Three stylish subjects walk into the frame, carrying with them potted plants, IKEA furniture and a yoga mat.
Behind them, a Puerto Rican flag that appears to go unnoticed by the trendy young newcomers signifies the deep cultural roots that already exist in the neighbourhood in which they have just stepped foot. Such is the scene depicted by interdisciplinary artist and muralist Esteban del Valle in his painting entitled Transplants: The Discovery of Humboldt Park. Drawing parallels between the hipster invasion of a Chicago working-class neighbourhood and the “discovery” of the Americas, the piece satirically sheds light upon the neocolonial foundations of modern-day gentrification.
Gentrification, a process that robs neighbourhoods of their historical and cultural value while displacing its long-time residents, is in many ways the antithesis to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal on Sustainable Cities and Communities, which aims to provide affordable and inclusive housing and urbanization for all. Del Valle contributes to this conversation through his artistic practice, drawing historical links between the destructive colonial mentalities of the past and their modern-day manifestations with his clever compositions and expressive visual language.
“The goal is to create a new ‘political cartoon’,” he states in an interview with Boston Voyager, “one that reflects the complicated nature of our involvement in the social and economic power dynamics at play in America.”
Whether it be a picture of renowned Harlem Renaissance poet Jacob Lawrence sitting at a coffee shop amongst young professionals on Apple laptops or a drawing of a conquistador who appears utterly dismayed at the spilling of craft beer, del Valle’s skillful application of irony and wit lucidly illustrates the shifting class dynamics that are destabilizing communities across the globe.
Nevertheless, del Valle is fully aware of the irony in making art about gentrification, as artists and large corporations often work in tandem to transform historical and working-class neighbourhoods into shiny new havens for liberal creatives in a phenomenon called artwashing.
Drawing from his own experiences as an artist living in a gentrified Brooklyn neighbourhood, he chooses to channel his creativity and reflexivity into artworks that can raise awareness of the problem rather than simply perpetuate it. “I am not as concerned with the question of whether public art can correct an injustice,” he explains in an interview with L.A. Taco while discussing the role of murals in instigating social change. “I am more concerned with its potential to promote the visibility of this effort and enter that effort into the collective imagination.”
While much of his work is a response to the unpleasant realities of modern life that he witnesses, his desire to create is ultimately an expression of gratitude - specifically his gratitude for the voice that art has given him. With this voice, he is able to resolutely speak out against injustice and stand up for marginalized communities while honouring the goodness and humanity that makes them worth fighting for.
“I hope to share my experience with creative empowerment to inspire others to engage with and transform their every day, not only to address our problems but also to celebrate our joy,” says del Valle.