BOULDER, Colo. — Off a dirt road in Boulder, Colorado, among a hodgepodge of buildings, a crowd gathered to see [Uncanny Times,] the 25th-anniversary art exhibition of the collective Artnauts last September. The expansive show and grounds felt cramped with what seemed like every local artist, critic, and curator present. They all came for the rare glimpse of a group that almost exclusively exhibits together in areas of conflict outside the United States. The collective’s founder, George Rivera, has set the ambitious exhibition calendar even before the group had a name, presenting internationally up to four times a year. Despite battling cancer, Rivera recently traveled to Sarajevo to curate a show and will journey to Columbia in November.

Rivera’s art and professional pursuits are rooted in the racism that wounded him since youth, growing up in extreme poverty in the small town of Glidden, Texas. His mother was born in Mexico and his father was Mexican-American, with a Texan lineage tracing back to the Mexican Revolution. Rivera was the first in his family to attend college, pursuing both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sociology at the University of Houston. At the State University of New York, he earned his doctorate in sociology, studying under Milton Albrecht. But the Chicano Movement drew Rivera back West when he started to entertain professor positions, landing him in Colorado. Rivera agreed to sit down with Hyperallergic to share his extraordinary story and what a collective achieves even when it doesn’t show at home. The following is a transcript of the interview, edited for brevity and clarity.

Dr. George Rivera with Artnauts’ artworks during the installation of 2019 exhibition in Entusi, Uganda (image courtesy Trine Bumiller)

Hyperallergic: You recently retired from the University of Colorado – Boulder where you were a sociology professor from 1972-1995, at which point you moved to the art and art history department. How did you arrive at sociology and why did you leave it for art? 

Dr. George Rivera: Coming out of SUNY, I interviewed all over the Southwest because I wanted to work with the Chicano Movement. At that time the Chicano leaders were Cesar Chavez in California, José [Angel] Gutiérrez in Texas, Reies Lopez [Tijerina] in New Mexico, and Corky Gonzales in Colorado. Gonzales was an urban leader of the movement and organized Crusade for Justice. Before I took the job in Boulder, I met him and asked if he needed my talents. One thousand Chicano kids were entering the University of Colorado – Boulder and Gonzales said, “We welcome you!”

I went into sociology because I wanted to understand racism. I could never escape it. When the chair of the [Colorado] department took me to the airport after my interview, he asked, “Why don’t you have an accent? Why don’t you use slang?” I said, “What is this, a zoo?” and got out of the car. They hired me. Later they hired two more Chicano faculty members, but when one came up for tenure, the chair went to all the faculty and said we should vote against him. He just said he didn’t want him. The department voted yes for tenure, but another professor and I already asked the president to get us out of the sociology department. The other professor went to ethnic studies and I went to the art department. They put me in art history because I knew Chicano art, but I really wanted to be in studio art. I made my first artwork in 1994 and moved departments in 1995.

H: How was that transition?

GR: I think the art department got my funding from sociology, which is why they took me, but no one would help me once there. As a sociologist, I can understand norms, values, and culture that make up a social world. I knew I needed to understand the art world to be successful. I came to the conclusion everything revolves around the artist, but I learned artists are also individualistic. They don’t want to compete with you for money. No one in Denver or Boulder would help me get shows, but I had contacts at Academia de San Carlos in Mexico that I asked for help. I didn’t know what a collective was, but I thought if I got a group of people shows in Mexico they would be interested. Once that happened in 1996 with 20 artists, I got confidence as a curator. 

H: Is that how the Artnauts started?

GR: Yes! Initially, we were just a group, but one day co-founder Beth Krensky said we needed a name. I said Artnauts. Like not art or not art as usual. Also astronauts go around the world and so do we. We had two years of shows before we named it and formalized. I wanted Colorado to be an art center for social change, which is why I started with Colorado artists [for Artnauts]. Ones I saw with talent from the university, I would ask them to join. 

H: Why only show abroad?

GR: If you want to make a contribution, you can’t do what everyone else is doing. We take a social issue in common with a place. We [America] have racism, Bosnia had ethnic cleansing, more severe, but a commonality. International areas of contention is our mark. I got international shows through cold calling. If I wanted to go to a country, I researched the schools and the galleries, then I’d call them. 

