Critical thinking may begin with an objection formed in a debate deep within our mind. As we see life and expand, so does our belief system. This harvested sentiment nurtures us, protects us, and even defines us. But how do we identify and relate to one origin when our own is multicultural? Do we wake up one day feeling more defined by our birthplace, genre, sexual orientation, religion, political affiliations, peers, and work? There is a slight disconnect as the fragments of one culture clash with our upbringing. For those of us living in America with multicultural backgrounds, it’s easy to feel like, “We’re not from here, and we’re not from there.” So how do we open our minds, our beliefs, and our eyes to appreciating and accepting the different roads that lead to one common path we all tend to seek? The feeling of belonging, appreciation, and love.
Jose Zuniga explores the multicultural contradiction of being born in America with a Mexican backdrop. His pictures are, at moments, characters from his past, rearranged to depict the internal scrabble of endeavoring to define the search for a feeling of belonging without feeling, as he says, “That you’ve been deported twice. ” He further underscores this by stating, “As soon as a Chicano artist tries to become an American artist, they’re directed to the Latin American table. But then the Latin Americans are like, well, you’re not Latin American, you’re American.” This misplacement has guided him to observe life and search for a new way to communicate that may be misunderstood and not perceived by those who speak a different cultural language.
This search began early in his career while he was attending Columbia University. At the time, he was not receiving much praise from his teachers and mentors. His art was too focused on representing and referencing Chicano culture. Feeling prejudice in art school, Zuniga confides, “I had to switch, I had to turn that off, and basically tell them the same thing. But I was using Bauhaus aesthetics, using modernism aesthetics to talk about the same story. I guess there was a language conflict. I was speaking too much Spanish, and they didn’t understand it.”
As he adopted a new canon, he began to receive attention, recognition, and understanding from his teachers. He had to mutate into something else to be understood. Once understood, his art created a new notion where his teachers gave him the freedom to be himself. He found a way to communicate the same message through a channel where the viewer could digest it. This speaks to his intelligence and empathy on his part. He noticed what his teachers were going to lean towards and transformed. He subsequently wonders if he accomplished this out of necessity, survival, or attention.
The capacity and talent he has to realize there was an opening and how to develop that to create a bridge between two cultures are reasons his art is so appealing. In one of his works, “Tequila Sunrise,” he plays the guitar. And just like a Picasso figure, that painting becomes a ballot of these characters, of the options he had to perform to maneuver society. So there are layers and struggles we can discover in his work. You can deem there’s a deep meaning. A heaviness to it, something at the bottom weighted, pushing to get out.
“Painting style, for me, wasn’t a problem. It was, what is the most appropriate way to do this?”
His father was a mariachi player, and his roots were deeply Mexican. His father plays a role in many of his works. He is sometimes commemorated through his music or metaphorically in a clash of society.
Content-wise, his art is about characters that he often switches on and off, as he previously expressed. He remembers during our talk, “Constantly, I’m being like, Well, today, I’m going to be more American” there’s a story, but the narratives are fractured in his art. It’s putting pieces together because there needs to be more clarity. “I liked that there’s no clarity, to me, that was the way I had to maneuver society “because of the community and the socialization of the characters that we are all sort of assigned to by how we look or identify. This thought made him ponder.
” Well, am I really looking? Or am I just seeing the world? Because if I’m seeing the world, I’m not experiencing anything new. I’m trapped in this glass prism of projections, you know? So because seeing is in the mind and looking is like, where are your eyes, right?” It was important for Jose to uncover the distinction between seeing and looking and convert those observations into his art.
Part of the work or how he gets there is he converses with his inner child, to “little Jose” he tries to connect childhood freedom and creativity to draw, just sit there for no reason to draw, draw, draw. Losing his imagination. He asks his inner child to take his adult self back to a time of freedom, inner peace, and no judgments. Not to think about colors or forms; just let it all come out. “I don’t think about it. I pull the color out and just say, ” Alright, well, I like this. I like it like that. Let’s go there. And then, with color theory, we’ll figure it out later. talking to the younger self was a big part of alleviating a lot of anxiety from being a professional.” Jose doesn’t particularly like to mediate. But he does find clarity in his life by doing mundane things. Things where we don’t have to think about anything. When we’re on autopilot. “I believe there are little moments when your body, just your mind, is so relaxed that you just get the idea.”
Throughout our conversation, we discussed the challenges experienced by the Latin community.
The people in the community who, don’t have an education walking around with a language, ideas, and beliefs, at times inherited. Maybe they are not being who they can be because of culture and all the layers and beliefs implemented by our society. Jose portrays “a different understanding with scene, but not trying to undo the scene.” Mexican American artists and Chicano artists have always been making art. Do we wonder why these artists aren’t recognized in the American art canon? The ones who grew up with many stereotypical images of Mexican Americans, Chicano culture, and lowriders. Maybe one of the reasons why not so many people know about history is because of ethnic cleansing after 1848 and colonialism, and the assimilation into American society, and assimilating into different religions. Jose Zuniga is a success story. But as he feels, “I also am a way a caricature of that success story, because I came from those neighborhoods of Chicanos and lowrider cultures and gang cultures and migrant workers. And I dressed that way. And I taught that at some point. And thinking in retrospect, it’s hard for me to get out of these characters.”
“I think a beautiful thing to do is to observe life. And to take that step, I’m going to call it a step up, not a step back, to where the air is a little bit cleaner. And perhaps you can pause and notice that so much of what we are and what we do is situational. And sometimes it’s not our choice.”
Jose Zuniga received his MFA in Painting from Columbia University in 2017 and his BFA from Otis College of Art and Design in 2015. In 2018, Zuniga received the Rema Hort Mann Emerging Artist Grant and the Rema Hort Mann ACE Grant (Artist Community Engagement) as part of a collective LatinX-Files. In addition, he is a participant of the Bronx Museum (AIM) Artist In the Market (2018-2019). He was born in Ventura, California, USA.