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Why Mexican artist Joaquin Segura doesn't think politics solves problems


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: In the world of art, political turmoil can sometimes provide inspiration.

In Mexico, the echoes of revolution 100 years ago can be seen in the work of a contemporary artist.

Mexico City native Joaquin Segura weaves history and social commentary into his work.

NPR correspondent Lulu Garcia-Navarro has his story.

Her report is part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Where you might see the black bars of a heavily redacted document outlined in red and black to show where the shrouded words would be, Mexican artist Joaquin Segura sees a tapestry.

For his latest collection, Segura found inspiration in a series of once top-secret documents, thousands of pages of declassified U.S. government files about the CIA's involvement in the 1973 coup that brought Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to power.

Joaquin Segura: So this is actually the cover letter, the cover page of the daily brief that Richard Nixon received on the morning of the military coup, September 11, 1973.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Segura's art takes found objects and transforms them, like this display of the tattered flags of powerful nations called G8 for the international gathering that brings them together, or these blown-up images of leaders from China, the Soviet Union and Germany, with discount price tags, playing on the notion of a marketplace of ideas where political theory and the people who sell them rise and fall in value.

But his art has a common theme, his view that the powerful only serve themselves and how real change can only come from the hands of the people.

Mauricio Galguera: When art becomes political, it really becomes a very important tool.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Mauricio Galguera is his longtime gallery representative in Mexico.

Mauricio Galguera: He really manages to resonate all the happenings in our local societies into things that are going on all around the world. So, in the end, his work really speaks about human nature.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Some of Segura's work explores the relationship between the United States and its neighbor to the south. America has a long history of intervening in Latin American affairs, including those in Segura's own country.

It's something he tackles head on in some of his pieces, like this 2014 statue called Notes on Mexico. The stack of pages are how the sculpture got its name. "Notes on Mexico" was a book written in 1822 by J.R. Poinsett. He became the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, but his meddling in local politics got him expelled.

This stone had a previous life too. It was used to protest the outcome of the 2012 Mexican presidential election.

Joaquin Segura: These materials were used as projectiles by the people in demonstrations, specifically against the election of the Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Pena Nieto's party was accused of vote-buying, which sent protesters into the streets.

Joaquin Segura: One of the reasons I do art is to come to terms with everything that's happening, not only in Mexico, but in the world at the moment.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Now there is a new leader in power from an opposing party, but for Segura, the political affiliation is irrelevant. He doesn't think things will get better because of politicians.

Joaquin Segura: Corruption in Mexico, it's so ingrained in our everyday institutions and structures that, again, it's something that we often overlook.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Segura's political views was shaped by his parents, who witnessed the 1968 massacre in Mexico City, where hundreds of students were gunned down during protests around the Olympics.

The event is seared into Mexico's collective memory, the dead still honored in annual demonstrations. In 2014, another mass killing drew Mexicans back into the streets in response to the disappearance of 43 students who had been on their way to a protest in Mexico City. Their bodies were never found, and Mexico's attorney general insisted all had been incinerated.

But an independent report later dismissed that explanation, calling it scientifically impossible.

Segura's piece Pyre forces viewers to contemplate the scale that would require, seen here at a San Francisco showing.

Joaquin Segura: You need 760 kilograms of wood, 23 car tires, and 71 liters of gasoline just to disappear one single body. It's not probable.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Mexico is still trying to uncover the truth behind those 43 murders. Late last year, after taking office, the new president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, created a new commission to investigate.

Segura's skepticism of any leader's ability to solve this or any other national problems has not made him cynical, though. He's devoted to helping the next generation of Mexican artists through a two-year training program.

Joaquin Segura: There is something that we are not satisfied with, and we are working every day to make that different.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: He is advising one of his mentees, Yolanda Benalba, on a video installation, the culmination of her two-year training with Segura.

For Segura, the payoff is about much more than simply launching careers.

Does it make you feel hopeful about the future?

Joaquin Segura: I think hope is also a very heavy word.


Joaquin Segura: But, yes, definitely. I'm looking forward to see a different Mexico.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Segura knows that history in Mexico sometimes repeats itself, but he's committed to changing its future.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lulu Garcia-Navarro.

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