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interview transcript

Date of Interview: May 01, 2003
Location: USA
Topic: Interview with Gerardo Yepiz / Acamonchi
Interviewer: Donna Conwell

LatinArt:  What is Acamonchi?

Acamonchi:  The word itself means, "piggyback riding." It is a slang word from my hometown in Ensenada, Mexico. It isn’t supposed to mean anything. It just sounds funny. Acamonchi started as a fanzine. It developed out of my interest in underground press. Later on I became attracted to what was going on in the graffiti scene in the United States (guerilla art; not necessarily gang related but radical activism). It was through this interest that I decided to move from the fanzine to street stencil work. When you make a fanzine it is great but you have a limited audience. In the street everyone can see your work. I felt that the information and subject matter that I wanted to deal with should be presented to everybody, not just people involved in the underground scene. After that I started to make paintings and the whole Acamonchi thing developed from there.

LatinArt:  Acamonchi is a collective isn’t it?

Acamonchi:  It is and it isn’t. It depends. Sometimes it is just myself. Sometimes it’s a group of friends putting my images up. I would like to see it as a collective but when it comes to responsibilities I am the one who is responsible for everything: the bills to be paid, duties to be done. I always like to say we. I try to help my friends out with web/graphic design projects and fine art. My website shelters other artists’ websites. If I get offered a show and there is a chance to put other artists’ work in, I’ll do that. I’ll paint half a painting and ask somebody else to finish it so they can participate. I am always open to other peoples’ work and especially if they are good and honest and I’m friends with them. I suppose I have a collective mentality. I try to create a communal spirit.

LatinArt:  The fact that people can download stencils from your website also encourages this kind of collective mentality. People can participate in what you are doing by putting up your images themselves.

Acamonchi:  There is a template that they can download. Some of my images are there for people to use whenever they like. I don’t like to put every stencil that I have cut on the website because I want to reserve some of the images for myself. It’s sort of like a trademark. I also like people to be able to see new work that isn’t on the website. It keeps the mystery going.

LatinArt:  Could you tell us about your work’s relationship to popular culture?

Acamonchi:  My work draws a lot on northern Mexican culture. In 1994 Luis Donaldo Colosio, the PRI’s presidential candidate, was assassinated in Tijuana. They said that a fanatic killed him but everybody knew it was his own party. It was a complete cover-up. The Colosio experience was like a Mexican JFK. So what does that tell you? It tells you that as a Mexican citizen you don’t have any rights. Anybody can kill you and there will never be any kind of justice. So, I started to use his image in my stencils and then later I started to make fun of the whole thing. In 1999, when the PRI was campaigning for the next Mexican presidential candidate, I put Colosio’s image with the words "regresaré" (I’ll be back). I wanted to highlight the fact that this was just the same bullshit all over again. Then I started depicting him with an astronaut’s helmet on, in a cowboy outfit, and in other amusing guises.

I have also used Televisa’s Raul Velazco’s image. I have made ranchero Velazco, gay-biker Velazco, among others. It isn’t the people themselves that I am interested in. It’s what they stand for. Colosio represents Mexico’s corrupt politics. Velazco stands for the media and how the media is used to alienate and manipulate people: from the music we are supposed to listen to, to where you should shop and eat. My work is a reaction against all that. The work is very political but also funny. I don’t want to be making dull political art that nobody is going to be able to understand or appreciate. Most of my work consists of jokes - funny commentaries designed to make you think.

Another aspect of my interest in popular culture is the fact that I base a lot of my work, particularly my paintings, on Mexican hand-made advertising - the kind you see in Tijuana all over the place. The people who make these advertisements have no artistic skills, no knowledge of graphic design or typography. They just go for what is convenient and sometimes the results are amazing. Every country has its folk art. This work is a very pure expression of the people. TJ is a multi-cultural environment where the first and the third world begin. That transition is very strange and as an artist it gives you a lot of ideas just by looking around.

LatinArt:  Given the cultural specificity of your work, how do people outside of Mexico respond to it?

