Crossing Borders: The Photography of Narciso Argüelles

Calavera, Digital Print on Watercolor Paper, 2011

While still in high school near San Diego, photographer Narciso Argüelles had a chance encounter that he describes as one of the most influential of his life: He met a man who had just been hit by a car. Injured but still able to walk, Argüelles asked if the man needed help, and he recognized that the man must have recently crossed the border from Mexico into the U.S. He offered the man transportation to a hospital, but he insisted on taking the bus, so Argüelles helped him aboard and offered a ticket as far as his money would go, which was not as far as the man was traveling. Argüelles stressed that he would need to debark the bus a few stops early or risk being questioned by the train’s ticket agents. The man said that he would risk it and continue riding. When Argüelles reached his stop and left the bus, it was the last time he saw him. He has often thought of that moment and wondered what became of the man he met. The entire experience stuck with him. “After that, I made a conscious decision to get more political, and to take an activist approach.”

One of twelve photographers selected for this Thursday’s Photo Slam, an OVAC event taking place at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Argüelles brings a keen eye, a political sensibility, and an expressly Chicano perspective to the art of photography. Although now living in Oklahoma City, Argüelles grew up in Southern California in San Ysidro- the closest town to the U.S.-Mexico border along U.S. Interstate 5. Since arriving in OKC, Argüelles has established his presence in this city’s art community, both for his art and for his skill as an educator.

 

Argüelles often uses the word Chicano to describe himself and the political nature of his work- he defines Chicano as “a politicized Mexican-American. The identity is a choice; not every Mexican-American would call themselves Chicano.”

A few years later, as an undergraduate art student at UC San Diego, Argüelles attended a lecture by Rick Smolen, a highly successful photographer best known for his “Day in the Life” series of photography books. Not only was the lecture impressive to him, but during the artist reception afterwards, Smolen made a point to seek out Argüelles, approach him and encourage him in his artistic career. “At that time, I was so shy. For him to do that made a big impression on me.”

Argüelles remains in contact with several of his teachers from UC San Diego, and they remain important mentors. He mentions Pat Ward Williams in particular as an influential teacher, as well as Faith Ringgold- both artists who stand as important and well-known figures in contemporary art. With their guidance, Argüelles began to pursue performance and other media, complementing his work in photography.

Argüelles also experiments with performance art. In 1998 as part of his Master’s Thesis “Y Legal”–a pun in English and in Spanish–Argüelles literally put himself up for auction. The result is a comment on the exploitation of immigrants. The piece was bought by a couple there in California. As the guests began to interact with Argüelles as a sculpture, some began to touch and even draw on him, and the experience became increasingly uncomfortable until he was “deinstalled” as a sculpture and removed from the public area. But the performance made its impact. Someone at the initial performance told Argüelles that the piece changed his life.  In Oklahoma, Argüelles redid the piece for IAO’s Red Dot in 2011, where it was bought by Peter Farrell, a well-known contributor to the arts here in the city. 

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When I ask what first brought Argüelles to Oklahoma, he pauses. “People start to look at me differently when I tell them the reason. But I don’t want to shy away from it: I first came here for a mission trip as part of my church.” He pauses again, then goes on to describe the different reactions he receives when discussing his spirituality. “I think it surprises people that I’m political and that I have a faith. People sometimes don’t know what to do with that.” In a so-called “Bible Belt” state like Oklahoma, there can be an assumption that religion goes hand in hand with far-right political belief. For Argüelles, his faith is important as a personal foundation but also as a link to a part of his culture. “Just because I’m progressive, it doesn’t mean I’m anti-God,” he says, at the same time attributing good intentions to these assumptions. “People mean well. We all want the same things; we all just want a better life.”

One of the stipulations of his mission work was that he was not allowed to take a full-time job while here. He took a part-time job at a Mexican restaurant. “It was the best job I ever had,” he states, “because it reminded me why I started doing what I do.” Although Argüelles had two degrees and an active art career when he began working there, the experience allowed him to be fairly anonymous. Through developing friendships with his co-workers and interacting with clientele, Argüelles found himself experiencing racism in surprising ways. “People would go out to eat Mexican food, but then treat the servers and the restaurant staff with such disrespect. It was really quite amazing… In the U.S., people only want so much of a culture. They want the food, the clothes, but they don’t want to deal with the people.”

