THE MESSAGE Gómez-Peña’s declaration.
"We, the artists & intellectuals, famous & unknown. We, mud people, snake people, tar people. We, bohemians walking on millennial thin ice; our bodies pierced, tattooed, martyred, scarred; our skin covered with hieroglyphs & flaming questions."
So begins a striking new all-text mural overlooking a small parking lot on Aborn Street in downtown Providence: black words on white blocks, horizontal and vertical, creeping up between windows and bubbling over pipes jutting out from the walls.
The essay — it's actually excerpted from a larger piece called "The New Barbarians: A Declaration of Poetic Disobedience from the New Border" — is the work of San Francisco-based performance artist and writer Guillermo Gómez-Peña.
Gómez-Peña, a costumed radical who is always gesturing to his native Mexico, is a winner of Providence arts organization AS220's second Free Culture Award, bestowed every other year on one international and one local artist who exemplify AS220's commitment to freedom of expression.
AS220 commissions a piece from the winners. And the work of the first international awardee, RISD-educated street artist Shepard Fairey, hovers over the same parking lot — its black, white and red ode to post-industrial Providence an appealing fit with Gómez-Peña's tones.
Bert Crenca, the long-serving artistic director at AS220, encountered Gómez-Peña a decade or so ago when the artist had an installation and performance piece at Rhode Island College's Bannister Gallery.
"I was really intrigued by him and his way," Crenca says. "It's very Mexican."
And giving a Latino artist such a prominent canvass was purposeful, he says; the city's Latino population is exploding. Its mayor, who will present the Free Culture Award to Gómez-Peña and local artist Joan Wyand at AS220's Foo Fest on August 11, is named Angel Taveras.
But the mural — along with Fairey's piece — is also sending a message about Providence writ large, Crenca says; a message that dovetails with AS220s own mission.
"As many cities are beginning to reinvent themselves, their downtowns, and they're engaging art — and often public art — what's going to distinguish Providence and what's Providence's particular brand?" he says.
"I want to commission public works by artists . . . that are trailblazers — people that can brand and establish Providence as an open place, a place where we're not afraid of dialogue, a place where we're not afraid of taking risks."
Some of Gómez-Peña's sharper declarations have already sparked some controversy in the neighborhood. "We, the Hollywood refuseniks, the greaser bandits & holy outlaws of advanced Capitalism. We, without guns, without Bibles. We, who never pray to the police or to the army. We, who never kissed the hand of a bishop or a curator."
Some local businessmen, Crenca says, see an attack. They see a bit class warfare that Crenca, himself, does not. There's been some dialogue. And that, of course, is the point.