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Two Artists Ask: “Can We Think Across Borders Like Plants Do?”

Responding to violence at the US-Mexico and Israel-Palestine borders, Jess X. Snow and Gavriel Cutipa-Zorn painted a two-story mural addressing the ways plants can traverse vast lands.

Jess X. Snow and Gavriel Cutipa-Zorn’s mural in Providence, Rhode Island (all images courtesy of Ian Barnard)

PROVIDENCE — Untold pain is enacted in the name of “protecting” borders, around the world, every day. People suffer; corporations prosper. Governments run migrant prison camps, separate families, militarize, terrorize, surveil, and relegate people to lives forever changed.

Collaborators Jess X. Snow and Gavriel Cutipa-Zorn believe that beneath the Earth’s surface, there are unstoppable underground healing forces, totally resistant to artificial barriers, that connect plants, animals and humans.

Recently produced by public art incubator the Avenue Concept, a two-story mural in Providence, Rhode Island, imagines a pulsing root network able to heal the Earth and its humans of the borders that scar it. Universes mingle; hearts unite. There is mutual liberation. Flora and fauna indigenous and culturally significant to Central and Latin America and Palestine are depicted: the condor and the quetzal, the cactus and the carob tree. A volcano gives off a warning blast, a reminder of nature’s power.

Snow explains, “If we had to capture this concept of solidarity and make it an image or a gesture, what would that look like?

In conceptualizing the piece, Snow (an Asian-Canadian public artist, poet, and filmmaker), and Cutipa-Zorn (a Peruvian-American academic, PhD candidate at Yale, and immigrant rights/Palestine solidarity activist), spent time talking about the ways in which plants model solidarity for people. They converse with us and with each other, traversing vast lands and communicating underground. Snow and Cutipa-Zorn wondered: “Can we think across borders like plants do?” Snow explains, “If we had to capture this concept of solidarity and make it an image or a gesture, what would that look like? We imagined two people facing each other and looking at a plant that is growing beneath them. A hand placed on a cheek. That gesture represents what it feels like to be seen and supported.”

The two queer women of color portrayed in the mural are activists who work for the freedom of their people at affected borders. Both are longtime friends of Cutipa-Zorn. Neither is interested in being specifically identified in the mural; instead, their likenesses are meant to represent their communities.

Providence-based organizer, abolitionist, and first-generation Guatemalan Vanessa Flores-Maldonado (left) is a strong voice for people of color in Providence. She is the campaign coordinator for the city’s Community Safety Act, an ordinance aimed at creating police accountability passed by the Providence City Council in mid-2017. Since its passage, Vanessa has been a key voice for the community in a difficult implementation process. She also advocates for queer and trans youth of color as part of PrYSM (Providence Youth Student Movement).

Amira (right) is a Palestinian organizer based in New Orleans. She works throughout the Southern US on issues related to Palestine, including the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, BDS seeks to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank as well as the displacement and discrimination experienced by Palestinians living on this occupied land.

Of these portrayals, Snow says, “We chose to represent queer women of color; they are crucial to these movements and do so much of the emotional labor involved.”

“In the best mural projects I’ve been part of,” Snow says, “the artwork becomes a type of medicine for the community. Queer folks of color rarely see themselves represented in large scale work. There is a healing that results from being seen. We put intention behind who we chose to represent.” Cutipa-Zorn jumps in: “Also, it is important to give these people an opportunity to be seen without being surveilled. For so many communities of color, to be seen is to be profiled.”

“The revolution starts in the earth with the self”

Speaking of community medicine, the location of the mural is no accident; the mural is painted on the side of a community acupuncture clinic. As Snow puts it, “A good healing session brings outside what you’ve been feeling inside. This mural is a way of bringing what’s been underground out, on a large scale. The wall grows a new skin and it’s reflective of the beauty and power and revolutionary work that has always been done and is now visible.”

Snow and Cutipa-Zorn themselves have roots in Providence: Snow graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and Cutipa-Zorn from Brown University. Providence was a formative place for them both, Cutipa-Zorn says, proclaiming: “Both of us started to think about these issues while we were based here in Providence. This project is about root systems being able to cross and move beyond borders, and it felt imperative to think about our own roots and the ways that they grew, essentially here.” Providence is a diverse New England city continually trying to improve, its citizens trying to balance its approach to economic inequality, racism, policing, and immigration in the face of corporate interests, big money, and organizational and governmental inertia. Snow and Cutipa-Zorn’s mural and other recently completed culturally inclusive public art in Providence, much of it facilitated by the Avenue Concept, is an effort to encourage new ways of thinking by an old city.

The two-story mural is painted on the side of a community acupuncture clinic

Snow, Cutipa-Zorn, and assistant Zoraida Ingles, a Filipino immigrant, have been at work on the mural for most of the latter half of July, sweating out heatwaves, waiting out thunderstorms, and bonding through it all. Local community members Kah Yangni, Curtis Livingston, and Dan Sway, and RISD alums Jarrett Key and Peter Pa, painted as well. The hand lettering was done by trans artist Ian Cozzens. Snow says, “Our friendship is supportive. There is solidarity in the process.”

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