Printmaker Dewey Tafoya Navigates Complex Indigenous Relationships to Colonization in New Prints

By: Gabrielle Garcia


Serving as one of Self Help Graphic & Art’s Artists in Residence, lead printmaker of the Barrio Mobile Arts Studio (BMAS), and long-time teaching artist facilitating workshops during Día de los Muertos and the City of Los Angelesʼs Summer Night Lights program, Dewey Tafoya’s more than fifteen year legacy with SHG continues with new prints featuring recognizable motifs. Raised in Boyle Heights, Tafoya’s artistic works are influenced by the urban landscapes, cultures, and communities of inner city Los Angeles and grounded in themes of reclaiming history and culture, decolonization, cultural pride, and activism. His work has been acquired by LACMA, including his Día de los Muertos commemorative print, “Los tenis de Cuauhtémoc” (2018). 

Tafoya, along with twenty-five other artists, was invited to create work and participate in Self Help Graphics & Art’s Utopia/ Dystopia exhibition, curated by artist and printmaker Miyo Stevens-Gandara, which forms a portfolio of prints in the form of a deck of 52 playing cards. Each artist created two of those playing cards, which presented their interpretation of utopia and dystopia. The concept of a deck of cards is intended to reference many things—games of chance, luck, fortune, war, solitude, precarious situations (house of cards), magic, empire, and divination. The deck of cards allows the project to bring many different artists and styles together creating one unified artwork- a full deck, redefining a traditional portfolio.

Dewey Tafoya’s two untitled utopia and dystopia serigraph prints, created using solely black ink, feature the five of spades for his dystopia interpretation and the jack of spades for his utopia interpretation. Both prints feature Olmec colossal heads, a popular motif in many of Tafoya’s prints, which are large sculpted human heads created by the Olmecs who are considered the earliest known civilization in Mesoamerica that were located in south-central Mexico. The word Olmec means the “people of rubber.”


His dystopian print features a central Olmec head looking at the viewer with the word, “Decolonize” across its headpiece and “Abolish ICE” across the right cheek. This image’s assignment as dystopia may confuse at first glance. But, through this, Tafoya challenges viewers to understand that the conditions in which we live that necessitate these efforts and phrases are in fact dystopian. Colonization and its aftermath are dystopian. ICE and the immigration crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border are dystopian. According to Tafoya, “We are living in our dystopia,” no longer an extreme or a myth, but our now.

On the other hand, his utopian print depicts two Olmec busts wearing flannel button-up shirts sandwiching the phrase “Nunca colonizado,” or “Never colonized,” twice repeated. Surrounding the figures are two Olmec offerings that involved the burning of a rubber ball with a quetzal feather on top of a pile of wood. The flannel shirts are a nod Tafoya’s upbringing in East LA and the Chicano culture that resides there. For Tayofa, utopia is a world where indigenous peoples never experienced colonization, never exploited. Referencing the Olmec civilization is also a nod to this because, according to Tafoya, the Olmecs were “a people that likely never experienced colonization.” Viewers are asked to imagine a world where these horrific legacies of violence had never taken place to begin with and what life could be in its place. 

The Utopia/ Dystopia exhibition will remain on view through August 10, 2019. Prints for sale from the Annual Print Fair will remain on display through August 1, 2019. To view prints for sale or view the exhibition, please visit SHG during gallery hours Monday through Friday, 10:00 AM- 5:00 PM or shop prints and merchandise at the online shop anytime. Interested in making a donation to the organization? Visit the online donation page or text “SHG1973” to 41444.

Gabrielle Garcia is a Self Help Graphics & Art Getty Marrow Undergraduate Intern and recent graduate of Scripps College.