At California Nurses Association headquarters, an art show highlights “recognition”
on October 1, 2019
As the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, and the daughter of two proud union workers, Bonnie Castillo’s understanding of the world was forged in an atmosphere that celebrated people power through art. Growing up in Sacramento, Castillo volunteered with her mother at La Raza bookstore, a hub for Chicano community. Her family friends were members of The Royal Chicano Airforce, an artists’ collective founded in 1969 to express the goals of the Chicano civil rights and agricultural labor movement in rural California. So when she became the new executive director of the California Nurses Association last March, it was natural for her to begin thinking of ways to incorporate art into the union’s work.
At the Global Nurses Solidarity Assembly held last month, Castillo decided to organize an exhibit for which nurses would be the primary audience. Drawing from her 14 years working a critical care nurse in Sacramento, Castillo landed on the theme of recognition—something that was to her inseparable from her patients’ health. “It’s our job to assess what our patients need to achieve and maintain good health, including recognition of—and respect for—their existence, validity, identity, and legality,” Castillo said.
The show she envisioned, titled Recognition, opened to the public last week at the union’s headquarters in Oakland and will run until October 4. Displayed amid the usual conference room decorative suspects—beige carpeting, florescent lights, drip coffeemaker—works range from bold screen prints to a neon “DEFUND” sign to a string of black-painted bras, individually stuffed and sewn with paper books containing stories from the #MeToo movement. On one wall, artist Jos Sances finely etched the history of modern capitalism into the body of 24-by-8 foot sperm whale.
Last Thursday afternoon, Sances was preparing to give a group of retirees a personal presentation of his work, Or the Whale, a half-size digital reprint of his original scratchwood carving. “There’s two basic themes going on: There’s the exploitation of natural resources and the exploitation of people, in particular laborers,” Sances said.
He then pointed to the hundreds of tiny miners and loggers etched in white lines into the whale’s black nose, explaining that his narrative starts around 1850 and brings us up to the present. Floating within the drawings were the heads of Rockefeller, Ford, and Steve Jobs — a “veritable Mount Rushmore” of his favorite capitalist figures.
Choppy Oshiro, a graphic designer for the nurses’ union, curated the show and chose political work from 22 artists from across the country. “To me, art is a way to agitate. The squeaky wheel gets the attention. I was looking for pieces that called attention to a social problem in an arresting visual way,” Oshiro said.
And interpretations on the theme of recognition varied widely. For Bay Area artist Mark Harris, it meant the recognition of a systemic problem. Juxtaposed against the stars and stripes of the American flag, his work featured a newspaper clipping of an African American man protesting the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. “Recognition is the first step towards a solution,” Harris said.
For Japanese-American artist Judy Shintani, recognition meant something more personal. Her piece, Matriarchy Guides, honored the sacrifices and fortitude of her grandmother, aunt, and mother with three hanging mandalas, or art made in the sacred shape of a circle.
For Castillo, the bond between artists and activists lies in the ability to imagine a world that doesn’t exist yet—a safer, healthier one. “Nurses and our allies know that we can’t just rise up inside the same old system that isn’t working. We have to rise up as leaders of a totally different way. So we share that process of reimagining.”
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