Over 10 years ago, soon after I initiated the visual arts column for the Montreal Mirror when their offices were situated across from the Spectrum on St. Catherine St. in Montreal , La Raza group were something of a permanent fixture on the local scene. Comprising artist members Frank Caprani, Gerald Pedros and Scott MacLeod, the La Raza group had a unique and interesting place in the Canadian arts scene in the 1980s. Not only was this artists group self generated but it was also entirely self supporting. Without grants, without any governmental or corporate support, La Raza was born out of a desire to transform the public attitude to art. Art was not something kept in galleries or museums. It was in the streets, out in the open where people lived and breathed.
Art, for La Raza, had a social role to play enriching Canadian society. Montreal was the focus for their activity, but they soon saw that travel was essential. Whether the notion of a public and a democratic art is misguided or not, the truth is that all artists maintain a vision that their output will be appreciated by a broader audience. And so Canadian art needed a Canadian definition of popular public art. It had one in folk art, but museums and curators consider folkart a lower cousin to fine art.
In Mexico , where folk art and fine art are far less segregated, La Raza members Frank Caprani, Scott MacLeod and Gerald Pedros found the ethos their group would follow. They founded their group in 1988, naming it after a popular neighbourhood in Mexico City . La Raza was actually a Mexican slum, where the group lived for several months while the Totem de Piedra exchange event between Canada and Mexico was taking place. The group exhibited there and were invited to exhibit again the next year. It was the Mexican mural movement artists like Diego Rivera, David Alfredo Siqueiros and JosZ Clemente Orozco, who provided the inspiration and example of a public artmaking that provided the model and spirited impulse for La Raza to produce largescale collective paintings. Art outside the museum or gallery walls was La Raza's artform. Large scale canvases could be painted, rolled up, transported, to then be exhibited elsewhere. This progressive view of culture involves recognizing the historical imperative, the continuity of cultural history. It links us all and can provide traces of the creative impulse's trail over time, through time, and even over centuries. The notion that a public matters to the artist,if he or she even has a consciousness, has been abandoned by post Modern artists. Many artists, during the 1980s and 1990s, seemed to serve museum and gallery demands with a delight in the institutional prerogative. Enslavement of talent for prestige or money was the keynote of official fin-de-siecle creativity. Audience did not seem to matter at all. It still doesn't in the dead letter office of our public museum collections policy. Modest individual efforts in the collectivity can add to our sense of a fluid and healthy culture...
La Raza was a prime example of this public and social enthusiasm. They looked to the social matrix for their inspiration. They raised a storm in the Montreal scene. In the late 1980s, the city of Montreal was still openly pluralistic, as it is today, though the spirits has been muted for a while by the rhetorical tenor of Quebec 's internal political babbling. La Raza Group wanted to communicate social concerns through art. They set up in an old factory in Saint Henri. They traveled to Koln , Germany where they held an exhibition at the Ernst Brandt Gallery there. In Ireland , they exhibited their paintings at the Guinness Hop Store Gallery in Dublin in 1991 under the festival theme of Patriarchy and the Goddess. The show was opened by Anne Yeats, the daughter of W.B. Yeats. Robert O'Driscoll performed his epic poem NATO and the Warsaw Pact are One alongside La Raza. The local press called the large 10 by 20 foot unframed canvas that was the centrepiece to the show as having the same lurid impact as sectarian political graffiti found on the city's walls. The work was later shown at an Amnesty International benefit in Montreal in 1990...
La Raza believed artistic practice need not fall back on aesthetic truisms or rhetorical definitions of what it should or could be. The belief that art had a social role to play was rigorously rejected by dealers, curators, even cultural bureaucrats at the time. Now, ironically, many people endorse the belief that art has a social role to play, particularly in Canada , but younger artists do not believe that artistic expression can ever exist independent of government or corporate funding. So art these days looks like it is free, but is actually absolutely dependent on external funding. The mercurial impulse, the creative gesture have become deadly self-conscious, and circumscribed by academic and corporate ideology. The standard viewpoint of arts place in society was that it could be appreciated by a public, but it need not have a public in mind. In other words, art was considered by artists to be ineffectual in communicating to a broader public, even before it was even created. Perhaps the social matrix was different in Canada than other countries such as the United States , as Canada was largely peaceful, and its public accepted the status quo.
Art can speak to a public.
