Welcome to KQED Arts’ Redefining Pride: The East Bay’s Queer Artists, a series highlighting the work of queer-identified artists in Oakland and Berkeley. Through printmaking, photography, filmmaking and interdisciplinary work, these visual artists celebrate people, histories and causes often sidelined within mainstream presentations of the queer community.
You may have seen Nicólas González-Medina’s art without realizing it. It's been wheat-pasted on East Bay buildings, posted in storefront windows, painted as colorful murals and held above the heads of a crowd at a recent demonstration for immigration rights. His work is also placed proudly above the bustling open kitchen of Cosecha, one of Old Oakland’s most popular restaurants in Swan’s Market, where two woodblock prints feature faces with text surrounding them: “Defend DACA” and “DREAMERS have courage.”
Only one of those prints is signed by González-Medina, and even then, you might strain to read it. For a political artist whose work comfortably moves through radically different types of spaces, González-Medina isn’t so concerned with authorship. "When we talk about decolonizing, it really means recognition comes second," he says. "Or not even second—for some of us, it's not even a thing, because we're just so focused on the work."
Yet his prints—along with his murals and wood sculptures—are distinct and recognizable, once you know what to look for: solid, firm lines defining faces that hold your gaze from their realm of ink and paper, and marks that are inseparable from the hand that made them. When using traditional woodblock techniques, he freehand carves each face—a type of self-assured trust in spontaneity not typically associated with printmaking's precision. González-Medina’s artwork conveys the urgency of their making, standing out in an age of overly slick digital illustration.
With powerful figures rooted in indigenous representation and concise statements speaking to the courage of undocumented immigrants, educators and water protectors, González-Medina’s artwork sits uncompromisingly in the position of political art. And Oakland gave him the strength to find and hold firm to that ground.
Though he has actively created art since childhood, González-Medina didn’t claim the title of "artist" until he moved to the Bay Area from Chicago in 2013. Before then, he identified more strongly as an activist, working closely within immigrant youth organizing, and joining a nearly 3,000-mile-long walk across the country in 2012 to support the DREAM Act.
As an activist, he also participated in one of the first "coming out of the shadows" demonstrations in Chicago in 2010, part of a movement to be publically "out" about one's status as an undocumented immigrant. He and seven other activists chose to speak up about being "undocumented and unafraid" in public. In that moment, their actions articulated the urgent need for undocumented people to be the ones speaking up for themselves. Even at the personal risk of deportation, they could no longer allow others—including immigrants' rights activists—to represent them in the public sphere and make decisions for them.
Although "coming out" has clear associations for LGBTQ communities, the action can be layered twofold for queer undocumented people. "I am Undocumented and Unafraid, Queer and Unashamed," González-Medina wrote in 2012. He identifies as UndocuQueer—a phrase which signals not only the "out" status of both identities, but also indicates a move to intentionally advocate for the importance of that intersection in both queer and immigrant activist spaces.
After years of political work in Chicago, González-Medina found himself burned out and questioning what to do and where to go next. “I was so focused on organizing [actions] and traveling and speaking here, being involved in civil disobedience actions as well—[I was] not making art."
He asked himself, “‘What would I be doing right now if I had papers, if I was documented? What would I be doing instead of fighting all the time, fighting these anti-immigrant legislators, and people who lobby against us?’ It was like, ‘I want to do art.’ I was making art all my life, but I never called myself an artist until I moved here.”
A pivotal moment for González-Medina was seeing Oakland-based Favianna Rodriguez’s work on view at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago. Seeing her poster art laid out on the first floor of one of the biggest libraries in his home city opened up a new path for him. In that experience, González-Medina says, “something happened. [I thought], ‘This is an artist not from Chicago, and she has an art show here! I want to do this, too.’”
After visiting Oakland several times while doing cross-country political organizing, González-Medina felt pulled back to the region with a sense that he wasn’t quite done with The Town yet. When he moved to the East Bay five years ago, he realized what Oakland could provide: “I discovered it was finding myself as a political artist.”
He began working at SOLESpace, a shoe store co-owned by Rodriguez that also functions as a gallery and community center. The more immersed he became within a community that doesn't separate art from political beliefs, the more González-Medina saw himself reflected back in that community.
Another reason he previously hesitated to identify himself as an artist was also now clear. “I didn't go to art school, so it's kind of like having that disconnect from the art world. And then [I found] the art world that I surround myself with, which is other people who also didn't get that education," he says. "Once I met a few political artists, that's when I was like, I think that's what I need to do. I have been doing it ever since.”
True to this vision, this shift into prioritizing his practice as artist never meant leaving behind his political work. “My driving force is that every day, undocumented people are getting deported, that children in cages is not something that happened this year—it's been happening for a long time.”
In González-Medina’s artwork, he not only incorporates political messages, he intentionally portrays indigenous people, consciously thinking about the impacts of colonialism on representation.
“When I talk about some of the murals I paint, I draw indigenous people with headdresses, really brown, with tattoos, because that's the history that they tried to erase," he says. "I am here somehow, I survived through all of that! As long as I am here, I am going to use my voice, and now I've learned to use it another way, not just through talking, but through visual art.”
Nicólas González-Medina’s work is on view through mid-September at E14 Gallery. He's working on a window-front installation for Día de Los Muertos, inspired by the women water protectors at Standing Rock, on Broadway and 9th this fall.