree limbs, animal bones, teeth, seeds, minerals, feathers, acorns, and shells, contributing his voice through paint.

Cannibalism. The word alone provokes a physical reaction. The body tenses; nose and eyebrows coil into a barricade. “Cultural appropriation” can elicit a similar response. Combine them into a title for an art show, Cultural Cannibalism, and watch a stew of emotions bubble up.

Six artists examine what’s behind these emotions in a group exhibition opening April 8 at the Coachella Valley Art Center (CVAC) in Indio. Around this time last year, the artist Flávia Lima do Rêgo Monteiro was visiting the gallery. The sound of bossa nova was in the air, coming from Executive Director Bill Schinsky’s playlist. Monteiro, who was born in Rio de Janeiro, told Schinsky how the musical style arose from the Manifesto Antropófago, or “Cannibalist Manifesto,” written a century ago by Brazilian poet and polemicist Oswald de Andrade. The essay was inspired by a painting created by his wife, the artist Tarsila do Amaral. The title of the painting, Abaporu, came from the indigenous Tupi language and translates to “the man that eats people.” 

Flavia Monteiro, Como Você 4

Schinsky and Monteiro realized that “cultural cannibalism” could be the foundation for an art show. The concept also resonated with Cito Gonzales, Adriana Lopez-Ospina, Kim Manfredi, Joyce Rooks, and Hector Salas. Each artist brought life experiences of absorbing or being absorbed, the turbulence of gaining strength or feeling depleted, reclaiming power or watching it being stripped away. 

It resonated with me, a beneficiary of what author Louise Erdrich called “the anonymity of whiteness,” and byproduct of my ancestors’ colonialism. Schinsky recruited me to co-curate. 

CVAC is an experimental art space abutting Indio’s historic downtown. Revitalization plans slowed during the pandemic, putting the neighborhood in limbo, but CVAC remains energetic.

Kim Manfredi, Made Out of the Ordinary

Built in 1949 and once the home of the Indio Daily Post, the sprawling building houses a gallery, multiple art studios, metalworking shop, ceramics kiln, and glassblowing area.

If a museum's pristine white cube represents the final artistic product winnowed through the mill of the art market, CVAC is the humus where creative seeds germinate. Visitors to Cultural Cannibalism will find installations from each of the participating artists, beginning with Manfredi’s exploration of her identity, Made Out of the Ordinary. A series of colorful collages appose treasured relics from her life, shrouded in scraps of fabric recalling her Italian ancestors’ attempt to hide their ethnicity. Their conscious drive to assimilate is what gave Manfredi her privileged position, the outcome of the “all-American melting pot,” and the freedom to construct herself by seeking other cultural, spiritual, and artistic paths. She anchors herself in the contemporary art vein of Robert Rauschenberg and Kurt Schwitters, using found objects and castoff materials as a way to make sense of the world.

Flavia Monteiro, Como Você 2

Monteiro’s works are simultaneously sculpture and painting, organic and artificial, human and animal. She describes it as “using the process of painting but completely broken out of order and out of place, a puzzle that I’m not putting together in the traditional way.”

It starts with applying a layer of acrylic paint to plastic, peeling off the paint once it has dried, and continuing to paint on paint. Chemical interactions cause earlier layers to respond in unusual ways, almost coming alive under her brush. The malleable result hangs from ceilings or drapes over a branch like beautiful snakeskin. Monteiro meditates on skin as organ, barrier, container, frame, and signifier. The title of her series, Como Você (“I am like you / I eat you”), speaks to our primal desire to connect deeply with others, devouring their essence until boundaries seem to vanish. 

“We are all dragons,” Cito Gonzales says.
Gonzales is a Chicano artist who lived off-grid for 26 years at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, where he learned to shape cowhide from a Lakota woman who made drums. Her worldview meshed with his belief that we are interconnected but out of balance.
Imbued with his mother’s skill at mosaic and drawing on the Mesoamerican guardian deity Quetzalcoatl — itself a product of thousands of years of cultural remixing — Gonzales began creating dragons from tree limbs, animal bones, teeth, seeds, minerals, feathers, acorns, and shells, contributing his voice through paint. The cumulative effect mirrors the impact we can have on the environment through individual actions. We have the power to protect or destroy the world around us. “We are all dragons,” Gonzales says.
Adriana Lopez-Ospina, Discounted and Disconnected
Lopez-Ospina dives into her Colombian-American heritage with an artwork unlike anything she’s done before. Her anger and sadness at seeing indigenous Colombian Wayuu handcrafts exploited by the fashion and tourism industries inspired her to create a room-sized sculpture of cloud-like wool batting, painstakingly dyed and painted in a way that honors the intensive labor of Wayuu weavers, and fed through a steel wringer. Lopez-Ospina explains: “We’ve been conditioned to believe that small choices as a consumer are innocent. The reality is instances like this build up to eradication of whole livelihoods. What is left is a commercialized whisper of their memory that eventually fades when the trend no longer serves its profitable purpose.” Discounted and Disconnected confronts our role at a moment when we’re acutely aware of global markets. Whether shopping online or planning a long-delayed trip, what actions can we take to be responsible consumers?
Joyce Rooks, Jim Crow A-Go-Go
Visitors may be unsettled by Jim Crow A-Go-Go, Rooks’ installation. As a young girl, her family had an Aunt Jemima cookie jar and went to Sambo’s Restaurant. In her early 20s, Rooks began collecting Jim Crow memorabilia and other depictions of African-Americans. At one point she had as many as 500 items, ranging from flattering to revolting.
She’ll fill a dark, windowless section of the gallery with these objects — cookbooks, swizzle sticks, sheet music, advertisements, cigar boxes, knickknacks, and textiles — using them as hatch marks in the complex landscape of cultural appreciation, satire, and appropriation. Even the most offensive images were once considered acceptable for mass production. What contemporary representations are equivalent? Who owns the right to portray culture with humor? When does caricature pave the way for racism?
Hector Salas, Entre (in-between)

Salas was born and raised in Indio. After serving in the Marine Corps, he went into acting, finding himself initially cast as a soldier, then a Mexican cartel member and terrorist. Using his veteran benefits, he attended the California Institute of the Arts, graduating in 2020. He designed a wonderfully absurdist performance, Passive Income, to address the cannibalism underpinning the pampered, counterfeit landscapes marking the Coachella Valley. Unfortunately, Hector cannot participate at this time as he’s healing from a cancer diagnosis. An alternate piece he created, Entre (“in between”), holds a place for him, just as we are holding a place in our hearts for his successful treatment and full recovery.

Each artwork arose from a different personal story, yet linkages reinforce our common humanity. We are singular and collective; members of a tribe and the segregated “other.” If we are not part of the dominant culture, we fear being subsumed. At the same time, we slurp up novelty in the form of food, music, clothing, and ideas. Between the poles of appreciation and appropriation lie nuance and ambiguity. Cultural Cannibalism asks that we investigate this territory in order to engage in deeper conversations about power dynamics, systemic racism, and how we can learn to be better. 

Cultural Cannibalism
Opening reception: April 8, 5-8 p.m.
Artist talk: Thursday, May 5, 6-7:15 p.m.
Exhibition closes:  May 28, 2022, 5 p.m.
Gallery hours: Monday - Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. or by appointment

Access: Free admission and parking