Artist Profile | Jaque Fragua: Reclaiming Native Symbolism
Photo: Jaque Fragua by @indiangiver and @mmoriesonppers on Instagram.
This is not a swastika. That’s the caption beneath one of artist Jaque Fragua’s representations of a whirling log, an ancient symbol appropriated by Adolph Hitler. “I’m reclaiming it for my culture and my community and what it represents to us rather than letting go of it or demonizing it or hiding it from ourselves,” says Fragua, who has a tattoo of the symbol and uses it occasionally in his art.
Akin to a spiritual compass, the whirling log appears in cultures across the world, not just in Native communities. And yet, at least on Instagram, so few people know the symbol outside of the Third Reich references that Fragua’s photographs of it have been removed more than once from the social media site.
“To me, it’s funny that it’s offensive to other people,” he says. “It’s my being, my entity, my identity. If it’s being offensive, it just explains to me how ignorant and how uneducated our society is about everything, and the lies that most people believe in.”
Use of the whirling log isn’t the only way Fragua stirs the pot. He critiques stereotypes, political policies, and racism in his work through indigenous iconography, pop culture symbolism, patterns and text, most recently working a style he describes as “appropriating appropriation.” On his Instagram account, you’ll find the billboard, above, paired with the caption “I paint billboards while you work for a corporation whose mission is to destroy the land where said billboards exist” or the Cleveland Indians logo Chief Wahoo above the word “fuck” along with “The Pentagon spends some $4.7 billion a year on recruiting, advertising, public affairs and psychological operations, according to a 2009 report published by The Associated Press. And much of that is targeted at the audiences of professional sports.”
Fragua’s work is painfully relevant and relentless. “I’m trying to go the Andy Warhol route, which is repetition ad nauseam, putting it in people’s faces until they see something that isn’t right with it,” he says.
From humble beginnings and a large family, Fragua grew up in an adobe house on Jemez Pueblo, about an hour northwest of Albuquerque. He began painting ceremonial objects for dances and cultural rituals in his youth. As an adolescent, he attended high school in Denver, and got into graffiti (along with some trouble). Formal training at the Institute of the American Indian Arts in Santa Fe followed.
Pre-Internet, the mainstream public didn’t know what was happening on reservations or in contemporary Native culture; Fragua saw an opportunity to use his experiences as the basis for his body of work. “I felt like the art I was interested in making could be a conduit for dialogue and to spread that awareness,” he says.
On canvas, in mixed media pieces, on the walls at the Nativo Lodge or building exteriors, and even scrawled across trains, Fragua’s blunt, bright aesthetic is both eye-catching and attention-grabbing without resorting to preachiness. A versatile artist, he’s worked with everything from oil and acrylic to wheat paste, spray paint, textiles, and neon.
“When I paint, the intention is not to be successful, in the Western perspective, or have some type of reward. I’m not doing it for any of that,” he says. His goal is to strike the core of people’s consciousness, to create work that transcends, connects, and sparks conversation. “I think shock value is a huge thing in art these days, but for me, I want to do it in a more subtle way, in a more conceptual and phenomenal way.”
The mural he’s most proud of is the one that graces Indian Alley in downtown Los Angeles, created by invitation from street artist Shepard Fairey and painted in collaboration with Fairey and L.A. based artist Ishi Glinksy. “I feel like it really resonated with the community and a lot of people really love it. It’s one of the more trafficked or visited murals of mine that I know of,” Fragua says. “That’s more or less what I would like to see in the future and in the world right now: collaboration for progress, Natives working with non-Natives, and bringing spotlights to issues that people never get to see.”
Lately, he’s been toying more with neon and signage inspired by childhood travels around the southwest during which he made stops at different trading posts. “As a kid, you don’t really understand what’s going on in terms of economy and image and identity,” he says. “Those images and artifacts or tchotchkes that people were selling to tourists burned themselves into my brain because I had no correlation with them and they stuck out so much from what I felt was genuine or authentic. I tried to make sense of ‘Why do people think this is what Native Americans are? This is not me.’ That’s a conversation that I still have with myself.”
An artist constantly on the move, Fragua is vocally critical about his home state of New Mexico and its exploitation of indigenous cultures to promote its lucrative tourism industry to “rich, white Texans,” he says. “The state makes a lot of money off the people coming in and out just to buy a dream-catcher.”
Though Fragua has a love-hate relationship with galleries, he believes they will always be essential to art in Western culture. “The experience with art is a tangible one. People have to see it with their own eyes to believe it,” he says. “People underestimate it on their phones. When they see it in real life, it’s like an awakening.”
He hopes to open his own gallery someday soon, another move indicative that his style of art isn’t about honing a niche; it’s a mission. “We’ve been fighting not only for our cultural practices and way of life but our very survival, living day to day, for over 500 years,” he says. “The culture is so vibrant. The energy there is really intense. Anything that has anything to do with Native contemporary culture right now is very charged because the dialogue is becoming more open and a lot more people are participating in it. People want to be allies to the different struggles that are occurring in the world with Native Americans and indigenous people and they might not necessarily know how to do that because it’s never really been done before…Art is definitely a way to help people understand how to do that.”