La Raza believed this was true when, in 1988, when the group was founded. The hope was that the public and community were inseparable and that art could encourage a populism. Issues were part of the language of La Raza's art, and still is reflected in artworks by each individual member to this day. They could involve internal questions as to Canada 's destiny particularly after the failure of the Meech Lake accord, as was the case with the La Raza's Owe Canada Owe Quebec series (1992). The painterly language of these works was not perfectionist, and involved a popular vernacular style. Off the cuff was in. Confusion was reflected in the imagery and icons seen in Keepers of the Flame: It Used to be the Railway that Kept us Together now its Hockey, for example. Here the separatist leader Jacques Parizeau (famous for his comment that ethnics and anglos were all that kept Quebec from achieving independence after the PQ lost the 1995 referendum in Quebec) along with a fleur-de-lys symbol is juxtaposed against an image of the Montreal Canadians hockey team. Words emblazoned above read Chrysler and below read Keepers of the Flame. To the right of the canvas we see the image of Gerald Pedros in athlete's vest with red maple leaf symbol, a member of La Raza seen as a Canadian Olympian crossing the frontier from Lower Canada into Upper Canada . Corporate references in these works refer to the major move by Canada 's corporations out of Quebec due to the separatist threat.
Another painting titled Montreal Folk Heroes reads Quebec and Me and has former Prime Minister Trudeau in a casual stance. Two smaller images, one of former premiers Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard sealing the deal, cozily shake hands and the other a painterly representation of an undeveloped polaroid image (the future of Quebec in Canada ?) act as blinders to a young man's face. Painterly fragments include Leonard Cohen's The Future album cover, a Quebec provincial flag with writer Mordecai Richler, Oh Canada ! Oh Quebec !leaning against it, with Quebec Libre graffiti, and the word OUT. The message is public but reflects a minority view within Quebec , but one that embraces a democratic vision of society as an inclusive, socially responsible one. The humanistic vision will never be erased from peoples that remember the lessons of history, particularly when the oppressed become the oppressors, as is so often the case. This, without any public in mind, exclusively a political and governmental phenomenon. A more positive painting One Canada has a hockey face off seen from a bird's eye view, the Bluenose an east coast masted sailboat to the right and a west coast Native totem pole to the left.
The greatest contribution an artist can make is in changing the viewer's awareness or perception of reality. In so doing, the artist unleashes the potential of not only themselves, but of those who experience their art too. Artists building a context for social change. Community can be a place for innovation, for artistic intervention. In a way the city neighbourhood provides a much greater reward than money or recognition to the artist. It provides a sense of place, and of having a place within a community. Thus one's individual identity is enhanced by the collective involvement. Though this may seem utopic, idealistic, or even naive, it is a belief held by people of all ages all over the world, and Canada is no exception.
Like La Raza's Owe Canada Owe Quebec series (1992), the Urban Realities (1994) series of paintings were a collective effort, with each artist contributing to the overall production. Raps a Nice Present is a popular expression of unofficial culture in a white dominated North America . We see a black man with sunglasses, and American flag flying. The background is crimson red. The double entendre here is an imperial pop culture wrapped up in patriotism, that exploits but does not really recognize black culture. Operation Gun Control presages Michael Moore's Oscar winning film Bowling for Columbine. The painting depicts yet another gunshot casualty on a gurney in a hospital operating theatre. The painting relates to Line of Fire, another La Raza comment on the indoctrination of gun culture throughout America culture. We read the words U. S. Handgun Murders below, while the main painted image is of youth involved in target practice. An innocent bystander is in the line of fire... Love Don't Live Here Anymore is simple a depiction of urban reality in a tenement type neighborhood... an old lady stares off into space oblivious to the environment of garbage cans, and deterioration around her.
Even though each La Raza member has gone their own way in life, and each continues to produce art, each still adheres to the principals of artmaking they originally believed in. Conformity, art programs, and museology have reduced the terrain of independent art collectives like La Raza Group. They were open-minded, exhibited wherever they could, even in pool halls, and internationally. They had no agent or exclusive dealer. They were free to organize activities independently, always with a public in mind.
The notion that the public matters to art, and that artistic expression should be accessible to a public has largely been abandoned by postmodern artists who seek to assuage museum and gallery curator's wishes. The servile role of contemporary art to society, is in part the result of too much cultural bureaucracy and too much business intervention into the cultural sector. Public perception of what art can or should be has been distorted by this manipulation of the artist's intention.... The result is an art that has no audience and serves its multiple masters like a widget or cog in a wheel disconnected from society.
Art can transform society, play a role in bettering our understanding of one another. It involves seeing our place in relation to each other and seeing the larger world context. This was central to La Raza's ideology, and remains a principle these artists still adhere to. La Raza's contribution to the multicultural mosaic that is Canadian culture is significant. They celebrate the place Montreal as a city has, and still does play, as a multi-cultural magnet in North America , a centre for cultural experimentation and freedom.
- John K. Grande