“Cannibalism” refers to the consumption of another being of the same species—like a human eating another human. However, the organizers of the upcoming Cultural Cannibalism exhibit at the Coachella Valley Art Center in Indio are using the term as a metaphor.

Running from April 8 to May 28, Cultural Cannibalism features works by six local artists, all from different cultures. The goal is to heighten awareness of the damaging stereotypes that can create divisions, according to Bill Schinsky, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit art center, who also curated the exhibit with Susan Myrland.

“Experiencing another culture doesn’t mean you understand it, or that you should steal elements of it as your own,” Schinsky said. “For example, we celebrate Cinco de Mayo in the United States, but many don’t even know what it is, or how it originated.”

In fact, a 2018 survey by NationalToday.com showed that only 10% of Americans knew the true reason behind the holiday, as it has turned into a day when people go to bars, drink margaritas and wear sombreros. (The day is actually a commemoration of Mexico’s victory over France at the Battle of Puebla in 1862.)

Schinsky grew up in Los Angeles, with a Mexican-American mother and Polish-American father. “My father’s mother had been opposed to the marriage, and when we went to visit her in Detroit, she refused to say my name,” he said. “She called me ‘the brown one.’”

Schinsky said he believes that we can honor and celebrate other cultures without diminishing them. “We take other cultures and eat them up, without knowing about them,” he says. “Educate yourself on what you’re celebrating.”

The colorful sculptures of dragons by assemblage artist Cito Gonzales will be a major part of Cultural Cannibalism. “His dragons speak to you, which allows you to use your imagination, taking you back to being a child, where you read books about these mythical creatures,” Schinsky said.

Gonzales said he creates his huge dragons by using up to 60 natural materials, including bones, shells, feathers, teeth, acorns, seeds, antlers and dates.

“These elements represent air, water and land,” he said. “I use these to give life and energy to the dragons, who represent the female guardians of Earth.”

He said learned to make the dragons while he lived off the grid for 26 years. He resided in a cabin without electricity, phones or computers near Tuolumne City, Calif., where he grew his own food and cared for a variety of animals, including goats, chickens, turtles, two donkeys and two dogs. He worked as the caretaker of a campsite outside of the small logging city. A friend, a Native American woman who made drums, helped him learn how to make the dragons.

“I learned to shape and contour from her leftover cowhides, leading to the creation of the dragons,” Gonzales said. “It just happened.”

Detail of one of Cito Gonzales’ dragon sculptures.

At the age of 10, Gonzales knew he had a special affinity for the land and animals.

“I grew up in Modesto, and always knew from a young age that I didn’t want a regular job,” he said. “I tried working in construction delivery, but I didn’t like it, so when I got offered a job as a caretaker of a campsite with more than 160 acres of land, I took it.”

When the owners of the campsite sold the property in 2018, Gonzales had to leave his dream job, and he wound up living in a teepee near Pioneertown in the high desert. This changed when artist Marcia Geiger saw his dragons; she offered to let him live on her property near Landers, also in the high desert, and introduced him to a gallerist who agreed to show his works.

“When I saw the dragons, they were incredibly moving,” Geiger said. “It was utterly breathtaking. … They are very much alive.”

Gonzales said he loves being in the desert.

“It has open skies and a wide openness,” he said. “It’s ancient. You feel like a dinosaur may appear at any time.”

Now 57, Gonzales said he sees all people and animals as native and interconnected to the Earth. Through his art, he wants to remind us of our responsibility to care for our world—and wants us all to awaken our inner dragon to guard and protect our planet.

“That’s the real wealth,” he said.

Cultural Cannibalism will open with a reception from 5 to 8 p.m., Friday, April 8, at the Coachella Valley Art Center, 45140 Towne St., in Indio. The exhibit will be on display through Saturday, May 28. An artist talk will take place at 6 p.m., Thursday, May 5. The gallery is open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Saturday, or by appointment; admission is free. For more information, call 760-799-4364, or visit www.coachellavalleyartcenter.org.

Cat Makino

Catherine Makino is a multimedia journalist who was based in Tokyo for 22 years. She wrote for media sources including Thomson Reuters, the San Francisco Chronicle, Inter Press Service, the Los Angeles...

One reply on “History and Heritage: CV Art Center’s ‘Cultural Cannibalism’ Features the Work of Six Desert Artists—including Cito Gonzales’ Dragon Sculptures”

  1. Cito Gonzales and I have a lot in common, including a special affinity for the land and animals; although, I lack his artistic talent. Thank you Cat for the great article that inspires me to visit the art exhibit.

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