Obey the Altruistic Giant, or Else

by Guest Contributor Nezua, originally published at The Unapologetic Mexican

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“It’s not like I’m just jumping on some cool rebel cause for the sake of exploiting it for profit.” —Shepard Fairey

Question of Appropriation and Tokenism are areas one must approach carefully. Human beings are involved and there is nuance, to be sure. Good can be done with methods that are not optimally beneficial to all parties involved. Furthermore, that cost must be weighed by each person. And yet, shapes of Whiteness move behind and around us, often invisible. They must be named.

I wrote a post the other day on the new poster by Shepard Fairey and Ernesto Yerena, and essentially it was about how my initial impression was of a white artist appropriating culture in the newest culture-hungry OBEYGIANT art operation. I made various comments about the poster art, both complimenting elements of it (I love Fairey’s style, which borrows hugely from Russian Constructivism though he’d like the borrowing to stop there) as well as criticizing elements of the composition. These were not emotional “Eh, I just don’t like it” type comments; they were grounded in a cultural perspective as well as springing from my own artistic eye. I didn’t feel it necessary to temper my critique, because hey, it’s just one cat’s opinion. Little did I know I’d get the pushback I did.

As I have returned to this issue and this post and these people with as much nuance as I can manage, I expect commenters to do the same. If they cannot engage the ideas here thoughtfully, I will simply block them. I had enough arguing back and forth yesterday though I do very much thank those commenters, too. They forced me to delve deeper and to flesh out the ideas that I intuited right away, but had not yet the background “research” as was said, to argue comprehensively. I have done the research now, and I’m sure they will be satisfied that I took their advice.

Overall, the folks at ObeyGiant and/or ObeyGiant Forums did not care for my critique one bit, and they showed up to accuse me of various things, among those that I was reacting out of jealousy, ignorance, fear, and vanity. (In the same comment I was admonished to stop being divisive and feel the love!) The comments were in turns scornful, dismissive, and furious that I dared “spread misinformation.”

One commentor, “almanegra” wrote “[j]ust don’t start trying to spread misinformation that the whole operation was simply driven by a single factor, profit” as well as “you should really look into where the money is actually going as opposed to assuming that the image was purely profit driven.”

Reading back, I can see that it could read that way. No, I don’t really think it’s that simple. So not that I thought my opinion on it mattered so much, but okay. Ahem, for the record: I don’t think Shepard Fairey’s intentions can be said to be purely profit driven. Profits from the posters go to “creating materials for the May Day marches and donations for immigration reform organizations” and that doesn’t seem very profitable, does it. Of course if the “materials” are more of these posters, then the profits are essentially going back into creating what are highly-visible advertisements for the Shepard Fairey brand, as well. But we’ll push that aside for the moment. Finally, the cat who talked to me about the poster one-on-one says he works with Shepard Fairey and he’s an all right guy. So I have no reason to disbelieve that.

However, do notice that these comments seem mostly concerned that I was smearing Shepard Fairey’s motives; and that I was claiming the event was purely for profit. Of everything I said in my post, this is what was really raising hackles. Of course we know how important it is to Whiteness to maintain a public appearance of perfection and how averse it is in having its public image besmirched or its reputation sullied. On other hand, this panic-like flurry of comments could be simple fear of a brand being threatened or the anger that arises when having one’s altruistic motives questioned. Those things make sense, too.

Regardless: my question is where is the outrage to defend the name and integrity of Fairey’s supposed “partner” in this work, Ernesto Yerena? All this outrage is responding to the idea that I dare impugn the motives and reputation of Shepard Fairey.

The point was raised that Ernesto’s part in the making of the poster was being overlooked, but it was tiny compared to the focus on Fairey’s reputation, and in fact, was mentioned in the service of clearing Fairey of the charge of being an outsider looking in; not in the service of celebrating Ernesto Yerena and what his story and reality is. One problem with Whiteness is that it refuses to be de-centered in any area it appears. In this way, Whiteness is like a cognitive disease. It refuses to arrange importance rationally or by any meritocratic ranking, but instead arbitrarily and relentlessly places the feelings and point of view of Whiteness central to any arrangement of credit or concern.

