Jaque Fragua, an acclaimed multi-media artist from New Mexico
Tell me a little bit about your background, where you grew up, and what inspired you to become an artist?
I am from Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico. This is a little reservation about 45 minutes northwest of Albuquerque. I was born in the Santa Fe Indian hospital. I grew up mostly on-reservation, although I have moved on and off to places like Houston, Denver, and Albuquerque.
When I was just a young child growing up on the reservation, I guess there were arts and crafts. I don’t know what you would have considered it, perhaps traditional (Pueblo) art work. And at that point, I really didn’t know what “art” was. I really didn’t know what art was until I was in college. Although, I knew that what I was doing was a cultural practice more than anything.
As a kid, I grew up farming and where I come from traditional farming is a big thing in the community. I would get into the other things you might find on any reservation… hunting, fighting with other neighborhood kids, laughs
I was just going to say…every reservation is kind of rough. These are rural areas, there isn’t much entertainment, so you have to kind of build it yourself. I was up for all the physical stuff, farming, hunting and what not, but I found a creative side too. I got tired of beating up my neighbors and being beat up. I would just hang out, draw, and at some point I picked up the guitar and started learning how to play all kinds of music. Music was my first passion. And art was sort of secondary, I suppose.
Inspiration wise, I was stimulated just by things I witnessed growing up. For example, there were a lot of different signs, folk art, southwestern textiles, and the kinds of things you would find in a tourist shop on highway 66 or any reservation highway. All this folk art or road art was for the tourists and it makes sense because tourism is the biggest economy in New Mexico today. The whole state is full of Native American culture. The state government exploits Native culture to the umpteenth degree.
Growing up within the actual culture definitely inspired me, but I didn’t realize how much it would fuel the content for what I do now. It just sort of naturally happened. I would visit my ancestral homelands and visit sacred sites. There are miles and miles of wild art, etchings and carvings–marks that really got me inspired to do graffiti. And when I moved to Denver for high school, I continually had flashbacks to the wall art in my ancestral homelands. I like to believe I’m continuing a tradition. It’s not using the same materials but it is definitely in the same spirit.
In Denver I started running around with the rebellious crowd of kids and I was into the graffiti scene, but like I said, music was my passion. I took an art elective my senior year, and that’s where I learned art basics, like history, different mediums, etc. I’ve since gotten a hang of photography, printmaking and other types of contemporary art mediums. I’ve always been interested in burgeoning mediums, such as digital media. This sparked my path in using film, the internet, graphic design, gifs, etc. I really enjoyed conceptual art as well, I still do. In retrospect, I felt graffiti could evolve into something more conceptual. I started bombing in ‘99 and during that time, there was a big movement in street art. Traditional graffiti had been around for a long time already, but stencil art and wheatpasting gained popularity in the late 90s. It was an interesting time. There was the San Francisco Mission School art movement, with Margaret Kilgallen, Juxtapoz magazine, OBEY, and other forces of underground inspiration that I stumbled upon.
So fast forward to now, all of that underground material is popular, very hip, and mainstream. But back then, it was just sort of this… really crazy sub-culture. I was viewed as crazy for liking it or knowing about it.
After high school, I moved to Seattle and that didn’t work out. I decided to go to the Institute of the American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.
What made you take that decision?
I moved to Seattle for music school, but the scholarship fell through in the last minute and the only college that would accept me was IAIA– unlike other colleges you can apply a month before it starts. I don’t know if they still do that though. So I applied and I got in. That was 2004. And then the Indian art world opened up to me. I was just so perplexed at how there was this whole other genre of art that existed alongside contemporary art, complete with it’s own rules, social hierarchy, heroes, and money. At this time graffiti was also a whole other category. But now graffiti is considered “art” and is within the genre of contemporary. But as far as Indian art, it’s still on the fringe of what you may consider legitimate art by Western standards. I feel like it’s more of a curio or it’s just decorative.
Tell me about that a little bit more. In terms of defining native art and this constant struggle between the traditional versus the more contemporary native art?
There is always that tension between tradition and contemporary or modern. And that is not only with the art work itself, but with the culture, the people. There is this ebb and flow, this push and pull between what is considered, I guess, right and wrong.
Like I was saying, there is always this argument between what works, what we can progress with and what we want to hold on to. And I think that’s why Native art as a whole is relevant–it is not moving so fast, it’s eternal. We don’t adopt new technology and test it blindly. A lot is at stake for Native culture because of our sensitive history. A lot of Native communities don’t want to jump the gun and try out a new method without the proper due diligence. But this is also a flaw because it inhibits our creativity, and the possibilities of solutions. I feel that healing involves letting go and making mistakes and understanding the strength in failing. Healing really is a faith based action and most Native communities lack the confidence to take risks and make mistakes, even if there is a bright future at stake. Native communities rather be ignorant of perpetuating the suffering and continue to just get by. It is a regression or a de-evolution of our own progress. Although, I do believe we have to be careful of what we get ourselves into. We are still super sensitive.
Do you make it back to Pueblo very often? Do you have family back there?
Yeah. I live most of the time on the road, so if I’m not home I’m somewhere else doing a mural or project. But it’s my community; it is naturally where I feel most comfortable. But it’s discomforting when I realize that the community isn’t doing as well as I would like it to be. It is pretty demoralizing to hear about the abusive environments, murders and DUIs. So sometimes it is hard to be there, but these challenges give me energy to continue my work, keep doing something that changes that environment. I always have something in the works. I am always keeping the balance between staying on the reservation and staying active externally. And of course, I have a lot of family in Jemez and others who have migrated to start new tribes in other parts of the world.
How many people live on the reservation?
There are around 3400 members, and about 2000 live on the land.
If you could just tell me a little bit about the specific things you are working on right now.
Right now, I just finished a show in Phoenix called #NATIVEAMERICA. Simply, it’s about imagery that continues to colonize us. By creating fine art out of these visuals and emphasizing the images ad nauseum, it creates the opposite effect. Sort of like Warhol’s soup cans. This is a big project. It is actually the first installment of the larger project. I had only 20 or so paintings for this show. But I want to increase it to 60 art works. It’s imagery that I have been wanting to share with the world for a long time. I’m trying to bring the show to different cities and see how it’s received. I’m always trying to push the idea of what Native America is and who is a part of it and who wants to contribute. I want to make it more interactive and engaging.
- April 2, 2013 native X interview