Enrique Chagoya was born in Mexico City in 1953. He was encouraged to be an artist from an early age by his father, who worked at the national bank of Mexico by day and was himself an artist by night. While studying political economy at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Chagoya created political cartoons for local student-run newspapers and was an active participant in student and worker protests in Mexico City during the early 1970s. After emigrating to the United States in 1977, he went on to study at the San Francisco Art Institute, receiving a BFA in 1984, and an MFA from the University of California, Berkeley in 1987. He currently lives and works in San Francisco, and has been a professor of art and art history at Stanford University since 1995.
Chagoya’s art practice is an extension of his political activism. He uses his experiences on both sides of the United States-Mexico border to inform his work, as he tackles themes such as immigration, politics, stereotypes and cultural conflicts “to construct a narrative, with humor and a more contemporary feel, that is different from the dominant history.” His approach is multivalent and he utilizes a range of media including painting, drawing, sculpture, and prints. An early series of large-scale editorial drawings from the mid ‘80s rendered mainly in black and red, lampooned current events by conflating cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse with political figures such as Ronald Reagan. As his work became more pointedly critical of dominant Western cultures, he continued to draw from popular culture, political figures and canonical artworks as fodder for his art, albeit as seen through a nonwestern lens, both poking fun and demanding societal accountability for the pressing issues of the day. Chagoya’s method of revisionism, particularly of Western narratives, is through satire, by appropriating historical and pop-cultural figures and depicting them from the perspectives of colonized or defeated cultures. He defines this process as “reverse anthropology,” and his codices epitomize this: they depict contemporary events using visual language ranging from pre-Columbian imagery to American pop culture icons in the tradition of Mesoamerican book-making, using amate paper folded accordion-style and read from right to left. As a further example of cultural ‘borrowing,’ Chagoya has appropriated works by artists such as Philip Guston, James Ensor, Vincent Van Gogh, and Claude Monet, but none more comprehensively than Goya: he sees the satirical content in Goya’s etchings as continually relevant, even today. Chagoya has continued to develop his satirical approach in recent bodies of work: his series of Illegal Alien’s Guides directly engages with border politics, narrating the histories of modern European colonists who settled in the Americas such as Pilgrims and Spanish conquistadors, from the perspectives of the native peoples that they displaced. As well, Chagoya challenges racial stereotypes and the process of ‘othering’ in his series Aliens Sans Frontières by creating self-portraits that stereotype himself based on the make-up of his own DNA, or by completely abstracting his figures altogether.
Chagoya has exhibited internationally and has been the subject of several survey exhibitions. A mid-career retrospective of his work was organized by the Des Moines Art Center, Iowa in 2007, which travelled to the Berkeley Art Museum and the Palm Springs Art Museum, California. In 2014, a survey of his work was organized by Artium in Vitoria, Spain. He is the recipient of several grants and awards, including the Academy Award for Visual Arts from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1997, and an Artadia Foundation Grant in 2005. His work is included in public collections internationally such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.; and the Centro Cultural de Arte Contemporaneo, Mexico City, Mexico.