At Galería de la Raza, Artists Fight to Protect Water and Human Rights
March 10, 2017
It’s rarely a good thing when water is in the news. Attention is most often paid to water when it is polluted, depleted or threatened.
On Feb. 16, water was in the news when President Trump signed a bill reversing the Obama-era Stream Protection Rule, a regulation created to protect waterways from coal mining waste. A week later, on Feb. 23, a militarized operation of National Guard members and police officers forcibly removed Lakota demonstrators and allies protesting the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
Échame Aguas, an exhibition opening March 11 at Galería de la Raza in San Francisco, seeks to break the reactive news cycle with works that advocate a proactive relationship to water. The over two dozen artists included in the exhibition share a conviction that water is inseparable from social justice, decolonialism and economic equality. Through printmaking, photography, murals and video works, Échame Aguas makes a case for what realistically shouldn’t need to be argued: that water is a source of life.
Below, get to know five artists representing the diversity of practices and concerns represented in the exhibition.
Oakland-based printmaker Jesus Barraza’s distinctive posters and prints are likely familiar to those who have spent time in Bay Area political spaces. Focused on racial justice, Indigenous rights and the Zapatismo philosophy, Barraza’s work has featured prominently in DAPL resistance efforts.
Barraza’s Solidarity with Standing Rock shows a confident young woman with her first raised just out of the poster frame. Behind her are scenes from the protests at Standing Rock Camp in eye-catching red and turquoise. Text at the bottom reads, simply: “Defend the land. Protect the water.”
While environmental science, predictive models, infrastructure, economics, water rights, treaties, human rights and individual values all rightfully complicate water politics, Barraza’s work points to the issue’s underlying simplicity, too easily forgotten.
His print Tlaloc reads “agua es vida defiende tu vida / water is life defend your life.” The advice is simple and undeniable. Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain, commands half of the print, alluding to the fact that Indigenous people around the world often face the greatest threats to their access to clean water.
Madison Hye Long
Échame Aguas is the very first exhibition for Madison Hye Long, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and recent San Francisco transplant from Cherokee, North Carolina. The show includes work from her series A Situation That Is Black & White, black-and-white editorial-style photographs addressing the Dakota Access pipeline.
Long’s approach is unique among anti-DAPL photography, much of which features landscape images of Sacred Stone Camp or portraits of protesters. Unable to join the fight in North Dakota, Long instead staged what she calls “very emotional, staged photographs that people can relate to.”
In one photograph, a barefoot model in a long dress holds an umbrella over her head as black liquid drips into puddles on the floor. The model appears forlorn and subdued. She is not at a protest, but exists in a world in which the threat of polluted water is taken to the extreme.
Photographer Delilah Montoya has spent much of her life in the southwestern United States, a setting that deeply informs her investigations of everything from Chicana identity to desert landscapes.
In 2004, Montoya collaborated with artist and writer Orlando Lara on Sed: The Trail of Thirst, an installation of photographs, videos and found objects documenting signs of immigration around the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona. This popular yet dangerous area for Mexicans and Central Americans crossing the Arizona-Sonora border claims the lives of more than 100 migrants a year. Desert temperatures can approach 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer.
Montoya’s photographs show water stations or jugs of water provided by humanitarian organizations and individuals to help prevent dehydration and death. Her landscapes — arid deserts covered with brittle sagebrush, saguaro cactus and purple mountain peaks — are mostly devoid of people. The peacefulness is interrupted by bottles of water strategically placed in bushes or by giant blue barrels marked “agua.”
The images simultaneously call attention to the work being done to save migrants’ lives, and to the tragedy that necessitates that work. Not unsurprisingly, the Sed installation has toured North America continuously for 13 years.
Printmaker Thea Gahr traces her beliefs about the environment, social justice and art making to her upbringing on a family farm in Oregon. Her family grew wheat, amaranth and vetch for many years before depleted soil and a change of heart led her father to convert their cropland back into wetlands.
Gahr watched diverse plant and animal life make its way back onto the land. “Witnessing these first steps in restoring life to the land completely integrated itself into my artwork,” says Gahr. “I like to think about bringing the water of emotions into the landscapes of our mental outlook.”
Gahr, like Barraza and several other artists in Échame Aguas, is a member of Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative, a network of printmakers living in the U.S., Mexico and Canada dedicated to making politically and environmentally engaged art. As Gahr explains it, printmaking puts “visuals to the hopes, fears and atrocities of lived experience.”
Like the artists behind early 20th-century social realism, Gahr focuses largely on the human condition, depicting subjects as they toil, mourn or defy. But her subjects don’t just work in the fields and the factories — they walk through rain puddles, paddle boats on a lake or stand surrounded by foliage. In Gahr’s work, a near-constant intertwining of humans with nature articulates their inseparability.
Oakland-based Tomahawk GreyEyes doesn’t pull any punches. The multidisciplinary Diné (Navajo) artist uses printmaking, video and installations to addresses colonial trauma and Indigenous peoples’ resistance to oppression.
Like the Standing Rock Sioux, members of the Navajo Nation protested in 2016 for access to clean, potable water. More than one-third of Navajo Nation residents lack access to water in their homes, relying instead on melted snow, trucked-in water and arsenic-contaminated groundwater.
In his print Tó éí ííńá (“water is life” in Navajo), GreyEyes depicts a protest over Navajo water rights: A woman stands with her back to the viewer with a red handprint on her back. Something like blood runs down her skirt. This is a protest over water and blood, life and death.
Anti-DAPL protests have done much to bring longstanding Indigenous political issues to the attention of a society that largely ignores them. But it is critical that Standing Rock isn’t used as a substitute for more than 600 separate tribal nations across the U.S. and their own struggles.
Water is central to life, culture and justice, the artists of Échame Aguas argue, but alongside that universal truth, it is of equal importance that unique histories and political realities are not overlooked.