Now I’m talking about a lot of things here. We see that this is not a simple poster discussion. Yes, we’re talking about artistic/symbolic elements in a work of art, but also about appropriation, Whiteness, Tokenism, the immigration movement, capitalism…

I’m happy that something is helping move the immigrant movement forward. So please know that. I really am. The people who suggest this is about petty jealousy reveal their own smallness. And those commenters who say I’m stirring up divisions where they shouldn’t be, well…I just wrote a blog post. I’m not the one who showed up here in numbers to argue back and forth and call names! So…who is being divisive? Again, we are talking about many things. Sometimes what I discuss here is idea based. These ideas can exist along with practical realities in the world; my commentary does not negate those. But some shapes are important to point out. And let’s be real. You are not really so worried about division amongst activists, but about image of the Fairey brand among youth who read me. In fact, I could read that concern in the words that were spoken to me personally.

The artist I spoke to on the phone from Obey Giant was very cool (and I’ll talk about him more soon) but posed the situation as if I were being “separatist.” He was very nice about it, but the assumption in his words was that I was interested in a pure divide between races. “I used to be separatist, but I don’t want to alienate white people anymore, my girlfriend is white… I want to reach the largest possible group.” And yes, I understand that. But see, I am not “separatist,” either. So just let me clear that up! I don’t want a little girl on a poster with a middle finger in the air, or an “I hate white people” pin! And my points were not about excluding white people. There is no need to interpret what I said as anti-white people. Just because it was anti-appropriation.

This is the kind of thing one has to draw out carefully. So I’ll try.

We can assume that ObeyGiant is already sensitized to being accused of cultural appropriation. We can assume this because a) cultural appropriation is sort of what Fairey does as a “style,” and because b), Fairey defends himself from it on his Wikipedia page.

So for me to accuse him of the same thing (and without even having researched, as I was admonished by these commenters; “Next time do a little research!”) surely touched a nerve.

Commenter “A1″ wrote

I understand the fear that a white dude who has gained lots of popularity is exploiting a culture for profit and fame, but you have to believe me that this is not the case with this project. Don’t be hung up on the race of the guy who’s name is attached to this.

But I am hung up on whose name is attached to the project. See…that’s the very point, in part, that I’m making.

I’m hung up on that fact that Ernesto was the face of the artist when it comes to signing posters for the brown crowds while also being the one who was in the hole for the money that it took to make the posters, and at the same time being left off the credit side as another “Shepard Fairey” iconic work is produced and celebrated by the larger culture.

I’ll draw out these thoughts more in a minute. I did speak with Ernesto on the phone, after all. But that is my core complaint. And it is in line with all the things I always talk about when I write online, and have for over three years, now.

Now, while I was chastised by the commenters yesterday for daring to accuse Shepard Fairey of having cash as a motive (cash in hand or measured in increased visibility and reputation, nobody made clear), at the same time, I heard the complaint that I was not properly appreciative of how much money was sunk into such a risky venture!

Commenter A1: I don’t think you understand how much time, money, and effort went into carrying out this project that tackles an issue that most people would be too scared to approach. I respect Shepard Fairey for being willing to attach himself to an issue that many find to be too controversial, and would rather avoid.

Or that I was not properly appreciative of the bravery that Shepard Fairey showed by risking his reputation to touch a controversial issue.

Again, I’m happy Shepard is on board and is helping. Beautiful. Of course, you know that I feel gente need to rely on each other, boost up each other, rise from within. As much as possible, and the more often, the better. I’m not a cookie dispenser for the brave altruists. If I were, you’d now be reading theunapologeticcookiedispenser.org. And you’re not. This wasn’t about how “good” or “bad” the artist was; what his moral fiber is. Or if I gave that impression, I should not have. This is about a shape that plays out between unequal powers, and about community, and about culture. It’s also about a person’s own experience and right to define themselves, so we’ll hear out another view soon. Ernesto’s—the artist who apprentices for Shepard Fairey and who contributed to this poster art.

But let’s address one last commenter before I talk about my conversation with him and my own thoughts and feelings on the entire complex issue of appropriation, tokenism, and the power structures that necessitate these dynamics.

ButchM writes to another commentor on my site:

Also, you are missing the point when you are defending the critique of the work. I don’t think people are concerned with the evaluation but rather the false premise that this was Shepard’s design. It was primarily Ernesto Yerna’s [sic] with input from Zach and Shepard. Ernesto is an apprentice of Shepard’s so his work has a similar flavor. You can criticize it all you want but just know that you are speaking about one of Ernesto’s designs. So that really invalidates the charges of “outsider perspective” or “whitness [sic] problem.”

“It is primarily Ernesto Yerna’s [sic] work”
Is this true? No, it is not. Ernesto told me personally (and I have the audio) that the work was “more or less 50-50.” So, no, ButchM; it is not “primarily Ernesto (you had his last name wrong) Yerena’s work.”

