During the research process prior to the opening of Gateways/Portales, I had the pleasure of meeting with the artist Cornelio Campos his Durham, North Carolina home-studio several times. I got to sit among his vibrant paintings and works-in-progress, and learn about this soft-spoken artist’s journey. Born in Cherán, Mexico, he arrived in the United States in 1989, moving first to Los Angeles where he worked in construction. Eventually he moved to North Carolina in 1992 after hearing of better job prospects from a cousin. He moved to Epson, North Carolina, where he did farmwork. He later transitioned into landscaping and moved to Durham. He currently works as an alarm installation specialist in addition to being a well-known artist in North Carolina. He has been featured in many group and independent shows, as well as community events throughout the state.
In 2015, the archives at the Durham County Library accessioned and are continuing to build Campos’ archive. His papers include correspondence, sketches, purchase invoices, institutional partnerships, his many exhibitions, as well as commissions, including one for noted Chilean author Isabel Allende. The archive details the depth of his artistic career in addition to his importance in the state of North Carolina as a whole.
Campos’ personal experience of coming to the United States and to Durham in particular, is that of other Latinxs in the region. Many Latinxs started coming to North Carolina in the 1990s, drawn by the promise of work and money. Like Campos, many became farmworkers. In March of 2016, Dr. Ariana Curtis conducted a video interview with Campos for the Anacostia Community Museum’s Gateways/Portales exhibition. During his interview Campos lamented how incredibly taxing farmwork was, and how few people understand what difficult, back-breaking work it is. “No one told me how hard coming to the United States would be.”
Like Campos, many Latinxs found steadier, non-seasonal work, and ended up making Durham their home. The Southeastern United States is currently experiencing some of the largest Latinx population growth in the country. This growth, particularly in urban centers like Durham, is challenging and changing the black-white binary that has dominated the Southeastern United States for decades. Campos’ painting Realidad Norteña (the Reality of the North) helps document that change, as well as confronting viewers with the realities of the immigrant experience.
Campos’ body of work visualizes and examines both the geographic and cultural borders between Latinxs and the larger United States population. Like the “Big Three” Mexican Muralists before him, (Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros , and Jose Clemente Orozco), his large scale paintings feature workers and the marginalized as subjects, with social justice as their themes. Campos aims to visualize the dangers and difficulties that people experience not only in crossing the border into the United States, but the severe circumstances that lead to such a decision. Realidad Norteña (the Reality of the North) was painted after Campos became a United States citizen; he describes it as his most personal, autobiographical piece.
The central image of the painting is a female figure that fuses the Virgin of Guadalupe, symbol of Mexico on the left, and the Statue of Liberty on the right, in a rising sun. The rays of the brown Virgin’s mandala mirror the blonde Statue of Liberty’s crown. In the center of the female figure’s chest is a hybrid seal that combines the U.S.’s bald eagle and Mexico’s emblem of a golden eagle devouring a rattlesnake. The eagle stands on a combination of Mexico’s prickly pear cactus and the U.S. olive branch. Spanning the female figure and bridging the two halves is a monarch butterfly, symbol of migration. Beneath the monarch is an orange lily blended with a white flowering dogwood blossom, state flower of North Carolina; the stem of the flower is stylized barbed wire that bisects the bottom of the painting.
On the left of the picture plane, Campos has depicted a mother and child seated in an arid, barren Mexican landscape which merges with the steps of a Pre-Columbian temple. On the right is a segmented landscape, divided from the Mexican side by the barbed wire. In the segment closest to the wire is a desert littered with bones and a faceless, contorted figure, waist-deep in the sand, gazing up at the U.S. flag. Just beyond the flag is a verdant, lush field, tended by hunched farmworkers.
During a September 2016 visit to Campos’ home, he brought out a faded cardboard box. When he lifted the lid I gasped when I saw the contents: the boots he wore as a farmworker when he first came to North Carolina. He then brought out a small, tissue-thin envelope which held his ticket from his journey from Mexico to the U.S. Both the boots and ticket stub are displayed together in the introductory section of Gateways/Portales. The dusty, weathered boots add an even greater weight to Realidad Norteña, hung just across the gallery.
In his video interview for the Gateways/Portales exhibition, which will be part of the ACM permanent collection, Campos discussed how people on opposite ends of the political spectrum have reacted to his work. Shrugging and smiling, Campos noted that he received an intense amount of anti-immigrant backlash when the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill bought and displayed his work, but despite the negative feedback, he was pleased that his art was sparking discussion. He says he sees his work as a form of visual documentation, and as he says, “cultural diplomacy”. In addition to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Campos has worked with several institutions throughout the state including Duke University, Johnston Community College, Peace College, North Carolina State University, and Smithsonian affiliate North Carolina Museum of History to try and educate and create a dialogue between the Latinx and the non-Latinx communities.
Realidad Norteña has recently been acquired by ACM, and will be on display as part of the Gateways/Portales exhibition, on view until August 6, 2017.
[this post is written by Elena Muñoz]
Elena C. Muñoz received her MA in Art History from Rutgers University, and her BA in Art History from Fordham University. Her primary research interest is teasing out the African influences in Latin American
and Latino art. She is also fascinated with the evolution and uses of Marian imagery in the Americas. In 2014, she was a recipient of the Smithsonian’s Latino Museum Studies fellowship, working with the Teodoro Vidal Collection at the Lunder Center and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Currently she is a research assistant at the Anacostia Community Museum, working on the exhibition Gateways/Portales, which examines Latino im/migration in the D.C. Metro Area, Baltimore, the Raleigh-Durham region of North Carolina, and Charlotte, North Carolina.
Cornelio Campos is a self-trained painter from Cheran, Michoacan,Mexico who now resides in Durham, North Carolina. He has been painting since childhood, although the strong themes present in many of his paintings did not surface until he became an American citizen as an adult. His earlier works show a Mexican folkloric influence, whereas his more recent works are quite contextual, mixing ancient and modern styles, themes and images. Campos paints with a passion for educating others, primarily on the migrant experience, and for sharing the customs and culture of his people, Purepecha from Cherán. His work has been shown at exhibits throughout North Carolina, including Duke and UNC – Chapel Hill, where some of his pieces are permanently on display.