Critique or Controversy? 

An international artist is challenging national identity in time for Jaialdi.

Judas Arrieta's exhibition, Boiseland, is currently showing at Ming Studios.

Harrison Berry

Judas Arrieta's exhibition, Boiseland, is currently showing at Ming Studios.

Once every five years, Boise rolls out the welcome mat for tens of thousands of visitors to the massive Basque festival, Jaialdi, which this year kicked off on Tuesday, July 28 and will run through Sunday, Aug. 2. It's almost a full week of Basque music, food, dancing, sports and other activities. Along with the Twilight Criterium, Treefort Music Fest and the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, it's one of the biggest feathers in the City of Trees' cultural cap.

As Boise connects with its Basque roots, Judas Arrieta is bringing cultural cosmopolitanism to Ming Studios. The artist, who hails from Spain's Basque Country, has lovingly filled his paintings with images lifted from Americans' visual vocabulary and filtered them through the mind of a world traveler.

"I feel like a DJ when I paint," Arrieta said. "I take elements that don't belong to me."

Arrieta has shown his work across Europe and Asia, but this is his first visit to the United States, which he called "the Far West." His impressions of America come primarily from cinema and comic books. His paintings, part of the Ming Studios exhibition Boiseland, are chaotic compositions of caricatures of beret-wearing Basques, cowboys, Native Americans and taglines written in carefully imitated fonts. Some of those images startled Ming Studios founder and Executive Director Jason Morales, who worried that some viewers could find them offensive.

"One of the things that caught me off guard have been the Native American caricatures," he said.

Specifically, it was a painting containing the mascot of the Cleveland Indians baseball team, Chief Wahoo, that caught Morales' attention.

Native American mascots have received considerable scrutiny in recent years as civil rights and Native American groups press sports teams to drop the depictions, which many say are offensive and stereotypical. Among the teams that have faced pushback over their mascots are the Cleveland Indians and Washington Redskins, but there are scores of Native American-themed university, college and high-school mascots—among them, in Idaho, the Boise High Braves.

Arrieta's caricatures could be seen as offensive, provocative or, as Morales put it, "a mirror to American pop culture"; but Morales felt that the images could be construed in a negative light. After conferring with Arrieta, he wrote an email to tribal leaders to tell them about Arrieta's work containing depictions of Native Americans.

"I did not want the work to be isolated or misunderstood. It's a personal responsibility," Morales said. "We don't censor artists. The idea was to be proactive rather than reactive."

Arrieta said he views his work in a different light entirely, saying that the images of Native Americans are not the only caricatures in his work and that he draws his imagery from the wells of popular culture and his own curiosity, not prejudice or bigotry.

"I just want to go [to the United States] like a small child and see what's going on," he said.

Caricatures are part of a cultural critique implicit in Arrieta's Boiseland. Boise's Jaialdi celebration—and much of its promotional material—relies on romanticized images of Basque people, including Basques wearing traditional berets and red, white and green clothing. Representations of Basque people in Arrieta's paintings share those visual cues, but by juxtaposing them with caricatures from other cultures, Arrieta said he is making a statement about national identity.

"All the people I meet here are Basques, but they're American, too. I'm creating a window to another world," he said. "I talk about selling the culture. What does it mean to be Basque?"

Arrieta's work has proved popular with its Boise audience, with dozens of people turning out for the July 24 opening of the Boiseland exhibition. The evening was a success even beyond attendance: Arrieta sold nine paintings at the reception, where he mingled with gallery regulars and visitors who had come to celebrate Jaialdi, and discussed his work and love of American Western movies.

According to Arrieta, reinvisioning seemingly familiar American cultural images through an international lens is part of what makes his art accessible.

"I'm first a universal artist—then I'm Basque," he said.

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