Professor's passion for activism influences his art
by Brian De Los Santos
Professor Harry Gamboa Jr.’s first masterpiece involved a couple cans of spray paint and a wall at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art which served as his canvas.
In 1972, Gamboa and two other members of his art entourage, Asco(Spanish for nauseated), had asked a museum curator at LACMA why Chicano art was nonexistent in the museum and he told them Latinos did not partake in art but rather in gangs.
The art group responded by tagging their names on the right corner of the museum around 4 a.m., making the building itself a work of art produced by Chicanos.
The black and red graffiti had brief physical existence of about seven hours.
“It was a way to play the term he had used,” he said.
The piece, now know as Spray Paint LACMA, is one of many that have contributed to Gamboa’s reputation as an artist and voice for the underdog.
He’s been described as a “pioneer for art in action” by performance artists like Maris Bustamante, while his colleagues describe him as a humble man with an immense influence.
His avant-garde skills have allowed him to touch multiple realms in the world of art. His work, with its political activist notion, has not ceased to deliver messages to the masses.
However, on the CSUN campus, Harry Gamboa Jr., a world-renowned Chicano artist, is known for a different role as teacher.
Although he currently teaches a remedial writing class, Gamboa has taught art, theater, cinema, photography and Chicana/o studies at various UC campuses, as well as the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia and Otis.
He has also lectured at Harvard University, UC Berkley, School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Centro Cultural de España, Mexico City and several others.
But long before stepping into his role as a teacher and lecturer, Gamboa pursued his passion for art, activism and people.
The East LA native began his career as an artist in the early 1970s, when he was an editor for several magazines.
The experience from those publications developed his unique eye for design, something that he is known for.
The artist has explored a plethora of artistic platforms, from photography to murals, film and canvas.
Gamboa also tried his hand at writing, producing several poems, books and essays, which have been used as academic course readers, as well. Most of his pieces are politically inclined, translating an idea onto a medium of art.
Human rights and activism have played a major role in Gamboa’s life since the 1960s, when he stood as one of the students who fought for education reform when the Chicano movement was being developed and the “East LA Walkout” occurred.
As part of the movement, Gamboa delivered speeches, spoke with the media regarding the subject, involved other youth and mentored protestors. He was fully involved, hoping to alter an education system that did not favor minorities at the time.
Gamboa said in comparison to the 60s and the education protests today, back then “it was a life or death situation” because it was either being drafted or accepted into school.
“It was imminently to stop the war,” he said.
He also battled the military drafts with protests against the Vietnam War.
“I was very interested and always pointing out the inconsistencies of what was being told to us versus what was real,” Gamboa said.
He added that during the early 1970s, today’s communication technology was absent, therefore many people created “things that were not real.”
Gamboa’s solution was to tell stories through photographs, which became his craft and expression of choice.
“My focus early on (in art) was always about establishing rumors and myths,” he said. “In the end that is kind of what I still do.”
Gamboa went on to say that through his art he enjoys generating interest, creating excitement, presenting new ideas or images that have not been expressed before.
He said he draws inspiration from everyday people in everyday circumstances and transforms the ordinary scenario into an extraordinary work of art. For example, Gamboa said when he steps onto a bus, he documents his journey with writings or photographic scenes from the common people who crowd the seats.
“It’s the idea that I can photograph an individual who had previously been under the affects of negative stereotyping, then bring that image and transform the concept of whom this person represents,” Gamboa said. “Not only does it become art, but it also becomes something included in the (mainstream) dialogue, canceling out the negative stereotypes.”
His passion for activism and human rights has not wavered over the years. Most recently, the artist has rallied for immigrant rights and education and has drawn artistic inspiration from the causes.
Gamboa’s most recent projects, Aztlangst, a photonovela (graphic novel), is aimed to interpret the story of oppressed groups such as those who are being affected by Arizona’s controversial immigration law.
“(The graphic novel is based on) people who are in hiding, who are operating on a different level of awareness because they are being hunted down,” Gamboa said.
He said that he is also in the process of completing Pix, a collection of his favorite photography work from the 1970s to recent years.
“I found it my calling in life to to minor events and to transform and give them a historic nature even though they might not be worthy of history,” Gamboa said. “(I want) to have fun trying to create change.”
Junior Natalia Baires, 21, psychology, a former student of Gamboa’s, described his impact on her life as both a “privilege and bizarre.”
“(I feel) privileged because he was a good professor and bizarre because he did so much to fight for Chicanos,” Baires said. “It is weird to know that this humble and ordinary looking man did all that plus more.”
Over the span of his 30 year career, his work has attained world-wide attention and has been exhibited in acclaimed museums like the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Museo de Arte de Zapopan, Guadalajara, Mexico, Centre Pompidou, Paris, Smithsonian Institution and the list goes on.
Dr. Denise Sandoval, CSUN Chicana/o studies instructor, has known Gamboa for about 16 years and has been included in his art troupe since 2004. She also participated in photo shoots for Aztlagnst and other projects.
Sandoval said Gamboa’s gift is his unique view of the world.
“When you see that little twinkle in his eye, that’s little trouble maker in his life,” she said. “And that is what makes him a fabulous artist.”