SAN FRANCISCO — Rigo 23 is the tag currently used by the Portugal-born muralist Ricardo Gouveia, who came to San Francisco in 1985, using the name Rigo 85. He got a BFA in 1991 from the now-defunct San Francisco Art Institute, where, in 1990, Carlos Villa taught the school’s first multicultural art history class, “Worlds in Collision.” From 2000 to 2002, Villa team taught the class with Rigo 00 (the artist settled on his current tag in 2003).
In 1992, the artist was one of the six founders of the Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP), which has collaborated with artists Tauba Auerbach, Emory Douglas, Xylor Jane, Chris Johanson, Mei-Tsung Lee, and Barry McGee, and the poet Daisy Zamora, among others, to create 900 murals thus far. I was struck by this activism, diversity, and public art because there is little comparable to it in New York.
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That sense of local engagement, which is true of Chicago, Houston, and other US cities, pushes against the idea of New York as the country’s art center, except in terms of auction houses and reported sales. The awareness of different history, legacies, and shared concerns was very much on my mind when I saw the exhibition Rigo 23: February 31st with the Angola-3 at Anglim/Trimble (March 3–April 29, 2023). As the press release states, the exhibition documents Rigo 23’s “22-year involvement with the three formerly incarcerated individuals in Louisiana State Prison, commonly known as the Angola-3.”
The Angola-3 were subjected to the longest-known solitary confinement incarceration in the world, 114 years combined: Albert Woodfox – 44 years, Herman Wallace – 41 years, and Robert King – 29 1/2 years. They spent a minimum of 23 hours alone inside a 6 x 9 x 12-foot cell each and every day. While in prison, they organized to improve living conditions and prevent sexual assault, becoming a target for reprisals by the prison administration. They co-founded a prison chapter of the Black Panther Party at Angola. After their release, King and Woodfox both authored books; Woodfox’s Solitary was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
What held my attention was the range of work, from a mural done directly on one gallery wall to drawings, studies, and silkscreens, to photographs and letters in vitrines. The press release adds:
Rigo 23 is working with Robert King, the sole surviving member of the Angola-3, to launch a cultural center in the historical Black neighborhood of Algiers in New Orleans. It will host the Angola-3 archives and function as a community center […].
From banning books to firing teachers, the attempt to control narratives and suppress factual histories seems to be growing stronger every day in the United States. Rigo 23’s activism pushes back against this continuation of colonialism. The mural “Uncaged Panthers” (2023) depicts three black panthers (rendered to echo the party’s logo) bursting through jail cell bars. Underneath this image, Rigo 23 has listed the beginning of the Angola 3’s solitary confinement, in 1972, and the exact dates Robert King, Herman Wallace, and Albert Woodfox were released. One reason the authorities kept them in solitary confinement was because they were afraid of what they, as members of the Black Panther party, would tell the prison’s general populace. The removal of books from school libraries to protect the greater good is a continuation of the Angola prison policy. It honors one complaining parent while censoring the curiosity of many others.
Along with “Uncaged Panthers,” which can be commissioned to be recreated in a specific site, the exhibition includes two large ink drawings, “Albert Woodfox–Born Dead Struggling to Live (Mug Shot)” and “Albert Woodfox–Born Dead Struggling to Live (Full Body),” and the silkscreen “The Deeper They Bury Me” (all 2023), which depicts the words “The Deeper They Bury Me The Louder My Voice Becomes” on the facade of the New Museum in New York. These related works speak to the artist’s long involvement and friendship with King, Woodfox, and Wallace, other political prisoners, and prison reform. “The End of Silence Tour” (2003), a poster announcing an event that included Black Panther founder and chairman Bobby Seale, other party members, and supporters, was printed from a drawing included in the exhibition. The ink drawing “About Distance” (2023), on “elephant dung paper,” quotes something Woodfox said to the artist: “Distance only means that love and friendship has to travel faster.”
Rigo 23’s art rejects its status as commodity. At the core of his project is an awareness of colonialism, the legacies of racism, and the sanctioned inhumanity of the state. His work seeks to reveal histories and tell stories that institutions cover over and bury. He wants to empower individuals and communities. It is the kind of exhibition that I wish I would see more of in New York.
Rigo 23: February 31 with the Angola-3 continues at Anglim/Trimble Gallery (1275 Minnesota Street, San Francisco, California) through April 29. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.