Decolonizing Art with Mincho Vega

By Leslie Ambriz on May 29, 2020
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His kindergarten students were supposed to be learning about Medieval Europe, but Benjamin Rojas had something else in mind. Instead of the usual Eurocentric art history lesson, he decided that he was going to teach his class about the temples that existed throughout medieval Latin America.

Benjamin Rojas is both a prekindergarten through middle school art instructor and visual artist whose work in the classroom, and throughout his own personal creations, focuses on the decolonization of the art world. The Bay Area native does this by challenging the status quo through his artwork, and weaving in themes of Indigenous history, resistance, and ancestral legacy. 

Those looking for Rojas’s art in galleries or online can find it under the name Mincho Vega—a name that derives from his Salvadoran roots and his days as a young graffiti artist. 

Vega has always considered himself an artist and a creative, but it wasn’t until he became a teen that he started to become more aware of the injustices that were happening in the world.

This journey introduced him to the worlds of hip-hop and graffiti, which gave him an outlet to create art out of resistance. He saw it as a powerful motivator that would allow him to convey a message that would challenge those who came across his work. It would cause these spectators to think, wonder, and hopefully learn more about their own history and that of those around him. This passion for challenging the status quo led to his creation of the art collective, Trust Your Struggle.

In a recent Zoom interview, Vega spoke about his past work as the co-founder of Trust Your Struggle, how art and activism go hand in hand, and the importance of seeing artists of color represented in academic spaces.

The below conversation has been edited and condensed. 

What attracted you to graffiti as a young artist? 

I had always admired graffiti art. And so I just loved the rebelliousness of it, and just being able to write what you want wherever you want. And then also it was against the establishment of a gallery setting, you know? The artistic goal of an artist is to be like, “I want to be in the gallery,” and this was anti-that, it was like, “Let’s make the gallery everywhere.” So if we’re going to make art, let’s make it art for everyone to see.

Why is graffiti seen as such a controversial art form? 

From the get-go, we’re taught very Eurocentric art principles, where art is only supposed to be one way, supposed to look this way, supposed to have these white people, and these white ladies, and these white men. And it’s controlled in a way that it’s going to make a profit.

So when there’s something that’s not creating a profit for businesses and governments and society, it’s seen as unruly. And I love that part of it, that it was unruly and anyone can do it.

But it’s pretty deep when you think about it, because you have—especially kids of color—in the cities that don’t have anything. You feel voiceless, you feel invisible. How can you make yourself visible, but at the same time, stay invisible? [Graffiti is] like this really cool kind of magic trick. It’s like, I’m going to make a whole other alter-ego for myself. I’m going to make a name that’s not really my name, you know? And I’m going to put it out there, and I’m going to connect a message to it.

I feel that graffiti was a way to decolonize art. A lot of youth don’t see it that way, but it definitely is.

How do you incorporate that concept of decolonization in your work today? 

Much of my work is dedicated to honoring my ancestors. Ancestors come in many forms; people, plants, animals, gods, [and] goddesses. Folklore is also another way of honoring my ancestors, playing a role in revitalizing those stories, images into contemporary visual art for other folks from the Central American diaspora. To take pride in what is Indigenous is an act of decolonization, especially being from El Salvador where the attempted extermination of all that was “indio”, Arab, or Black, is still practiced in education and social structure. 

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You started “Trust Your Struggle” with a group of artists from different crews. Can you tell me about how its creation came to be?

So Trust Your Struggle was a group that was formed by myself, Robert Trujillo, and Scott Hoag. It was the three of us. And we were each in three different crews. And we came together because we noticed all three of us were using graffiti and using our art to kind of speak about things that were larger than just us and our name. And we felt the rest of our crews weren’t really doing that.

So we kind of took it upon ourselves to be like, “Let’s form our own new collective,” that specifically was talking about the injustices of the world and our own real histories. And so that was in the early 2000s, 2001, 2002. Somewhere around there, we formed.

We had a small show in the East Bay. And then from then on, we kind of just took off, we started adding more members, people that we knew, people that we had grown up with that felt familiar, [and whose] work was on a similar wavelength.

Then, I want to say 2005 or ’06 we did a mural tour. So we went throughout Latin America starting in Mexico City.

So we made a couple of contacts, and we started in [Mexico City], and we did murals for free, for anyone who wanted a mural, anyone that was doing community work. And so as long as they gave us food and we had a place to stay we were like, doing murals. And we did that for a month or two, or something like that. We went to a lot of places in Mexico.

And then a couple of us went back, and I continued on. And I went to Nicaragua, and I went to El Salvador to see my family, of course. But it was dope, it was like, a life-changing experience. And just being able to actually offer your art for free and meet the people and network, and it was great. I loved it, I loved it.

We’ve done a couple after that, but that was the first one we did. And so since then, we’ve all kind of grown. A lot of us had families. But we’re still working together, we’re still creating a lot of murals and staying tied in with the community.

What is the role of an artist as an activist? Should these two be combined? 

