This section discusses the historical and cultural context that helped shape the life and art of Cornelio Campos. Many of his paintings represent the challenges that immigrants face when coming to the United States; others speak to traditional life in his home state of Michoacán. Knowledge about immigration and the experience of migrant workers is clearly helpful when interpreting some of these paintings. An understanding of Latino and indigenous Central American cultures is helpful when viewing other works.
Professor of Social Work Carol Cleaveland offers helpful insights into the first of these realms in her article “In This Country, You Suffer a Lot” (2012), which discusses the experience of undocumented Mexican immigrants. The challenges that undocumented workers face when crossing the border and trying to make a living in the United States are a central focus of Mr. Campos’s paintings. Immigrants from Central and South American often leave their native countries and come to the U.S. in order to support their families back home—an opportunity that, for whatever reason, is not available there. Once in the United States, undocumented workers face a shallow job pool, language barriers, and discrimination. Mr. Campos—who has certainly experienced discrimination as an immigrant—has made social justice a major theme in his work. His paintings featuring migratory Monarch butterflies, for instance, symbolize immigrants and the journey they make away from their home countries to new places.
Mexican-American art addresses a broad range of topics, with some of the art purely aesthetic in nature, and with other works making complicated social and political commentaries. Chicana scholar Maria Herrera-Sobek discusses this concept in her essay, “Border Aesthetics: The Politics of Mexican Immigration in Film and Art” (2006). The emotionally and physically draining process of immigration is the focus of many works and productions by migrant artists. As Mr. Campos frequently depicts immigrants’ efforts and contributions going unnoticed, his work fits easily into this focus. Moreover, this theme is especially evident in the artistic life of Mr. Campos, as he was forced to take a ten year break from art while trying to work and get settled in the U.S.
With his painting of large, colorful, political pieces, it is difficult not to compare Cornelio Campos to traditional Mexican muralists. These artists use their work as a form of propaganda (McCaughan 2006). Because art is so visually based, it makes it much easier to present issues that deal with the politics of cultural change. McCaughan uses the example of Diego Rivera, along with other Mexican muralists, to demonstrate that there has been a long history of Mexican artists using art as a way to express their opinions about social issues. The author also discusses how many artists draw from indigenous traditions and images that were from a pre-Hispanic era. This is relevant to Cornelio Campos’s work, since he does a lot of social commentary, but also draws on indigenous symbols as inspiration.
Additionally, Mr. Campos has experience with creating murals, as he was commissioned to help paint a mural in Durham, N.C. Mr. Campos recognizes that exposure to the work of traditional Mexican muralists and his experience creating murals informs his work. For example, his piece titled “Struggle” is painted on a very large canvas and contains a propaganda feel as it aims to inform and change the behavior of potential immigrants.
Not surprisingly, the art of Mexican immigrants shares a common symbolic vocabulary, one that includes images of the Statue of Liberty, monarch butterflies, and ice—all symbols that appear in Mr. Campos’s work (Sneed 2013). The use of such symbols to comment on the process and politics of immigration has led to the formation of a group of artists known as “migrant artists.” While immigration has always been a motif in American art, migrant art is now taking on a deeper political meaning. Mr. Campos stated that “art lets you bring up things that nobody wants to talk about,” which is precisely what the new wave of migrant art is aiming to do. Through art, for instance, activists have been able to get the Associated Press to drop the term “illegal immigrant.” Although Cornelio Campos is presenting immigration issues of equal importance, he admits that he has never framed himself as a migrant artist or wanted to fit into this category. Mr. Campos seems to be an different kind of activist in regards to immigration, as he aims to inform the view of Mexican citizens who are considering immigrating illegally into the U.S.
Mr. Campos has a large role in a more local cultural context as well. His ability to speak on topics of all sorts, both complicated and lighthearted,through his paintings does not go unnoticed. Mr. Campos is often asked to work with children in churches and schools in Durham to teach them how to speak through art and express emotions in a way that is not harmful to others. In this way, with his artistic talent Mr. Campos has adapted a role of a teacher—a role that undoubtedly informs his work. Mr. Campos maintains that “it is [students] and people with curiosity who keep [him] painting.”
Mr. Campos’s art has been exhibited in a host of local settings, including the University of North Carolina’s FedEx Global Education Center, Duke University’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and the Mexican Consulate in Raleigh. One of his pieces hangs on permanent display in UNC’s Campus Y; a large mural that he helped paint—created in collaboration with “The U.S./Mexico Border” class at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies—graces the side of Torero’s Mexican Restaurant at West Main and Duke Streets in Durham.
The self-taught art community is all about connections. Artists become known to the world through word-of-mouth, local exhibits, and commissions; together, they spread the word about an artist’s work throughout the community and, ideally, throughout the broader art world. And even though fame and success are often treated as the measures of artistic success, self-taught art is about more than public exposure. Mr. Campos, and many other self-taught artists, create art to convey personal, cultural, and political messages. A certain level of intimacy seems to be lost when an artist creates solely for the purpose of production or economic success.
Mr. Campos is proud of the many exhibits to which he has contributed. He looks forward to becoming even more involved in the community, and to communicating his political message to ever-widening audiences.