Native American Artist Calls Out US injustices Through Graffiti and Neon

Jaque Fragua explains how his Native American heritage have shaped his work as an artist and activist.

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Dec 31 2016, 5:10am

All images courtesy of Jaque Fragua

A Native American graffiti artist says a life of art and activism chose him. Jaque Fragua creates art informed by the various cultures that have shaped him, including: Native American culture, American popular culture, and graffiti culture. Fragua tells The Creators Project, he became a social justice activist, “I tell people if you're born a Native American, you're automatically an activist, you just might not know it. It is our philosophies and lifeways that inform a knowledge base antithetical to a Western hyper-capitalistic lifestyle. From this realization, you can see that we are in a constant state of opposition, oppression, and contention. Everyday, the colonizing US federal government is in violation of treaties and agreements they made with each tribe a century or so ago. How could you not make art about this?”

Raised on an Indian reservation outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, Fragua’s outstanding performance in his local school resulted in his getting transferred to what he calls an upper-echelon school. Fragua says that feeling like an outcast at his new school led him to embrace graffiti and the community around it. “I would often skip school to hang out with my old homeboys and get into trouble, including graffiti. I saw how this particular activity brought the worst/best out in people. I really enjoyed the flash of honesty and truth that this one action exposed in our flawed society.”

A banner made by Fragua to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline

The artistic abilities Fragua honed with graffiti eventually pushed him toward activist endeavors. “I came into the social justice sector by accident. A friend of mine asked me to help him make a banner for a specific Native organization fighting for water rights in Northern Arizona. This was 2007. Since then, I have been creating art every year for different indigenous campaigns and struggles, separate from the art I create for myself.” This past summer, Fragua traveled to North Dakota to help fight the Dakota Access Pipeline. “Part of my role there was to educate about art as a visual communication through non-violent direct action. The banner was created for an action that was deployed the morning after I arrived,” says Fragua.

A neon piece called "This is not a pipe"

In addition to social justice issues, cultural appropriation plays an important role in Fragua’s work. Not only does his work demonstrate how his own culture has been appropriated, he reappropriates pop culture imagery in order to make his point. In a series of works made from neon lights, Fragua takes images from popular culture that depict Native American culture and uses them to reference famous artworks and social issues. Fragua even appropriates imagery from graffiti culture. In one piece, Fragua references “Cornbread,” the iconic tag that the first modern graffiti artist wrote in Philadelphia in the 60s. By simply changing the tag to “Cornmeal,” Fragua subtly reminds us that even the city walls that displayed the first pieces of modern graffiti were built on top of land where Native Americans used to live.

Jaque Fragua is currently working on a book about his work that is scheduled to be available some time in the next year. Until then, you can see more of his work at his website.

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