The particulars? Ernesto told me personally that he took the photo, and that Shepard Fairey then took “at least a couple hours” to render that photo down to a style that only showed its minimal contours and detail.

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Clearly not cultural appropriation.

I think you will recognize this look of simplified contour and detail I speak of in Fairey’s past work.

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Ernesto said he then traced what Shepard Fairey had done “which didn’t take that much [work]” And he added two other color layers.

And no, until someone dropped a link yesterday to cimarrones.org, no I had not seen the other poster that the Fairey/Yerena had made, (below) showing a man with the fist properly raised in the air. Which is good. The fist in the air symbol is not something you can water down, really, as was done in the other version. No offense to Ernesto, if that was his call. But I stand by my comments that the halfway raised fist is about as effective a symbol as a photo of a man about to turn his back and run away from a line of tanks that are facing him. If Immigrant Girl is not intended to be a fighter but “what we are fighting for” as the commenter said yesterday…then put her fist down. And give her a parent on either side. Whole families not shattered by raids and separated by bars or borders—that is “what we are fighting for,” not one little girl.

we are human

And the “We Are Human” just does not work for me for the reasons I stated, as well as were stated in comments. This is the name of the campaign, and I find it utterly tone-deaf, though it tries. It sounds like Fairey tried to do his contour-reducing trick on the slogan “No One is Illegal”; make it punchy and short. I don’t care if that’s accurate, really, or how it came about. But I will tell you that multiple activists/raza reacted instantly negatively to it, without even hearing my critique. So take it as you will.

And of course I’m glad gente at la marcha are happy to have free signs, and I’m not surprised! But a mass of people claiming to be humans in the street….what’s the message? Take us to your leader? Don’t mind the saucers, we are Homo Sapiens?

It’s just a weird phrase that, as was said by a compa, “sets the bar way too low.”

Ernesto told me that he was in debt to Fairey until they sold enough posters/screenprints to pay off what it cost to make the posters. (”He wouldn’t have made me pay it back even if we didn’t” he added kindly). He also told me he got to choose the colors. Finally he told me (and I don’t know if Fairey knows this, but I doublechecked with Ernesto to make sure it was okay to quote it) that he chose the colors of the Aztlán flag, the Anahuac people. (I love the colors he chose, but those aren’t the colors of the Aztlán flag that I know of, so maybe I have the wrong flag).

Nota: “Anahuac” refers to the Mexica movement, and the Mexica movement bases its purpose in that we are descended from the indigenous of this land and the borders that came later are invalid. Obviously, this is a hardcore stance, a smaller demographic subscribes to it, and many who do, don’t talk about it aloud as it can alarm those who disagree with the overall idea. The art and statements of the Mexica movement are why one commenter on my last Fairey post tried to sneer and deride UMX by calling it a “defacto MySpace page.” Because often you will see that art and those statements displayed by people on MySpace, gente trying to stand proud instead of being shat upon through the White Lens. People on MySpace are generally younger and more comfortable with speaking pure ideal because they don’t have to worry as much about negotiating the compromises that come with a visible career, etc.

Ernesto was in a tricky spot talking about some of these things. Just as he was in taking part in the art and how confrontational to make it. He talked about not wanting to alienate white people as I wrote above (I didn’t butt in to tell him my family has “white people” in it) and of compromise, too. “I’ll take help where I can get it [to reach these goals].” (”Though I’m totally happy with how it turned out” he added with barely any pause.)

And he is going to be in a tricky spot, when these types of conversations come down. And I understand that and will talk more about this soon. I relate to a lot of it.

My thoughts on Ernesto are that he is a good cat, a sweet guy, a real soul, a Xicano who comes from la comunidad, and who is keeping it as real as he can. He’s 22, he’s doing hard work for the community, he’s a talented vato, and he is walking a fine line—as gente must do when we negotiate these structures of power and opportunity. Finally, he is deeply committed to the cause for reasons more personal than I’ll even state here. So yes, there is no doubt that Ernesto is raza.

Is the charge of a Whiteness Problem invalid?
No, and this will be my final statement here.

On Ernesto’s navigating the outstretched hand of opportunity?

