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.)

Mark Clark

Art by Mark Clark | Photo from Galeria 409 Facebook page

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.

Art by Mark Clark depicting a woman in a bikini as border patrol agents on the Rio Grande watch attentively and migrants cross the border behind them | Photo from Galeria 409 Facebook page

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”

Sincerely,

Celeste De Luna & Nansi Guevara

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  • Nathaniel Jack

    Dense with complexity, the problem of appropriation (or the adaptation of cultural legacy foreign to your bloodline) is a “wicked problem”. This article and some recent sentiment in the SW US seems derived from a decolonist and separatist perspective first and foremost.

    Consider that appropriation, as in all art, is a form of mimicry/copying and is said to be “the ultimate compliment” to an artists style of work. Furthermore, if the purpose of ancestral codex, glyphs and iconography/symbology was to communicate over generations and epochs to come, is it not a sign of success for culturally diverse artists to desire to interpret and share these images and thus messages, after millennia?

    I have great distaste for obvious duplication of styles myself and realize that not all interpretations of language and culture are accurate and appropriate. I am, however, also aware of the difficulties within native community to interest the youth in this knowledge and from outside perspective, seems counterintuitive and ultimately counterproductive.

    Meanwhile, recent appropriation arguments appear as veiled, racism to this English/German/Aniyunwiya/American/Phoenician artist with Quetzalcoatl visions in my minds-eye.

    Perhaps a call for more Tribal approved education of native ways?

    Please Creator, help us all to align ourselves in humanity first and not divide ourselves by our differences. Aho.

  • I’m glad that Celeste De Luna and Nansi Guevara make this clarification in their letter:

    “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.”

    Stating this is important because an accusation of cultural appropriation should not be interpreted as a call for censorship. In my view cultural appropriation has to do with context, not the artist’s ethnic background. The key question should be: is the work intellectually, asthetically, culturally and politically penetrating/relevant, or merely decorational? If it’s decorational it may be cultural appropriation, otherwise it’s a true and authentic artistic expression.

  • Mark clark

    Thank you for your kind and thoughtful introspection on this sensitive topic, Mr. Jack. Happily, my mexica paintings have been enthusiastically received by indigenous and mestizo audiences in Mexico City, Guanajuato and Tamaulipas. I also showed at the consulado de Mexico in Brownsville. I hope I can inspire indigenous youth to pick up their brushes and promote the original cultures of both hemispheres.

    • Saul Ramos

      The inner-city I live in is inundated with violence, and brown on brown crime. We are affectionately referred to as Albuquerque’s War Zone. if only more people like you cared enough about our community to teach art and embrace the positive aspects of our cultural traditions, kids in neighborhoods like mine would aspire to be Diego Rivera and not King Thug. Please understand there has been no election for Chicano spokesman and ideal victim, and take all accusations of cultural appropriation with a grain of salt from individuals and not La Raza. Cesar Chavez put it best “El orgullo verdadero en esta vida viene de hacer, no de ser.” ¡Sr.Clark sigue haciendo!

  • Pamela Enriquez

    “Happily, my mexica paintings have been enthusiastically received by indigenous and mestizo audiences in Mexico City, Guanajuato and Tamaulipas.”
    In regards to this statement, if you’ve ever watched Mexican variety shows and seen the voluptuous scantily clad women shaking sus chi-chi’s y nalgas, well yeah, I imagine this type of work would be very well received in a land where sexism is prominent and largely unrecognized by the masses. But hey, hustle yo’ ass. Paint what you paint because it makes you some money. White folks gotta make a livin’ too and there’s a shitload of your kind everywhere. Nothin’ new here. Los Gringos been doing this ever since they first hit brown ground. And the one thing I’ve learned from these people is that they will never, ever “get it.”

    • rene van haaften

      It pains me to read how Mark Clark is being grilled in such unpleasant terms.
      I realize that there are some unfinished issues that require attention, but I think you are going after the wrong person.
      If there is one artist in Brownsville’s art community, that is supportive of local RGV talent, it’s Mark. Check out his Gallery.
      You may or not like his work, but personally I think that cultural appropriation does not apply, I would go with cultural appreciation.

    • Cyn tinez

      ✌🏽✌🏽✌🏽✌🏽✌🏽❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️
      His reply just ignored the whole issue. It’s THE most used response. “Well Jose and maria liked it so I’m good, right? Wrong.

  • MaryAnn

    I Actually agree with the article….the current president has publicly promoted hate and myths about Latinos and other minorities for the last two years, so much so that society has been greatly influenced and encouraged to act on this hate. It’s “too soon” for a Latina like me who has lived on the border all her life to not be offended…so when I see this painting my first thoughts are that it is degrading and furthering stereotypes

    And yes art is political

  • Rob Christensen

    Just a question: if Mr. Clark using Aztec design as inspiration for his work is cultural appropriation, does that mean that any Latinx artist using Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Monet etc as inspiration for their work would be cultural appropriation? I recognize that the painters I mention are part of the dominant paradigm in not only art but history, etc, but I hope my point is clear; almost all artist “steal” from other artists and designs.

    • Domy Segovia

      Solid point to make. These days it seems many people think we all need to stay within the borders of our racial identities and god forbid we intermingle. I’m so tired of the appropriation card constantly being dragged out. Every culture has, does and will continue to appropriate things from one another. It’s how the human race has developed as a species. Sure there are some instances where the conversation does need to be had, but it’s way too often. It’s not always so simple and racist as “the white folks steal everything”

  • Alix Flores

    His work is at best derivative and uninspired and at worst a complete co-opting of Mexican culture. I am glad that someone finally pointed this out in a public forum. It’s a shame that, not even in Brownsville, Texas where more than 80% of the population is of Mexican descent , can Mexican-American artists have more of a voice in the art scene. Mark Clark and Rene Van Haaften are well meaning, but they do not represent the majority of the population in this town and region.

