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Rigo 99's artwork on the facade of the museum takes the form of three large banners. The first, a portrait of Leonard Peltier with the subscript It's 1999. Why is Leonard Peltier still in prison? refers to the Native American activist currently serving two life sentences at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary for the alleged killing of two FBI agents during a shoot-out at the Pine Ridge Reservation in North Dakota in 1975. Since the trial, much of the circumstantial evidence used to convict Peltier has been proven erroneous, and witnesses have recanted. Rigo is among the many who believe that Peltier is being held for political reasons because of his importance in the American Indian Movement (AIM), which the FBI regards as extremist. Although imprisoned since 1977, Peltier continues to speak out for Native American rights and for the conservation of dwindling natural resources.
This is not the first time Rigo 99 (his name changes with the year) has used his art, as he puts it, "to call attention to significant, though largely invisible, matters." These range from the environment to "imprisonment of individuals of cultural relevance." His 1996 installation at the Richmond Art Center, Time and Time Again, was dedicated to Geronimo Ji Jaga (Pratt), the former Black Panther who has just been exonerated of wrongdoing after serving twenty-seven years in prison.
The other two banners take the form of one-way directional arrows--a format for which Rigo has become known--facing each other as if on a collision course. One says Prisons, the other Computers, references to the two fastest growing industries in California. Since 1980, nineteen prisons have been constructed in California, while during the same time only one campus has been added to the University of California, despite an enormous increase in the state's population. Also during this period, the technology industry has helped make the San Francisco Bay Area one of the most affluent in the country--and one of the most expensive.
Although Rigo has done many gallery installations, he prefers to work outdoors in the public realm where he can communicate to the widest possible audience, including those who might not venture into a traditional art gallery. Since 1994 he has created several monumental outdoor paintings which mimic the design of traffic signage, exploiting graphic impact to communicate his own messages. This is a strategy that other artists like Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer have used as well. In a similar vein, as far back as the 1950s the French Situationists practiced what they called "detournement," or subversion of commercial advertising. And, of course, using art for political expression has a long tradition in Western Art. Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People of 1830, Goya's Disasters of War, 1819-1823, and, much more recently, Leon Golub's 1980s series of paintings of death squads and the collaborative Act Up's AIDS billboards, are examples.
Innercity Home, 1995, was the first in a series of murals Rigo created for San Francisco's semi-industrial South of Market neighborhood. Forty feet tall, the highly visible work consists of the title painted within the form of an interstate highway shield on the south wall of a new, low-income apartment house for the city's 6th Street residents. The artist met with tenants several times to arrive at a phrase that both identified the building and expressed their pride in their new home. As one man said, "on this street you are either are on the way up or on the way down; we want to show which we are." Another 1995 mural, One Tree, is seen by the thousands of motorists and pedestrians that pass by a blue building facade at 10th and Bryant streets, near the entrance to freeway 280. The title is contained within a directional arrow that points to a lone, frail-looking tree clinging for life in a nature-hostile environment. Other works--Extinct; 1995, Birds/Cars, 1997; and the recently completed Sky/Ground at Third and Mission streets--also draw attention to what is lost in the process of urbanization.
Rigo came to the Bay Area from his native Madeira Island, Portugal to study art. He received his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1991 and his MFA from Stanford University in 1997. He has shown widely in the Bay Area and abroad, last year creating a series of stone mosaics on a pedestrian walkway in Lisbon, Portugal, as part of EXPO 98's Urban Art Project.