Now Reading
Chicano art pioneer’s work continues to resonate in new retrospective exhibit
Chicano Artist Malaquias Montoya poses for a portrait after completing the installation of his new show “Art of Struggle” at the Juan R. Fuentes Gallery. Photo: Mabel Jiménez

For Malaquias Montoya—a renowned artist and pioneering figure during the Chicano arts movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s—his art is all about social justice, and his upcoming exhibition at Acción Latina’s Juan R. Fuentes Gallery is no exception.

“Art of Struggle, Works by Malaquias Montoya,” which opens March 10, will feature a collection of politically themed posters from across the artist’s career. Montoya describes the work as speaking to social injustices that were relevant in previous eras and issues that are still happening now.

“I think the issues are pretty much the same as what they were back then,” said Montoya.

Vietnam Aztlan

Montoya, 79, grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and traveled with his family to California during the summers to work in the fields, harvesting peaches, grapes and apricots. He said that his migrant upbringing working in the fields along many immigrant workers has inspired his craft.

Montoya was raised by a single mother who encouraged him to attend school, hoping that education would provide a path for him out of the fields. He also credits his mother for giving him the discipline to pursue his goals and aspirations.

Montoya started sketching in the fourth grade—mainly drawing students around him. He said he enjoyed school because it provided him with his early tools of the trade, crayons and pencils.

Later on, Montoya moved to San Jose where he got a full time job silkscreening. He said it was his boss who recommended that he take classes in commercial art, which he did, enrolling at U.C. Berkeley.

He began making posters due to the high demand during the Civil Rights era, posters that spoke to different political issues, like the Vietnam War and the Third World strike.

Spreading Democracy

“The idea of using artwork to speak about issues that were taking place,” Montoya said. “I found it to be a really good way for me to use my art and give a voice to those people who don’t have a voice.”

He also describes his art as pointing fingers at those responsible for the living conditions that people of color face every day—injustices and the exploitation of a capitalist system. But Montoya’s work doesn’t only pertain to issues in the United States, it’s relevant internationally, in Africa and Central America for instance.

He credits his inspiration to reading many books and keeping up with news. For Montoya, there is always something going on in the world that needs to be spoken of.

“I think the first thing is, I walk in to the studio, I pick up a pencil and I’ll start reading … and before I know it, I’m sketching on a piece of paper,” Montoya said.

Montoya has had a profound influence the Chicano Art Movement. Alongside his brother Jose, he founded the Mexican-American Liberation Art Front (MALAF) based in East Oakland, a movement that has encouraged people to gather and discuss important issues of the time. He and a small collective of artists began meeting every Friday at a friend’s house in Berkeley to share ideas, and more importantly speak of were their art was going to be exhibited, and how their pieces were going to influence people around them.

Yo Soy Chicano

Montoya, who is now retired, once taught silk screening, mural painting and the history of Chicano art and culture. He continues to lecture about poster making and works with youth at Taller Arte De El Nuevo Amanecer, the studio he co-founded in Woodland, just north of U.C. Davis.

And Montoya continues to make posters. He created one of Donald Trump and titled it “Trump Dog.” Montoya calls for everyone to remain awake and present to fight against injustice.

“In a way, we are responsible for letting [Trump] become President,” he said. “We didn’t do enough… But sometimes that happens to us because the system puts us to sleep in a way. Nos dormimos. And before you know it, you wake up, and it’s a nightmare.”

He also encourages people to join a movement that helps immigrant communities, and hopes to inspire people with his creations. “I hope that my work empowers people to make them feel that they have a right to work against injustice.”

“Art of Struggle, Works by Malaquias Montoya” opens Saturday, March 10 at 5 p.m. at Acción Latina’s Juan R. Fuentes Gallery, 2959 24th St., San Francisco, and will run through April 27, 2018.

Story by: Vitta Oliveri