While this project specifically focuses on twelve works of public art in downtown San José, it’s central proposition is one that extends far beyond this city- to map, visit, and learn the histories of public art works is in itself an act of resistance, for to consider the living histories and stories of communities, one must go beyond the dominant and established narrative and outside the confines of research materials. Instead, the exploration of public art has to be done through the activation of one’s body, armed with a map and a set of directions, the visitor sets off to experience and explore, to engage the city and to see it as it is at a specific moment in time.
The interdisciplinary team that guided this project believes that public art and cartography can be tools of agency, empowerment, and resistance, yet acknowledges that worldwide, these have also historically been used by governments and institutions as tools of exclusion, enforcing colonialist histories, racist narratives and white supremacist ideals. The art and science of cartography require making choices about what to include and exclude on a map. Indeed, maps have been used throughout history for navigation and exploration, and therefore had a part in the oppression of peoples worldwide. Acknowledging this history and reframing the map to amplify critical geographies is a form of activism to promote justice and liberation. Even with contemporary digital representations of earth it is important to humanize spatial communication.
We contend that monuments, public art, and cultural maps stand as public acknowledgments to people and events woven into community and national narratives. They complement the historical perspectives that are taught within the formal education system to create a common origin story for a unified society.
Narratives are not all encompassing, much like literary works their components are selected for the value of storytelling – resulting in the exclusion of the stories of all who make up the society. To resist the monolithic homogeneous narrative, monuments serve as resistance, adding new chapters to inspiration and critique. As acts of public resistance they are often framed as community beautification projects or monuments to civil rights movements, as opposed to open calls to question the dominant narrative and the absence of those groups who have been traditionally underrepresented and excluded.
Art in all its forms is meant to challenge the viewer to question what they see, broadening their knowledge base to see a more holistic and complicated version of the world. These monuments ask the viewer to question their perspectives on history and be open to broadening it.
Our conversations with community partners, Local Color SJ, Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana (MACLA), San José Walls, The San José Museum of Art, and the San José Museum of Quilts & Textiles, revealed the extent to which these organizations have built resistance into all aspects of the public art creation in San José through their implementation of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Accessibility (DEIA) criteria in all aspects of the process, from writing and distributing calls for art, through selection, and implementation. Moreover, we heard about the ways in which organizations seek to support and empower artists through fair compensation and acknowledgment of artist labor in the proposal and selection process and their deliberate and focused processes of soliciting arts proposals from all of the diverse communities that make up San José. The organizations equally work to employ and engage artists and bring them together with communities to create shared, collaborative experiences of art making.
What is striking is how multifaceted resistance is in San José’s public art. Arts organizations resist established processes and spend time considering who is included and who has yet to tell their stories in monumental form in San José. The resulting works engage with the city’s Latinx, Asian and Asian American, and Indigeous communities through stories, symbols, and narratives of honored pasts, thriving presents, and hopeful futures. In this map of San José’s public art, beauty is a form of resistance – exemplified by Alfonso Salazar’s “We Are Muwekma Ohlone,” Francisco Franco’s, “Alebrijes Mural,” and Harumo Sato’s “Celebration Under Water,” the beautification of urban space through mural art is an act of defiance and empowerment that creates a true museum without walls: a fully publicly accessible arts experience that reflects San José’s lively communities back to themselves.
The accessibility and openness of the arts process is a further step towards community engagement, as surrounding residents and visitors are able to witness the work being created, see emerging and established artists as they craft an image in monumental scale.
Other sites on this tour present public art works as sites of gathering and activism as well as historical markers that acknowledge the work of celebrated community activists and ensure their legacy, inspiring future generations and teaching the principles and methods of elders. All of these equally serve as the commons in the truest sense – for beyond works of public art they are also spaces where communities can come together for celebration, protest, conversation, and respite.