Moments after the paintings were set up on campus, students began to react. Fourth-year Tristan M. walked out of McHenry Library and was confronted with an image of two hooded men in suits — one wearing a police vest, with a gun and drug needle pointed toward his head in the background. The hoods resembled those worn by the KKK but were painted red, white and blue.
“These [images] definitely bring up themes we’ve been hearing for a while,” Tristan said. “Everything’s a market. Houses are not made to be lived in, they’re made to be sold. Drugs aren’t made to help people heal, they’re made to be sold. Nothing is sacred really. Everything’s just up for sale.”
The exhibit, “Divided States of America”, displayed six 8-by-8-foot paintings across UC Santa Cruz’s campus — one in the Cowell quad, two at Porter, one by the Science and Engineering Library and two at McHenry Library.
As Tristan stood examining the paintings — the hooded men in one and giant skyscrapers wearing business suits in the other — he explained that he felt about politics the way he supposed many people did. “You lose faith,” he said, but though he felt uncertain with the political system, he said he would vote in the upcoming elections.
“A quote I heard once is, ‘If voting brought about change you wanted to see, it would be illegal’,” said Guillermo Rogel Jr., Student Union Assembly (SUA) Vice President of External Affairs. “That suggests the general feeling of voting for some folks. People are still fighting for their voting rights.”
Rogel’s remarks highlight the intent behind the exhibit. With the help of fellow SUA members, Organizing Director Art Motta and documentarian Richard Brandes, Rogel worked to bring the paintings to UCSC.
With the 2016 primaries fast approaching and 20.2 million students attending U.S. colleges — many of whom are eligible to vote for the first time — college campuses were an ideal place to exhibit the pieces this year, Rogel said. He hoped these paintings would get important conversations started and encourage students to register to vote.
The provocative exhibit examines how the American dream has evolved or, perhaps, regressed over the years. Signs were placed next to each painting with descriptions of the images and the current political climate.
One sign written by the artist, Chor Boogie, read, “Racial, religious and sexual prejudice is dividing us. Related victimization due to this division is creating a permanent and perpetual underclass keeping many away from fair pay to basic rights like voting. This is keeping a significant and growing part of our population away from education, jobs, and social freedom…”
The journey and curation of the exhibit was financed by Dr. Nirmal Mulye who immigrated to the United States. Mulye earned a Ph.D. from Temple University in Philadelphia, and has since dedicated his money and time to empowering projects such as the “Divided States of America.”
As one painting with gasoline hoses resembling nooses was raised at the Science and Engineering Library, students paused their commute to examine the piece. Recent UCSC alumnus Rafa Talavera was heading to work at his lab when he was “instantly struck” by the images.
“It says a lot. It says we’re basically being noosed by gasoline,” Talavera said. “We’re looking at our end, so to speak.”
When asked about voting in the upcoming elections, Talavera said he feels as though it’s a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils and, even if there is positive change, it’s all being fueled by money. SUA Vice President of External Affairs, Guillermo Rogel Jr. said he thinks the paintings will incite discussions about what is driving the wedge between Americans and help students see voting is one of the platforms in which they can voice their opinion.
“I hope it captures students,” said Rogel, Student Union Assembly Vice President of External Affairs. “I hope it gets them to talk about these issues, and yes, I’d love them to get involved, but the first part of getting involved is actually knowing what issues are ahead of you, and then it’s finding out what outlets you have to solve those issues.”
“Divided States of America” began its journey at UC Berkeley on Oct. 6, with UCSC as its second stop on Oct. 7, and intends to travel across the United States engaging students in political dialogue one day and one painting at a time.