Artists such as Remy, bring attention to issues of social justice in a variety of forms. Picasso painted Guernica in response to the bombing of a Basque village in 1937, showing the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War. The multiple contributors to the AIDS Memorial Quilt place a visual, human face on the numbers of people who have died from the disease.
For Remy, a Navajo graphic artist, art and activism are also deeply intertwined. He grew up approximately 10 miles from Black Mesa, an area of the Navajo and Hopi reservations mired in controversy because of the coal mining there. After military service and graphic design studies, his professional life became a combination of commissioned art and consultation through his firm, First Seven Design Labs.
His work includes the sculpture “Elephant in the Room,” a statement on attitudes of both white progressives and GOP members; managing the “Mayday Space” exhibits at the People’s Climate March; and the “Protector” banners worn by attendees of the most recent White House Tribal Nations Conference.
Remy at his studio in Washington DC - creating/screenprinting protector sashes. Photo: Vincent Schilling
His work also extends into training people in nonviolent direct action techniques as part of a collective known as “The Indian Problem.” Currently, he is involved with direct action at Standing Rock.
When Indian Country Today Media Network contacted Remy by phone less than 24 hours after the water protectors at Standing Rock had been blasted by a water cannon, concussion grenade and rubber bullets.
How did growing up near Black Mesa influence you into being involved with direct action?
It’s the same fight [as Standing Rock]; it’s just with a different enemy. It is extractive industries on Indigenous land. None of these resources benefit Indigenous people or the land that it’s on. For example, we have six coal-fired plants that surround our [Navajo] reservation itself. Most of us don’t even have running water or electricity, yet it’s our coal that powers all of Arizona, Nevada and southern California. We make progress possible, yet we don’t get to participate in it—the same as what’s going on here [at Standing Rock]. You have an extractive industry who’s willing to do whatever it takes at any cost to make a profit.
Dallas Goldtooth interacts with Remy at his studio in Washington DC - creating protector sashes. Photo: Vincent Schilling
What are some major protests you have participated in?
At the People’s Climate March, I was managing the art coming out of the three-story building called “Mayday Space.”
The action after that was Flood Wall Street. We were able to take these art messages and point the finger at capitalism. With Wall Street being so close, we were able to go right to Wall Street. We didn’t get there because of the police presence. No matter where we go, it’s police who are protecting corporations and the government that allows it.
Where did you study graphic art?
I was in the military to get some college money. I went to a computer tech school, UAT—University of Advancing Technology [in Tempe, Arizona]. I was studying 3-D modeling, artificial intelligence. I found myself gravitating more toward the art side of things—design, creating media.
Chairman David Archambault wears Remy's 'Protector Sash' alongside three Native youths from Standing Rock, Regan Dunn, Clay Byington and Gracey Claymore - Photo courtesy: Vincent Schilling
Were you an artist growing up?
For a while, I tried to deny that part of myself. I’ve always been creative. Growing up, you’re always pushed into “you need to do something that makes you money.”
Alaskan leader Lloyd Pikok and protectors wear Remy's 'Protector Sashes' at a NoDAPL rally in Washington DC - Photo: Vincent Schilling
One of your works is called “Elephant in the Room.” Can you explain that?
I was brought in to help create a direct action. This was after the Bernie Sanders event in Seattle, where the stage was overtaken by Black Lives Matter people. A lot of white people during that time who were Bernie supporters didn’t take too kindly to that. [White progressives] didn’t want to hear the message that was coming from black communities. It was a way to bring a conversation that needed to happen, but it needed to be brought into the homes of white America—preferably in the dining rooms or the living room.
We had a 15-foot elephant that we had access to, naming it “Racism,” because that is the elephant in the room that people don’t want to talk about.
We created a living room for people to come sit down and talk to other people of color and hear about these stories firsthand. It was a nice piece, because I ended using “The Elephant in the Room,” at the GOP debate that was in Boulder, [Colorado]. That was a lot of fun.
What inspired you to make the design for the Tribal Nations Conference?
That was something I was asked to do at Cop 21 [UN Climate Change Conference] in Paris. We had different sashes or stoles. It took hours to create art on behalf of all the different Indigenous [people] around the world and creating it in different languages or some of the taglines we were using at that time.
We’re now using our language, because some of the media, these corporations and government agencies want to call us “protestors.” In reality, we’re protectors. We’re reaffirming the language and changing the narrative.
On [November 20, 2016 at Standing Rock], we were attacked for moving barricades out of the way on this bridge. Some of the media had already taken to that, saying “these are water protectors here, unarmed, that are getting brutalized right now.” You had someone continually saying that throughout the broadcast on Facebook Live. That was good to see later on. The government does like to paint us in a different light, and it does affect public opinion. You mix that with mainstream media who is quick to cover the other side, the side of the state or the corporations, it really makes a difference.
Right now, what we’re dealing with is historical colonial violence. They’re using rubber bullets and water hoses. They’re using concussion grenades, less than lethal force. That includes bean bags and other things too. We’re getting tear-gassed on a daily basis, when we interact with the police, that is.
In terms of art pieces, I’ve pulled away from that. It would be awesome if I could create art or spend the time doing that. Now, my skill set has switched to direct action. It’s a luxury to do art at this point when we’re dealing with this type of brutality.
What are your major concerns about a new administration coming in, or do you see it “different person, same thing?”
It’s pretty much the same old thing, different person. You have your choice between blatant racism or muted racism, is the way I see it. The policies are all the same. They’re never in our favor. They never have been. When we’re talking about sovereignty of our land and sovereignty of our bodies, these are things we have always been denied. Until we get some sort of change that comes from within the community and deals upwards, that’s the only way I see that we’re going to change.
Voting itself is only one tactic.
It’s all of Indian country. You can pick out Ferguson [Missouri]; you can pick out other places. This is all our land, no matter where we are. That’s one of the things that I’ve come to understand. It doesn’t matter where it is on this continent. It’s all Indian land, whether it’s the Amazon, whether it’s Central America or South America.
We need to be building in solidarity with other movements like the American Indian Movement, like Black Lives Matter, like the Brown Berets. We actually did that here in Standing Rock.