Acamonchi:  Sometimes I worry that I am putting barriers between myself and other people - as if I am saying, "if you’re not Mexican you aren’t allowed to understand my work" - but in a way that is pretty silly. There is a lot of art for everybody. If you think about the work being done in the United States, the artists don’t really care if people in other countries can understand what they are saying. I feel guilty because I should be doing work that everyone can relate to but at the same time there is a lot of work to be done and things to be said about Mexico and I am definitely putting a lot of energy into those kinds of projects.

LatinArt:  What do you make of the international interest in what is going on in Tijuana and in your own work?

Acamonchi:  I wasn’t expecting to see such a big reaction. It seems that all of this came about right after Nortec. There are a lot of artists in TJ. There is a lot of good work being done: from graphic design, to painting, to sculpture. There has always been a scene in TJ but as I said, I think it was Nortec that really put it on the map. The whole phenomenon is kind of funny. Last year the Nortec guys were having a party in TJ and it turned out that David Jay and Daniel Ash from Bauhaus were there. I asked my friend, "is the scene so screwed up in England that they have to come to TJ or is TJ really cool now?" If you would have told me ten years ago that we would have had a party and the guys from Bauhaus would have been there I would have laughed. And what is even more ironic is that I was a punk rocker when I was a teenager and my influences were British bands like the Crass, GBH and Discharge. So, all this interest in what is going on here in TJ is a bit of a turn around.

I suppose personally I have always been reaching for the international scene, even before Acamonchi, and Nortec. I used to be a mail artist. I traded art around the world by mail: tapes, chain-letters, collage, visual poetry, recording radio stations and sending it to France and to India, where even the dumbest thing on the radio was something different. This was before the Internet. The Internet has brought on a communications explosion: people can listen to radio stations all over the world now. I gave up mail art this year. I can’t keep up with it. It’s too expensive and I’m just too busy.

LatinArt:  Do you see yourself as part of a border art scene? How do you see your work in relation to the border art that was produced in the 80s?

Acamonchi:  I think that a lot of work that was made in the 80s around the concept of the border isn’t really very challenging or provocative. It doesn’t really reflect what was going on. I don’t want a label on my back saying that Gerardo is a border artist, or border graffiti artists, or a Chicano artist. I just don’t think that is the point. I’m not sponsored. I don’t have any grants and I think that gives me the right to do whatever the hell I want. A grant would be great, it would save me a lot of financial headaches, but at the same time right now I don’t have the pressure to conform. I can talk about issues that are going on with the border without it becoming to clichéd or soft.

LatinArt:  Following on from your response, you say on your website that Acamonchi are not Chicanos and you’re not planning to become Chicanos either. What do you mean by that?

Acamonchi:  Well I see myself as a Mexican person living in the United States. I’m not Mexican American or Chicano. I get frustrated that when people see my work and learn that I am Mexican they often assume I am a Chicano artist. Chicano artists are politically active but I am not trying to do the same thing as them. I don’t have the same conflict of identity: the need to retain my social, political and cultural identity because I have been treated as a minority. Chicanos are trying to rescue their cultural values and their community spirit. There is a lot to be said for their work and their support for border issues like immigration, but I also see a lot of clichés in their art. For example, the catholic influence, the abundance of virgins as a reference to Mexican culture. I think Mexico is more than that. We were only raised as Catholics by imposition.

LatinArt:  You now live in San Diego with your wife, have you found working in San Diego a positive experience?

Acamonchi:  Absolutely! I have been in this studio for little over a year and it has been great. I have done so many things: lectures to kids about graphic design, shows, and I have produced a lot of work. I think that there is a lot of talent in Mexico but one thing I hate about my country is that it is usually only the rich who have the opportunity to participate. Being rich in Mexico is tied up with color. Most rich Mexicans are of white European descent. Opportunities in the arts for the most past go to people who have money. If you come from another country, especially Europe or the United States, you are welcomed and treated really well but poor members of Mexican society are treated very badly. When it comes to the arts it works in the same way. There are artists who are successful and who have real talent like Daniella Rossell and Miguel Calderon, but there are also a lot of artists who are there because of the class they come from and because of the friendships they have. They have received grants but they aren’t really putting enough energy into their projects. I try to fight against that.

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