On Native Ground: Jaque Fragua

by Christie Chisholm, LocalFlavor Magazine, August 2011

Jaque Fragua says he doesn’t like to talk about himself, or about anything, really. He likes to listen. That’s how he interacts with the world—listening, and listening some more, and then condensing all he’s heard and painting it somewhere, anywhere, quietly and like a prayer.

Yet Fragua lets his words tumble forth like a flood, as though he’s been holding them back too long and they’ve finally ripped through the dam. He hardly seems out of practice. The 24-year-old speaks quickly but intentionally, touching on the nature of art, self-identity and the history of his people with one broad stroke.

But first, he starts at the beginning. Fragua is from New Mexico, raised on the Jemez Pueblo, which still and always will serve as his center community. “Growing up there, it was like being transported to another world,” he says. Although Fragua has since traveled, and painted, all over the country and beyond, in cities like Brooklyn, San Francisco, Oaxaca, Vancouver and soon Paris, it’s the pueblo that remains his primary inspiration. He moved to Tucson about a month ago, and he’s lived in Seattle and Denver, but he always returns home for communal ceremonies. “I feel like it’s the reservation, and the rest of the world,” he says. 

Fragua’s not even sure how many members of his community know he’s an artist, and a pretty successful one. This many be partially due to the fact that most of Fragua’s work is street art; sometimes it’s commissioned (or as he calls it, “legitimate”), and sometimes it’s not. The latter is always anonymous, and it isn’t something he goes bragging about. Another factor is the way his community thinks about art and work, he says. “You can’t be defined by a career,” Fragua says. “It’s a way of life.” He uses his parents as an example, both of whom are artists in the Westernized mindset. His mother works with textiles and his father is a painter, too, but “they don’t know it,” he adds. “In a Western context, it is art. In my understanding, it’s not art; it’s just a part of what I do.”

His parents support his work, though. He remembers his first painting—a watercolor of fish in the ocean, something he’d never seen in person. Red Rocks Community College picked up the piece for a show. “My dad bought it, but he didn’t tell me,” Fragua says, smiling. He was 10.

Despite the success of his first artistic foray, it didn’t occur to Fragua until much later in life that he wanted to be a painter. As a teenager, he was much more interested in dance (usually break-dancing) and music. Fragua’s a virtual one-man band, with experience playing guitar, drums, bass and piano in addition to knowing his way around turntables. He’s been in blues and jazz bands as well as punk, rock and roll, and hip-hop groups. Fragua hates the term “renaissance man,” but that’s probably because he hears it so darn often.

It was after finishing a degree at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe that he started to focus more on painting. Once he concentrated on it, the medium filled something inside him that had been waiting, vacant, his whole life. “I was lonely until I found art. Until I found spray paint, a paintbrush,” he says. “The thing about art is it stays there.” He acknowledges that music can be recorded, but spurts of improv on a guitar dissipate like vapor. It’s the improv that appeals to him the most. “It’s more spontaneous, paint on a wall,” he says. “It feels like I capture a sound on a wall—the rhythm in a line, the way it bounces, thickens, lightens. When I see that, I feel good, comforted.”

Yet permanency isn’t important to Fragua, who acknowledges that some of his most spur-of-the-moment work is painted over the next morning by graffiti cleanup teams. “It’s not immortality I’m concerned about,” he says. “It’s about living life with intention.”

Fragua doesn’t usually paint what many people think of when they hear the word “graffiti,” which he describes as “scrawls on walls.” He likes to focus on more tribalistic forms, what he refers to as “Native pop art,” patterns that represent protection and beginnings. Water designs and clouds, which represent life, are a big theme in his work. He like redesigning the humidity cycle that can be found in every middle school biology textbook, adding in Native American iconography. “Where are the people in those diagrams?” he asks. Fragua takes it upon himself to fill them in.

While Fragua makes a living off his commissioned work—such as the mural on the El Rey Theater he painted, titled “Contemporary Traditions,” with two other artists—as well as canvas works he sells in galleries, his favorite pieces are painted covertly and on the fly. His favorite pastime is wandering around deserted areas at night, often in the wild, with a couple cans of spray paint in his pocket and the sound of nothing but his thoughts. “No one will see it except for myself and God,” he says. “It’s the private collection.”

These moments are Fragua’s way of communicating with something larger, in terms of both understanding himself and sending a prayer to the creator. “When it’s just me, it feel like it’s untouchable,” he says. “Maybe someone will see it, get to that same space. I find that sacred.”

There are many pieces Fragua intends for people to see, though, and he has a message he wants to communicate through those works. “I like to share my story and other people’s stories, and the stories of my ancestors, my community, my friends, my family,” he says. Sometimes this takes a lighter or subversive form. Other times the subject matter is more difficult. “I have the courage to be able to speak up, and I have this outlet,” he says. “I want to speak out for others, for victims of abuse. ... Where I come from, a lot of people are still suffering from it.” Fragua hopes to unlock emotion through his work. “I want to engage people to look at their reflection,” he says. “And I want everyone to be healthy.”

Fragua recognizes that he lives a little on the edge, straddled between the law and his art. “I like to feel invincible,” he says. “Sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not.” He’s talking about the time he went to jail for painting on a building that was then demolished one month later. “My whole understanding of the world is so skewed,” he says. “I got a taste of sovereignty, its own rules and laws. I want to be the same way.”

Still, at the heart of all he does, he says, are simple desires: to express, inspire and exist in a world of his own making. He tries to hang on to an element of his 10-year-old self, painting something he yearned for but had never seen. “I love my innocence,” he says. “It’s why I do what I do. I’m just a guy painting.”

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Jaque’s work can be seen at the Firegod Gallery, which recently moved to 1000 Old Church Road in Corrales. 505.252.3300. www.firegodgallery.com.