I would say within communities of color, our artists have always been activists. It was never separated. They were never two different things. It was just the way our art had always manifested from us.

In your opinion then, is it every artist’s responsibility to speak on social injustices through their work? Or should that be something that naturally appears in their art if it’s a part of their belief system and their upbringing?

Yeah, it’s definitely for each to his own. And no one should be judged, no one should be like, “Yo, you should be making art for this campaign. You’re painting flowers on the wall, what’s up with that? You should be painting some dope-ass activist people and heroes and shit.”

Man, you never know. You never know what those flowers are going to inspire, you know what I’m saying? And like I said, if they are an artist of color then just being in the forefront and doing what they do, it’s already activism. 

On top of being a great artist, Vega also holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from San Francisco State University and New York University in Art Education. While getting his master’s, Vega remembers being the only man of color in the first part of his masters program, and aims to change that by exposing his students to a diverse catalog of artists from various movements. 
As an educator, how do you take these ideas and concepts of decolonization and apply them in your classroom? 

For me, as an educator, I try my best to bring in things that I’m really passionate about. And so for me, that’s like one of my rules. If you’re not passionate about what you’re teaching, then don’t teach it. Your students are not going to be passionate about it. They’re going to be like, “Oh, you look like you’re bored teaching this, so I’m going to be bored. Like, why do I want to make what you… No, I don’t want to do that.”

I’m passionate about ancestors, I’m passionate about my culture. I’m passionate about women of color artists and people of color artists. And artists who are living with pre-existing conditions. And so I’m going to bring them to the forefront.

I show examples of artists all the time in my classrooms, and I make it a rule [that] I don’t show any white men in my classroom at all. No white men. I might have one white woman, but it’s all women of color, it’s all people of color. And that’s what I’m passionate about, I love showing that kind of decolonized version of teaching.

Just the fact that I am a man of color teaching art is super rare. There’s not many of us. And so I take that as a huge responsibility. For some of these kids, I may be the only Brown man they are ever going to see in that kind of position, you know? And yeah, so I’m going to really utilize it as much as I can.

Have you noticed a difference in how your students of color approach art because of this teaching method? 

Yeah. I do, I do, and I often highlight it too. And I’m like, “Look at this artist. She could look like one of your tías, it could look like your mom, it could look like somebody in your family.”

I think back to when I showed Basquiat to my fifth graders. And the one Black kid who, I teach in a private school now, and he’s the one Black kid in the class. And I said, “Oh, he’s Puerto Rican and Haitian.” And he was like, “Hey!” And I was like, “Yes!” I was like, “Yes!” I was like, “I got you.” That’s what I want. He was just like, “Yes. No one talks about this. Let’s talk about artists from Haiti.” You know?

I mean, from my experience, I never had that in all my education. The only people that I saw that looked like me that was creating art were graffiti artists. And growing up, it was always like, “Whoa, this guy is in college? He looks like me, and he’s doing graffiti, and he’s in college?” I was like, “This shit is dope. I want to go to college.”

So I try to bring that in as early as possible, and the school that I work at is really great for doing that. They’re just constantly pushing that agenda, like, “How can we show more Brown and Black people? Because that’s super important.

And super important for white kids to see that. Not only for us Brown and Black people but also the white kids too. They need to see another angle, you know? 

What advice do you have for young Latinx, Central American artists who are looking to break into the world in the same way that you have?

I would say challenge. Challenge is something different. And make a lot of mistakes, make a bunch of mistakes. That’s how you’re going to get good. And really practice, practice your craft. Practice it a lot.

I’m kind of from a mindset where I’m like, you really should have a great skill set to fall back on, you know? You should really have a great skillset to use when there’s no electricity. So be able to be really good at that one thing or a couple of things that you can do without electricity. And definitely don’t be afraid to be different. And listen to your elders. Who are your elders that you’re surrounding yourself with? 

Have artist mentors, artists that are older than you, that have been around for a while. And they don’t have to be in the same medium that you use. 

I want to say, a lot of generations that are younger than me, they might get kind of tripped up because we have so much shit at our fingertips. Which is dope. But your art’s only going to get better as you get older, and as you experience a lot more things.

So travel. If you travel, you’re going to experience things that you would never experience just living at home, wherever you live. So travel as much as you can, and you use that in your art.

And stay humble. One art professor of mine, when I was in my undergrad, said, “I’m excited about what I’m going to make 10 years from now. I’m not really interested in what I’m drawing now, I’m interested in what my shit is going to look like in 10 years.” 

That’s a dope way to think about it. I’m excited about 10 years, what’s my art going to look like. And there’s some artists that I’ve looked at on Instagram or folks that I kind of know personally, I’m like, “Oh, you’re dope. I’m excited about what you’re going to make 10 years from now when you get a little bit older, and you get your heartbroken, and you’ve traveled around. And all this other shit happened to you in your life, and you lost people, and you gained people.” That shit is what makes some really dope art if you allow it to. So experience as much as you can.

Lead illustration courtesy of: Mincho Vega

 

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