Oklahoma also offered other opportunities to Argüelles as an artist. “I noticed that there were not a lot of Chicano artists, or a lot of activist art.” In the few years since Argüelles has been in Oklahoma, his art career has been extremely active. One of his first local solo shows was a 2007 show at the State Capitol- Human Landscapes- which featured portraits of his friends from the restaurant, among other pieces. “I wanted to say that we are Oklahomans too. We are a part of this state.”

The show made an impact when it opened, not least because of the fact that one piece was taken down during the show’s run. The piece that was removed was called Sign, and Argüelles was told that there had been concerns that the piece “encouraged illegal immigration.” The controversy surprised Argüelles: “It was just a picture of a sign posted by Caltrans [California Transportation Authority]. To me, I read it as ‘Caution: People’ as in, remember: these are people we are talking about.” When Jeff Stokes, then director at IAO, learned about the removal of this piece, he contacted Argüelles and offered to show his work. Argüelles appreciates the overture to this day, and remains supportive of IAO’s efforts.

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A 2008 installation at Artspace at [Untitled] – called Border Identities—featured interactive elements that involved the audience directly in the issues of racism and in doing so, encouraged them to think through their own beliefs. Included in this work was a recreation of a real video game called “Border Patrol” in which players earn points for shooting crude caricatures of Mexican people as they cross the border into the U.S.

His piece in 2009’s 24 Works on Paper- a biennial show organized by OVAC and IAO that travels to multiple venues around the state- shows a synthesis between his religious and political beliefs. El Santo Chicano, a 22” x 28” digital print on gold paper, is a luminous and understated work: a self-portrait of the artist dressed in a simple white tank top, with a circle of barbed wire overhead. This wire is at once a reference to a halo, a crown of thorns, and the barbed wire that runs along parts of the U.S. Mexico border.

Argüelles and his artwork also appeared in Panic Nation, George Adams’ multi-award winning 2010 documentary which deals frankly with the effects of- and the racism behind- the recent rash of anti-immigration legislation being passed by state legislatures. Oklahoma’s draconian House Bill 1804, passed in 2007, features prominently in the film.

In addition to his work and exhibitions in Oklahoma City, Argüelles’ work has shown worldwide, including the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions Gallery, Intar Gallery in New York City, the Ninth Biennale of Sydney Australia- where he first met Oklahoma artist Edgar Heap of Birds- and the First Johannesburg Biennale in South Africa.

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Also informing Argüelles’ life and work is his experience as an educator. “The reason I got into education was people like Rick Smolen,” the artist who had approached and encouraged Argüelles in his undergraduate education. His positive experiences with teachers and mentors have clearly shaped his philosophy of teaching, as he comments: “The key to being a good educator is being a good student.” Argüelles has taught around the city, including at the University of Central Oklahoma, Platt College, Oklahoma Christian, and Oklahoma City Community College. His classes include photography, drawing, art history, and art appreciation, which includes professional basics for artists: how to exhibit, how to approach galleries.

During one class, while discussing how artists get shows in galleries, he called a potential exhibition venue and spoke to the gallery director while students watched and listened. The venue representative asked for a proposal, so he developed one with the help of his students, and submitted it by the end the class. Not only does an experience like that offer real, usable information for new artists looking to show their own work, it helps to encourage students by showing them that these galleries and venues are accessible to them.

His career as an educator is of great value to Argüelles, and the feeling seems to be mutual. Many former students have positive memories of their time in his classes. “I’ve been blessed with very loyal students,” he states. “And I like that there is a sense of community with teaching- of people helping each other.”

For Thursday’s Photo Slam, coordinated by the Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition, each featured artist will have five minutes which to introduce themselves and their work to the audience through speaking, slides, and/or other audio-visual aids. Argüelles doesn’t give many specifics about his presentation other than that he plans to give a basic introduction to his life, work, and inspiration. The Photo Slam will begin at 7:00pm, and reservations are recommended. Entry to the museum on Thursday evening is $5.00.

Overall, Argüelles’ goals as an artist are as clear as they are lofty. He aims to “promote, preserve, and celebrate Chicano, Native American and Mexican culture,” If the success of and positive reception to his recent work is an indication, he certainly achieves it.

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