Cultural Resistance: Local O.C. artists use art as a form of protest

By Michelle Ibañez
April 5, 2021

ANAHEIM, CA– In the summer of 2020, the United States became the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement that continues to engulf the nation. Thousands of people took to the streets after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police officers. 

The movement gained international recognition and it ticked off the beginning of a larger outcry for the dismantling of institutions that were founded on racism and violence within the country. 

While the Black Lives Matter movement is older than the beginning of these demonstrations, it proved true to something that has been happening for centuries.

Over the course of the last century, artists like Gordon Parks, a Black documentary photographer during the Civil Rights movement, have made it their mission to capture history the only way they know how: by creating and documenting moments.

During the last year alone, the increase in street art as a way to connect activism and the community has only accentuated a major emphasis in art as a form of protest.

Fighting Through Art

In large, white letters INDIGENIZE SPACES is printed on William Camargo’s sweatshirt. The words stare into Camargo’s shared studio in downtown Santa Ana as his words flow through the prints that adorn his walls. 

An Orange County native, Camargo is a Southern California based photographer whose experience in a historically white region has reshaped the way he creates his art.  

He grew up in between Anaheim and Santa Ana, two cities that stand out from the other parts of Orange County, he said.

“It’s a different kind of population, it’s mostly brown, low income, too,” Camargo said. 

Upon graduating from Cal State Fullerton, Camargo was a photojournalist for six to seven years before becoming a full time artist after realizing that the field lacked subjectivity.

His work now emphasizes the way he navigates his identity and the communities of color he has grown up with. His work seeks to highlight the connections between the history of his community, his city and political or social issues. 

“After Stephen Shore but in Penquin City and Paisa” by William Camargo

In fall of 2020, Camargo held an exhibit of his work at Muzeo, Anaheim’s local museum and art gallery. 

The museum showcased his work from the outside, largely due to the pandemic and the gallery’s recent approach of “Museum Without Walls,” a new perspective to tackle the lack of accessibility in the art community.

In the past, the Muzeo staff has been in charge of choosing who and what goes up on their walls, but more recently, the museum has been trying to seek local artists that can highlight the city’s history. 

The museum is actively working to let these local artists lead the way  on opening art to the communities living around Muzeo.

“I don’t think I should be the one necessarily that’s choosing what goes up on the walls,” said Katie Adams Farrell, executive director and CEO of Muzeo. “If we’re going to be a community driven organization then we need to reflect our community.”

Although Muzeo highlights diverse viewpoints, Adams Farrell said that because it is a local organization and lacked the focus on the community, she has made it her goal to bring in more local artists and voices .  

“We want to be a place that is super representative of our local communities, where we can have conversations about what’s happening in the community, and work together to make change,” Adams Farrell said. 

Camargo, who echoed Adams Farrell’s point about accessibility, said he, like many other Anaheim residents of color, had not grown up with museums as something they ever thought about. 

Adams Farrell worked alongside Camargo to bring his work to life after he couldn’t showcase his final thesis project due to the pandemic. They both saw challenges due to Camargo calling out particular Anaheim history in his art that might’ve been uncomfortable for certain Orange County residents to see.
Camargo’s exhibition, however, set off Alkaid Ramirez’s work El Jale, another Museum Without Walls display.

Artist and work description about Alkaid Ramirez’s exhibition at Muzeo, in Anaheim, CA.

Localizing Art 

Practically living down the street from each other, Ramirez is a close friend of Camargo’s, and both have actively set out to highlight the Latinx community. 

While Camargo’s work centers on his place in the community, Ramirez’s art revolves around labor and COVID-19 challenges. 

El Jale, specifically, shines the light on swapmeet culture, a big part of the Latinx community in Southern California. 

El Jale for me is a way for me to document the resilience of Latinx culture at the peak of the pandemic,” Ramirez said. 

Ramirez tried to see himself, his identity and history, through the camera lens and depicted what it means to be a Latinx in the United States during a global health crisis. 

Ramirez was able to capture the city’s working class, people who worked under harsh conditions throughout the pandemic. 

“A lot of the times, our community is left in the air when we talk about these workers rights,” Ramirez said. “You’ll see a lot of families, and a lot of people that have the privilege to work from home… but I knew that a lot of people, including people like my father couldn’t, and they had to continue working out in the field, doing whatever essential work they had.”

Ramirez said that capturing the swapmeet was a way for him to call attention to the pandemic’s effect on working, communities of color. He said that most of the time, swapmeet vendors have other jobs aside from their businesses, in order to make ends meet.

“For me, this project was really a documentary of that resiliency, and also wanting to bring awareness to workers rights, and attempt to start the conversation of how we can support those communities,” Ramirez said.

Camargo said that it’s important to think about what history really means in order to understand why art as a demonstration is more important now than ever before, something he tries to highlight in his work.

“When we reimagine curriculum in schools, curriculum in museums, the way we teach outside of school as well, as like those things need to change, because if not we’re going to continue the way we’re going,” Camargo said. “There’s still police shootings everyday, we’ve had that in Anaheim.”

Camargo said that spaces like museums and public school should be seen as a form of liberation and not just as a form of survival, and that it all starts with inclusive education for all communities about all communities. 

“We need to think about how we can actually continue that, and not just be here for survival,” Camargo said. “I hope it’s not just like a moment. Representation doesn’t equal liberation. I mean we want to be the ones actually making decisions in these spaces, too.”

From rap, to soul, to rock, music serves as another manifestation of art as a form of protest.

A Supporting Hand

Another thing that both Camargo and Ramirez have in common is their involvement with mutual aid, a type of voluntary exchange of resources, basic necessity items and services for mutual benefit, something that Ramirez said was needed and heightened during the pandemic.

Ramirez said that after the killing of George Floyd, younger generations saw the incident as a wake up call about the systematic issues happening around the country.

Camargo, Ramirez and friends in common then formed the Anaheim Autonomous Coalition, a community led organization. 

“We’ve been able to get our foot rolling, and get the ball rolling in helping in mutual aid efforts in ways of grocery distributions, in feeding homeless population and homeless folks, in being able to provide monetary support to families and communities,” Ramirez said. 

Ramirez said that a lot of their work is mostly in providing support to members of the community; from giving out groceries and holding free grocery pop-ups, Ramirez said he hopes mutual aid will become a legitimate form of safeguarding communities at risk.

“I think art and social justice movements have always been a tool for these movements, for mutual aid,” Camargo said.

Camargo was recently able to sell prints of his photos to raise money for a family displaced by a fire, a way in which mutual aid and art will always overlap, he said. 

“I think it’s different from when you’re living an experience, and specially with communities of color, you know I lived an experience of living in public housing, having family being incarcerated,” Camargo said. “I think it definitely is something that comes out just naturally when I do my work. The art that I’m making is speaking about those issues.”

Katie Adams Farrell, executive director and CEO of Muzeo in Anaheim, CA, and local artists, Alkaid Ramirez and William Camargo, speak about the importance of art in the community.

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