I usually travel with one or two other artists because of the expense. All the work [of 40 artists] must fit in a carry-on suitcase, so the art is usually two-dimensional, eight-by-eleven [inch] work. In the beginning I went into debt, but now we self-fund with artist fees. For the stuff we are doing, it is very hard to find a grant, since it’s international.  

H: When you present American art on a topic or theme, how is that received abroad? It sounds strange to bring an American response to a foreign challenge.

GR: Artists gives light where no one shines a light. We are the best ambassadors. We go with art to have a dialogue, not to tell them their problems. 

H: How do you choose a location or choose to return to a location like you did with Sarajevo this year?

GR: They want us back. The conflict continues and there is a need. We went to Bosnia again in 2018 for a show titled Hegira & Other Passages. We had art about our migration. They had migrants coming through Bosnia [from Syria, Turkey, Algeria, and Afghanistan] en route to Germany. There were all these camps. The gallery owner said Bosnian artists were not yet dealing with this event what it meant to leave or travel through.

In 2006, I visited Aida refugee camp and Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem. I wanted to talk to people. I gave kids art supplies and said, “I want you to see what you put on paper.” I got disposable cameras and said, “Take a picture of whatever you want.” 

H: Artnauts published those drawings and photos by Palestinian children in the catalog The Wall, The War. 

GR: But it is hard to see some of these things happening. When I was there, talking with Professor Haggai Kupermintz of University of Haifa I said, “Why did I come here? I’m not Israeli or Palestinian.” He set me straight, saying, “You are here to witness. You ask questions we can’t ask ourselves.” We witness.

Dr. George Rivera practising Korean brush painting in the studio of Sundoo Kim in Seoul, Korea, during the Artnauts’ trip to the DMZ for the 2018 Artnauts exhibition “Liminal Space” (image courtesy Artnauts)

H: Do you have a show or memory that stands out from the last 25 years?

GR: I met the artist Jair Montaña Carrión while he was a professor at Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Leticia, Colombia. He found a grant by the minister of culture to get 35 artists to the region to make art about identity and travel to communities in the interior of the Amazon. The military flew trucks in and we had the shows inside the big trucks. People wanted to touch all the art. I make sound art so I dropped my hydrophone in the Amazon. All kinds of conversations and noise under the river. People that have been in the forest for a millennia know every sound, for the first time they heard what was under the water. 

H: Some of your colleagues have shared that you are sick. Do you want to talk about that? 

GR: What cancer has done for me has accentuated how important it is to give of yourself in life. You can still give so much even with illness. Giving is a secret of life. I’m O.K. when my day comes, because I’ve done good.  I don’t like to beat my own drum, but we are doing something important. Artnauts may not become better known until after my death. 

H: The University of Texas-Austin has recognized your work, yes? 

GR: About five years ago the University of Texas-Austin heard about what I was doing internationally, and they contacted me. They wanted all my little pieces of paper and art. What I was doing [and when] — reconstructing my time. I’ve allowed Artnauts to include their work in the archive, so they can live forever too.

H: Does that mean you are retiring from Artnauts?

GR: Covid stopped us in our tracks. But I always wanted to get into the Centre of Remembrance, Peace and Reconciliation in Bogota that deals with the civil war. I sent an email to the director of the center, José Darío Antequera Guzmán. He didn’t respond. So in March 2022, I just went [to his office] and said, “I want to talk to you. I want to do a show.” He came out of his office and we’re standing in the hallway. I knew I only had 10 minutes to get him to say yes. He did [agree] but said, “What I want the artists to look at is global warming in Colombia and address if from your point of view.” He thought people would come to a show about the burning of forests or what we saw ecologically. It will be in November 2022.

George Rivera, “Shaman Journey” (2022), digital art (image courtesy the artist)

Kealey Boyd is a writer and art critic. Her writing appears in the LATimes, Art Papers, College Art Association, The Belladonna Comedy, Artillery Magazine and elsewhere. She teaches journalism at University...