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Border-area sculpture stirs resentment

Artists claimed image of snoozing Mexican depicted complex ties

The statue, named "Solo," was commissioned for ASU's Future Arts  Research program, which hosts artists in residence from around the  world.

The statue, named "Solo," was commissioned for ASU's Future Arts Research program, which hosts artists in residence from around the world.

A public art project that was supposed to depict the image of a snoozing Mexican with his head beneath a sombrero has stirred resentment from some Hispanics even though the sculpture collapsed just minutes after being removed from a mold.

“When I saw the picture and read about it, I just thought, ‘How sad. What a lost opportunity, and what a waste of money,’ ” said Zarco Guererro, a prominent Latino artist in Arizona. “For all of my life, that image has represented a lazy Mexican.”

The artists who created a 12-foot statue for a public art program at Arizona State University say their project depicts the complex relationship between borders and culture. Others say the installation in a border region notorious for illegal immigration promotes a negative stereotype of laziness.

Guererro is one of several Mexican-Americans taking issue with the statue, erected in November on the Tohono O’odham reservation in Topawa.

Rafaela Castro, California author of “Chicano Folklore,” agreed that the statue carries a negative connotation, but wondered if the creators mistakenly viewed it as positive. Castro said she was confused about having public art in a smuggling corridor.

“Depending on the education of the drug runners and the coyotes coming across, they might be offended,” she said. “But I doubt it’s going to hold them back.”

The statue, named “Solo,” was commissioned for ASU’s Future Arts Research program, which hosts artists in residence from around the world. The piece composed of sand and water resembles yard ornaments, and was designed to symbolically erode over time.

But Veletta Canouts, administrator at Tohono O’odham Nation’s Cultural Center, said “Solo” expired shortly after delivery. The project is located behind the cultural center.

“It collapsed after they took the mold off, so it’s been pretty much a mudpie,” she said. “It didn’t dry, so it just slumped down.”

The statue was created by indigenous Canadian artist Rebecca Belmore and her Cuban husband, Osvaldo Yero. Neither responded to interview requests.

Biographies posted by Future Arts Research describe the two as specialists in depicting conflicts between people and political borders.

Neil Borowicz of Phoenix, an artisan who assisted in creating Solo, confirmed that the statue began to fall apart within minutes.

Marilu Knode, associate director of the program, said Belmore and Yero were aware of a “very bad stereotype” associated with the sleeping Mexican. “Of course they understood the politics of that piece,” she said. “It’s called ‘Pancho,’ and is very charged.”

However, Knode said, Belmore recognized vestiges of pre-Columbian tribal artifacts in the figure and wanted to make a statement about the transitory nature of culture and boundaries. So they designed a public display that would wither away, and erected it on an Indian reservation straddling the U.S.-Mexico line.

“They were saying the border is very fleeting, and people have been crossing this area for thousands of years,” Knode said. “It’s a complex expression, and that’s what artists do. . . . They ask people to think.”

Amid a budget crisis, ASU has been forced to cut programs, lay off employees, limit enrollment and increase tuition. The future arts program operates out of the office of university President Michael Crow, who has touted its cultural fusion.

About two dozen scholars and multimedia artisans participate. Staff salaries are paid with public funds, Knode said, but “Solo” and nine other works completed to date were financed by a private donor.

Daniel Bernardi, director of ASU’s Film and Media Studies Department, initially said the image is “highly problematic” and “analogous to the lawn ornament of an African-American carrying somebody else’s golf clubs.”

Upon further review, Bernardi decided that “Solo” is “quite beautiful and poetic.” In Mexico today, he said in an e-mail, “it might come to mean the solace of hard work in the sun – requiring rest and contemplation.”

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