The following letter was submitted to Neta by local residents and artists Celeste De Luna & Nansi Guevara:
Dear Brownsville Museum of Fine Arts,
While we acknowledge the work that artist Mark Clark does within the community to create space to promote the arts in the Rio Grande Valley region, we will not be attending his current exhibit Mexica: Paintings by Mark Clark.
We value artistic and the freedom of expression, but are not in favor of cultural appropriation.
(For all the folks that are not familiar with the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, it is predominantly made up of Latinx/Mexican immigrants and mixed status families. Mark Clark is a white male artist whose main body of work is composed of colorful reproductions of the Aztec codices.)
We get that his time on the border might have inspired him (as well as other outsiders) to take on that subject matter and imagery. But Mr. Clark is a tourist in our struggle and in our long attacked art tradition. The imagery that he has chosen to appropriate, is part of a long indigenous tradition, the Aztec codices have a deep and sacred significance to its descendants that no cultural outsider can understand. These codices depict Aztec cultural and spiritual life, prophecies and visions, journeys and astrological knowledge. Colonization has kept trying to erase these images and stories for the past 500 years. And, this rich indigenous history is not taught in our local public schools or cultural institutions and is intentionally kept from us.
As our cultural history continues to be ripped out of our curriculums, Clark presenting this artwork as his own sends a dangerous message to our community that this imagery and tradition comes from the dominant culture. We live in a racist society and country, where colonizing forces have been historically prized and recognized for ripping and taking ownership of the knowledge and excellence of indigenous and people of color. Indeed, local college art departments discourage students from working in a style that is considered “too cultural.” Centering a white artist appropriating Aztec imagery while discouraging local brown students from using culture as content is surely a symptom of racist systems.
It is okay to appreciate native and indigenous art as a non-native person. It becomes deeply problematic and dangerous when someone who is not native starts painting native imagery and claims it as his or her own.
We will not gaze over appropriated renditions of our ancestors’ art and community. This is harmful to the community, this art is harmful to the community. It perpetuates the racist idea that white people dominate in excellence, instead of our own communities where that work comes from.
We envision a city, especially in this critical time, that will evolve into a place that celebrates the ingenuity of this place and work to support and cultivate young local artists.
Finally, Brownsville Museum of Fine Arts, cultural and arts institutions should hold themselves up to high critical standards. That includes the question of cultural appropriation. Traditionally our border community has been taught that we can only better ourselves through unquestioningly accepting the views of the dominant culture. This includes stories about ourselves and cultural heritage.
Mark Clark has every right as an artist to depict whatever images he chooses regardless of whether or not it is blatant cultural appropriation, but the community doesn’t have to passively and uncritically accept them. Cultural appropriation in the borderlands during Trump Nation cannot pass without comment.
“As I pull out to take notes on the clay, stone, jade, bone, feather, straw, and cloth artifacts, I am disconcerted with the knowledge that I, too, am passively consuming and appropriating an indigenous culture. I walked in with a group of Chicano kids from Servicio Chicano Center, and now we are being taught secondhand our cultural roots twice removed by whites. The essence of colonization: rip off a culture, then regurgitate it’s white version to the ‘natives.'”
-Gloria Anzaldúa, “Light in the Dark/Luz En Lo Oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality”
Celeste De Luna & Nansi Guevara