An Interview with Erin Currier
CHRISTOPHER HASSETT: There seems to be an explicit call to action in much of your work, or at the very least the demand that one take note of some supreme injustice in the land or amongst peoples. Yet what I appreciate about your work is that, more than it being mere critique or some one-dimensional, stop-action capture, it instead offers a way forward, and in my mind that way forward is dependably the right way forward. I’m thinking of, as an example, a new work of yours titled American Women (Dismantling the Border). Can you speak more to this idea of there being a constructive framework or, rather, this inherently optimistic baseline level of production which seems not only to shape but lay a distinctive stamp across your entire arc of expression?
ERIN CURRIER: For the past decade and a half, the underlying theme of all of my work is that which I continue to find to be true wherever I have traveled, be it Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, or Europe: that our commonalities as human beings far outweigh our differences. The overwhelming majority of people I have met all over the world are kind, decent human beings whose needs and desires are simple and universal: the necessity of adequate shelter, good food, clean water, the ability to raise and provide for a family, and the opportunity to make use of one’s particular set of skills in order to contribute to their larger communities. Divisions are often either superficial or artificially created based on racial, economic, and national ideologies. Where we are similar is of a more profound metaphysical caliber: the bond between brothers, the love between mother and child, the kinships shared through creative endeavors; these run like threads in the great fabric of generations. My use of trash and discarded packaging, written in every language, gathered from every continent, further expresses our affinities in what we create, value, share, consume, and cast away.
HASSETT: Tell me about this particular group of paintings. How is the narrative here, for together they do tell a tale, meant to be read?
CURRIER: These works are from various series created through the years. However, all share in common the fact that each one is either a direct or symbolic representation of those engaged in the international struggle for social justice, be it of individuals such as Teresita Urrea, Saint Philomena, Kwame Toure, Bobby Seale, Lila Downs, or be it groups of people: Indigenous women from both sides of the US-Mexico border, Greek schoolboys, Egyptian schoolgirls, young Ukrainian feminists.
I see beauty inherent in the strength and courage that are necessary attributes of those engaged in struggle, resistance, and defiance, against the catastrophic onslaught of globalization, capitalism, fascism, and ecological devastation. I see our reality as in a state of becoming. The subjects of these paintings are a few among many people working with the skills at hand—be it planting seeds, penning words, educating, organizing—in a limiting present reality that is nonetheless a historical reality susceptible to transformation. Through reflection and action, human beings can truly transform reality.
My partner and I were witness to it in Egypt just weeks after Mubarak was ousted: the people of Cairo were directing traffic and cleaning the streets. Young people were gathering mandates in order to draft a new constitution. Egypt was directly informed by our time there, based on sketches and drawings I made of young women there. In Egypt, as well as in Greece, there was a moment, a window in which an imaginative counter-power prevailed, as in Nicaragua before it, and South Africa, Iran, Cuba, Russia, France. It is the moment worth struggling toward, a moment of humanization and solidarity.
The global economic system, in its capitalist form, purports to be an implacable, unchanging, inevitable reality. Yet, like everything else, it is subject to being overhauled, overthrown, transformed—as I’ve depicted in works such as Attica Schoolboys, The Event of Literature; and American Women (dismantling the border); should people reflect upon it critically, and then decide how to take action.
HASSETT: The Black Panthers, quite marvelously, are rather quiet figures in this story and stand in strong contrast to the Attica Schoolboys with their bricks and bottle-borne fire. Their mode, the Panthers, is not so different than the dispositions of the women in Femen! or Egypt, and not coincidentally the thesis in each of these scenes is readily on display, if not singularly persuasive. To that end, it is the very quiet within the canvas that allows each argument to be received, considered, understood, even accepted. The underlying calm floats the conversation between both viewer and the viewed, and there is the bridge. Whereas with the Greek schoolboys there is no conversation per se, no thesis in the melee, and nothing really to understand, save that institutions must fall.
The question, then, at this point in our nation’s history, is have we arrived at another Panther moment, or an Athens moment, where the line in the dirt has been drawn and the gauntlet thrown? That line, thinking back on the Black Panthers, was notably crossed when they stormed the Reagan-occupied statehouse with shotguns and rifles in an effort to dramatize their constitutional right to bear arms and, more importantly, demand their continued right to defend against what they legitimately saw as racist and openly hostile state and national regimes. This was a demonstration, a protest, not an assault.
But it brings up that third mode which is rarely successfully addressed in paintings: one such mode you represent in this beautiful work of the Black Panthers, which itself is in the complimentary mode of all the women in this same series; then there is that mid-tempo mode of the Panthers at the state capital engaging in the national conversation with a bit more symbolic firepower; and there is finally the Attica mode, alluding to your title, where firepower is now fully engaged and becomes wholly literal, where conversations cease and war becomes the new tongue.
