Rigo 23: Ripples Become Waves at Beta Main


Rigo 23: Ripples Become Waves at Beta Main

By David Brazil March 27, 2018

A banner portrait in the exhibition Rigo 23: Ripples Become Waves at Beta Main asks the question: It’s 2018 – Why Is Leonard Peltier Still in Prison? The artist created this work in 1999, and has repeatedly overpainted the year in subsequent exhibitions to bring the work up to date. Even in photographs, you can see the contrasting reds behind “2018,” almost two decades since the piece was made.

Leonard Peltier has been in prison for my entire life. He is famous worldwide as a symbol of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and as a political prisoner in a country that claims it does not have political prisoners. So one answer to this painting’s question is: a continuing vendetta on the part of the FBI.

Rigo 23. Leonard Peltier – Waiting 2017; installation view, Ripples Become Waves, 2018, Beta Main. Courtesy of Main Museum. Photo: David Brazil.

This all-out campaign, detailed exhaustively in Peter Matthiessen’s classic In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, resulted in two consecutive life sentences for Peltier in connection with a shoot-out that occurred in 1975. Frustrated by the acquittal of two other AIM activists, the FBI poured all its resources into depicting Peltier, an activist with no previous criminal convictions, as a bloodthirsty cop-killer. He has been in prison since 1976. But the attacks have not stopped because Peltier is in prison. In 2017, American University in Washington, DC, dismantled Rigo 23’s statue of Peltier after a letter of complaint from the FBI Agents Association. This letter led to sensationalistic right-wing news coverage about the statue, followed by anonymous threats of violence of a kind that are becoming all too familiar in our era.

This imposing sculpture, modeled after a self-portrait Peltier painted in prison, has been repainted and restored as the centerpiece of Beta Main’s show. Works from the past two decades surround it in a circle defining Rigo’s long attention to Peltier’s case and the cause of Native sovereignty. Although the statue is pent up in a square of cinderblocks suggesting the dimensions of a cell, it looms larger, as though it would break out from those confines.

Those who know Peltier talk of his contributions as a spiritual leader, while the centrality of Native religion to his cause and AIM’s work were apparent at the exhibition’s opening. After opening prayer, Native musicians drummed and sang songs: for AIM, for Leonard Peltier, for warriors.

As I stood listening to this powerful music, taking on what it meant to stand as a settler on unceded land, I thought: At this very moment, as we stand here, Peltier is still in a cell. This statue is here because he cannot. He is in there right now as you are reading this, and he is not the only one.

In a time of deepening white supremacy and terrorism from both the federal government and the vigilantes it emboldens, of increasingly explicit fascist threat, and of the specter of state repression, Rigo 23’s exhibition reminds us of our connection with all our relations, especially those who have taken a stand against racism, colonialism, and economic exploitation. As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”

Rigo 23: Ripples Become Waves is on view at Beta Main in Los Angeles through May 18, 2018.

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