The tricky thing about attacking the Appropriation/Token dynamic is that it is a huge offense to a person of color to be called a token. I know, because I’ve faced this same dynamic. When I was granted a ticket and costs to attend YearlyKos 07 as one of the Chicago 17, I needed to explore what opportunities were opening up in front of me. I felt this was in my path for a reason, and it was, in the end. But I didn’t know what it was. However, I trusted my fate and my path. I knew where my heart was and what it was about. I resented like crazy those who thought they knew better, that I was “selling out” or in some way less a person of color because of my decision. I was prompted to go by many readers and more importantly, I wanted to do this. I felt I could further the cause of what I was doing. I was exercising my free will, I was being recognized for my talents and influence, and I was being brought in as someone who was known to write fiery, unrelentingly ideal-based blog posts. What compromise was I making? But some of my readers disagreed with me and I lost what I thought were some friends by taking that opportunity. Of course, true gente stuck by me. My close amigos. Even if they thought what I was doing was…a mistake, or playing into a Token situation. And some understood that I was going where I needed to and trusted it would all be fine. (And it was all fine, and learning what I did there prompted me in the direction that helped lead to The Sanctuary’s existence.) But I felt a horrible pressure all the while I was making my own way. Pressure from the white funders to tell a story they liked, one that framed them as benificent and kind and altruistic, which is how they saw themselves to be. And pressure from certain factions of my own readership to completely turn away from all things Whiteosphere in the most extreme way possible—to not even go. So I was being forced to defend my integrity as a person of color. By people of color. One commenter even said “don’t be a token!” As it was not meant smartly, sort of dropped both meaning well and clumsiliy, I took it to be coming from outside conversations that were now reaching me.

So I feel bad that Ernesto’s call to me—even if prompted to do it by others at ObeyGiant—served the purpose of his having to defend his cred, his cultural integrity to me. On one hand he was making sure to tell me they were good to him, not taking advantage, really helpful and really open to him; he was also assuring me of his agreement with certain cultural beliefs and allegiances…and that is not what I needed to hear or wanted him to feel he had to tell me. This is what can happen when white structures take you in and use you in certain ways. Not to say you aren’t getting things out of it, too. But sadly, you are the one who ends up being pointed at by your fellow people of color and having to defend yourself and at the same time getting taken advantage of in one way or another from the other side.

It is a painful spot to be in.

It’s very tricky to address a tokenizing system while understanding that the people involved are simply trying to live and find their way to do what they love and believe in, may not see themselves as “tokens,” and must navigate an inequal power structure that may only hand you opportunities once you concede certain things, or hand your more or bigger ones depending on what shape you take, what words you use, how close you hue to a political line, etc. I don’t like calling people “tokens” and I don’t really feel I have that right and that is not what I’m doing here so much as exploring the inequality that exists in these setups that often earn these names. I wouldn’t blame an artist for doing her/his best to spread his/her message in the way that felt right to their own soul. Just as I wouldn’t scorn those holding up the posters and marching. They don’t care or want to hear about “appropriation”; they just want to escape persecution and have their families intact. But as I said, I write often about ideas that can coexist with realities on the ground.

When I spoke yesterday of how I wanted art that people called “icons of the movement” to come from la comunidad, ButchM sarcastically commented “Psst. His [Ernesto's] name is on it. He personally signed every single one of the s/n edition. How do you not know even know that before your wrote an article about it? Seriously.” And then linked me to cimarrones.org.

You tell me. Do you see Ernesto’s name on the poster? Well, maybe we can’t read it from here. I don’t see it. Though most blogs or sites touting the art immediately think of this as “Shepard Fairey” work, I was happy to note that at least some sites do purposely put Ernesto’s name in the credit when talking about this art.

But if you go to ObeyGiant as well as any other site that has grabbed the ObeyGiant press release, you’ll notice something interesting.

The two blurbs being used to sell the poster of mi gente, of nuestra gente—Ernesto and my people—are Shepard Fairey talking about his European immigrant ancestors, and Zach de la Rocha’s star-power endorsement. Don’t get me wrong, I crank RATM like nobody’s business! And I agree that de la Rocha was an inspiration years ago, too, with his music about social injustice. And still is. And por supuesto I’m glad that Shepard Fairey relates to today’s immigrant story in his way.

But where is Ernesto’s blurb?

When Ernesto talked to me, one of the first things he spoke about was his background, his roots. What situation his family is in now. How he has spent time in border towns and how much this issue means to his heart. It was real rap, and it was moving. But why, if he owns a ‘50-50′ share in credit of who made this art, is his story not included in selling the poster? Why, if his presence should negate the charge that this poster is cultural appropriation that furthers Shepard’s visibility and career without fairly repaying or crediting the Brown™—is Ernesto’s story not part of the story of this art’s birth?

Why does Shepard Fairey lead the promo with his story of white immigration while Ernesto’s modern-day ties to this very issue and these very people are omitted?

If there is a clear answer to this that escapes the charges of Whiteness centering itself or cultural appropriation, I can’t imagine what it is.