CURRIER: I truly believe that for every tactic employed by those seeking to oppress and subjugate others, for every shackle and chain utilized, there are a thousand ways to unlock, untangle, and break through, those chains. This is why a counter-power rooted in imagination is crucial. There is no one way to attain liberation: each method must be appropriate to the situation at hand, utilizing the information and tools available at the time.
For example, in 17th Century England, “sowing the ground with parsnips, carrots, and beans” was considered an act of treason: it was the signature action of the Diggers, gardeners who had been impoverished by England’s sudden and arbitrary process of enclosing and privatizing the Commons. The humble act was the Diggers’ means by which to alleviate hunger and free themselves from servitude and slavery. They felt that “this freedom in the common earth is the poor’s right by law of creation and Equity of the Scriptures, for the Earth was not made for a few, but for whole mankind”.
Guerilla gardening is an effective act of resistance to this day. The Black Panthers occupying the statehouse was another effective method, though admittedly different. Factory workers occupying and running defunct maquilladoras in Argentina is a third example. Immolating oneself, the only recourse for Tunisian fruit vendor Mohammed Bouazizi, is yet another example–of which there are countless (and upon which so many of my own works are inspired).
Most recently, the nonviolent methods of the Water Protectors at the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota—chaining themselves to bulldozers, linking arms, crawling inside pipes–has had unprecedented reverberations throughout the world. Even if the literal battle is lost and the pipeline is built, the resistance nonetheless is already successful, as it has succeeded in galvanizing Native Americans across hundreds of tribes, as well as peoples all over the US and the world. The struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline has unified peoples across geographic, ethnic, racial, class boundaries in a wholly organic and infectious way. Already it has sparked direct actions in defense of the natural world internationally. What is most crucial, in whatever way forward one chooses to take, is respect for one another and dignity for all.
HASSETT: You annually travel the world for inspiration and, indeed, the great body of your work is expressed through a judicious and wholly empathic global lens. In looking back on your numerous exhibitions, however, I don’t recall a single show where the characters on display were exclusively of one land — an entire exhibition, for instance, whose sole focus was on, say, Egypt or Nepal or a particular country in South America.
Your mentioning of the Dakota Access Pipeline, however, has me thinking that a show singularly about the goings-on here in US might be timely, given that Standing Rock might very well be the first front among many in an ongoing campaign against the incoming Trump administration. Rather than continuing your journeys abroad, would you consider spending a year or two here in the States to not only stand the front lines but forge out a body of work focusing exclusively on individuals and ideas emerging from the battlegrounds of the US?
CURRIER: Not only would I consider spending more time “close to home,” I have been doing just that! My most recent body of work was entirely informed and inspired by the people—their struggles and triumphs — of New Mexico. New Mexico has long inspired me, perhaps more than any other place in the world. The reason being its incomparable artists, trained in Native and Hispanic traditional techniques, who comment on sociopolitical issues within the framework of these traditions in masterful works that are unique to the world. As an arts community, I think that New Mexico reveals its heart through its actions.
The art scene here is more accessible and inclusive than one might find in the big urban centers of the world, with the reason being that much of the best work that New Mexico has to offer is deeply rooted in centuries-old traditions—in Santos, Bultos, Retablos, Pottery, Weaving, Folk Art. In general, New Mexican objet d’art serve a higher spiritual purpose, and/or a functional tangible one, that pre-date the Post Modern conceptual work found in cosmopolitan cities, work that can be inscrutable and even polarizing to the average viewer not versed in that rarefied world. New Mexican art means something, and its meaning can be appreciated universally because it comes from the heart. Living in New Mexico has been advantageous to my creative process, both for the above reasons and for the spirit of comeraderie in the art community here. New Mexico artists are supportive and encouraging of one another, and it is a less competitive environment than an artist might encounter in a big urban center. Again, I attribute this to New Mexico’s traditions, the strong values that both Hispanic and Native cultures place on family and community.
With its vast stretches of uninhabitable wilderness, its steep canyons and raging rapids, New Mexico demands a fierce and courageous spirit. From the Navajo Nation of the Dine’ to Greg Jackson’s renowned UFC training ring in Albuquerque, it has, for millennia, been the place that warriors call home.
The struggle at Standing Rock is a familiar one around these parts: it is the story of colonization, of the breaking of treaties and the exploitation of sacred ancestral lands. It is not unlike the struggle the Eastern Dine’ have waged against the uranium mines that have long polluted their lands and poisoned their people. It is not unlike the struggle of Taos Pueblo—who finally “won back” Blue Lake—which was rightfully theirs all along—under the Nixon administration. Not surprisingly, many of my New Mexican friends and colleagues, both Native and non-Native, were among the first to venture North to stand in solidarity with the Sioux against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The focus of my own work has not wavered from the subject of liberation, civil rights, and human dignity, initially as embodied by the Civil Rights Movement in the US, then eventually broadened to include transformative social movements internationally.