  • Javier G

    I rather support artists that support other artists (Mark Clark) then artists who criticize other artists within the same artistic community.

  • Linda Forse

    The Aztecs were the forerunners of cultural appropriation. I think it divine that a gabacho, especially one as talented as Mark Clark, appropriate theirs. And I know for a fact that his knowledge of Aztec culture far exceeds the average Jose who whimsically changed his name to Nezahualcoyotl.

  • Don’t Mess with Our Moon Goddess

    Our people do not go into the river with a tube. Naked or clothed they challenge and defy death as most of them don’t know how to swim. The chocolate cutie on a tube is a slap, a morbid taunting smirk cast upon a life and death encounter with surviving a behemoth whose terror reaches far into the south. Such an image is a Gringo Spring break that leaves our community disgusted. Mr. Clark is as abusive of his talent as much as the Euro- illegals on our home land were and are abusive of their having weapons developed over centuries of European and now world wars. Everything in the Americas is stolen from the natives by the way of intended and directed genocide by Europeans: British, Spanish, French… As a migrant worker I was forced to pick the crops on land stolen by invaders in the magic valley of south Texas and beyond. A people left hungry and naked will wear and eat whatever is around or left over in order to survive. Thus do we speak two languages foreign to our kind and even boast some success with English and Spanish. The stockholm syndrome is evident: love your captors in order to survive. There is no difference between a person able to reproduce our most important and superlative creations to sell them on one canvas or to mass produce them as Maya items of clothing that would dazzle anyone, while the true Mayas labor at a hand loom to produce their wonder. Our moon Goddess, Coyolxauhqui , (she who did her make up in the ancient ways) does belong to the universe, as a sacred expression of and for the community that has bled her into existence, not for one, that mesmerized by its splendor, can see a way to monetize her and sell it to the ones that produced her, as we the migrants, labored to gather some money and still were unable to buy — the very crops we picked. Is this racist? Some of my best friends are Gringos. Together we walk, sharing, exchanging, supporting — nobody is stealing. — Nephtali De Leon, Chicano Poet / Painter / Author

  • Rushncap

    Ok. If you don’t like his art, don’t go see it. That’s your prerogative. Somehow I think that if your chief complaint about the art is the skin color of the artist, you weren’t exactly breaking down the doors of the art museums in the area to begin with.

  • John Bedwell

    The fact that someone speaks out against art makes me think they’re willing to silence other’s for their beliefs. If Celeate de Luna and Nansi Guevara are so worried about cultural appropriation, perhaps they shouldn’t​ be writing this in English, as it appropriates the speech of my native people.

  • Vanessa G.R

    “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.”

    You know that you are speaking of Mark Clark in this sentence right? He more than anyone in this city allows young artists to showcase their artwork in his galleria. (ANY artwork). I believe this article should have ended on the first paragraph where the local residents and artists state that they ‘will not be attending.’ There are enough people who support Mark Clark and everything he has done and continues to do for our community, who will be attending.
    We as a community need to be more grateful of the few people who care enough to give young artists chances to be seen and heard because anyone living in the RGV knows how extremely slim those chances are.

  • A friend of Brownsville

    Get over it. There is so much lack of our cultural education that 3rd had removed from a white man is better than nothing. Don’t discourage BMFA from showcasing talent support your community. We don’t need anymore “I don’t have it so let’s bring them down” culture in the RGV.

  • Linda Forse

    Does nobody get the the humor/mockery/satire in the woman floating in a tube while ICE leers…and people are sneaking past to climb The Wall??? Perhaps you can’t see past the obvious. And that is sexist and racist in itself.

    • Maria VonHerbert

      I do not get the humor, mockery, and satire of the painting. Would you be kind enough to explain it? Without that, I am also unable to understand the reasons for why my not getting these makes me sexist and racist.

      Questions are not claims and claims need to be backed up. Please help me understand your interpretation so that I can enjoy the painting as well.

      • LINDA FORSE

        Maria – OK…I hope this helps. It is a slam to “La Migra” that they are being voyeurs (a person who gains sexual pleasure from watching others when they are naked) while watching a woman in an inner tube (obviously a decoy) while people (no nationality in particular) are crossing the border and climbing the wall. If all you can see are the woman’s physical attributes (a quality or feature regarded as a characteristic or inherent part of someone or something), then you have missed the point and can’t see past the sexuality of a subject. The woman in this picture has the last laugh!

  • Cristóbal Gabriel

    I haven’t read such a narrow-minded “(open) letter” for a long time; it is ridiculous and cannot be taken seriously. Judging from the applied wording, it seems that the authors are mucho más “gring@” que el artista Mark Clark himself. By the way, ¿qué tiene que ver la presidencia de Trump con el arte de Mark? And, just for your information, also latin@s can – “by accident” (?) – come out “white”. Y por último, pero no menos importante: art doesn’t need any excuses!

  • Julio Cesar

    Celeste and Nansi,

    Thank you for this letter and for shedding light on such an important issue in the valley. Mexicans/Chicanx will be the first ones to defend whiteness and cultural appropriation because colonialism and imperialism have taught us that we should. There is so much work to be done in decolonizing our people. Your voices matter, and together, we will reclaim what is rightfully ours.

  • Debbie Nathan

    Some context: writing from 2015 by one of the authors: https://xicanachronicles.com/sleeping-with-the-enemy-part-i/#comments