HASSETT: When I first began seeing your work, some twenty years back, you were painting small wooden boxes with images of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Dakinis, Herukas and their consorts, with most of these figures, if I recall, sitting perfectly in lotus: very still, they were, and ones that demanded of the viewer a consideration of a higher self above and beyond the mortal one.
Today we see canvases much more energetic and active, and far more expressive. We are also seeing, in my opinion, images and individuals more interestingly receptive. That is, your images seem as much to receive as they do transmit, creating a relationship between viewer and canvas, viewer and scene, that is circular and often entirely engaged, and I say this having watched people stand in front of your work literally speaking aloud, in actual response, to the very pieces they are looking at.
How, then, might this movement in your work, from Buddha realms to the realm of Man, reflect an artist who has similarly become more earthbound, become more at one, perhaps even at peace with living on this planet?
CURRIER: This trajectory in my work requires a brief historical explanation. Nearly twenty years ago, I was studying Buddhist Thangka Painting, and doing a Buddhist practice. I was working at a coffee shop at the time and was struck by how much trash was generated and discarded during the course of a single shift. So I began gathering this post-consumer waste, bringing it home, and employing Thangkha painting techniques, including sacred geometry, to collage Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Eventually I exhibited this work at the café: it was my first solo exhibition in 1998. My use of trash made sense to me on a number of levels, and the reasons behind it, like the works themselves, are multilayered.
First, I believe that artists have always used materials close-at-hand. Nowhere is this perhaps more apparent than in New Mexico—where Bulteros use discarded, weather-worn pieces of wood; potters use clay dug right from the earth; etc. I am no exception. I use what is most readily available, prevalent, and ubiquitous to my era: discarded packaging and product waste from our globalized consumer culture.
Secondly, my use of trash is a spiritual practice in the sense that the discarded waste is transfigured, hopefully, into something of beauty.
Finally, using post-consumer waste is a socio-political act, in that not only is it a form of recycling, but also by virtue of the fact that it is written in every language, and gathered from every continent, it expresses our interconnectedness and our commonalities as human beings, in what we value, share, consume, and cast away.
Creating many Buddhas, Taras, Dakinis, Bodhisattvas, eventually led me on a path of inquiry: I wanted to know where the embodiment of spiritual ideals—the same ideals I cultivate in my practice: Compassion, Wisdom, Clarity–exist in our day and age, in “the realm of Man”? I found my answer in subjects engaged in active compassion within the Civil Rights Movement. I thus began to create works such as Angela Davis as the Green Tara; Bob Moses as the Medicine Buddha; Septima Clark as the Prajnaparamita, to pay homage to these individuals.
As you pointed out, many of my subjects are no longer seated on a lotus. However, all continue to embody spiritual ideals. For me, the internal struggle is not dissimilar from the external one: it is the story of human pathos—the Four Noble Truths—played out in our minds and hearts as well as upon a global arena. Just as all individuals must contend with, and ultimately liberate themselves from, their own suffering–a suffering rooted in anger, ignorance, desire, etc–likewise societies must seek liberation from those who seek to oppress them.
[…] Scholar Nancy Wood speaks of how: early on, the landscape and the people were one. It was their church, their cathedral. It was like a sacred building to them, but one without walls, tithes, or dogma. Nature had no need for sin, guilt, or redemption. Why should it? No Bible was necessary to mete out justice, form ties to the community, or force people to behave. The Indians knew right from wrong; they honored their elders, loved their children, and lived within a communal framework of work, cooperation, and tribal hierarchy. Prayer and observation were a part of everyday life. Everything in the sky or on earth was either male or female, because that was what the Old Man of the Sky and the Old Woman of the Earth taught them. If a man connected himself to the spirit of the land, he was said to be “living the right way.” From the Earth women learned about medicinal plants and herbs, earth provided food, shelter, and tools. The seasons reflected change, and women invented songs about their mystery.After half a millennia of persecution, the Pueblos and other Indigenous communities continue to struggle for their inherent rights to ancestral sacred lands and ritual. Time and again, they have defied governments through peaceful means and won. Kivas are no longer raided, children no longer dragged off to boarding schools. However, the earth below their feet is continually under assault due to resource extraction: fracking, mining, pipelines; as is the sky above their heads by drones, missiles, toxic fumes. Nonetheless, the connection to ancient ways in New Mexico’s Pueblos and beyond is strong; once dismissed, these ways are now being increasingly embraced by communities all over the world — as perhaps the only way for a viable future….A traditional Tiwa prayer states: “When mountains die, we die. When rivers run backward into time, our spirits will travel along. All is a circle within us. What ends here begins in some other place. What begins here has no end.”—Erin Currier. […]