Eddie Arroyo’s Stirring Paintings of Protest Start with Community

Isabel Ling
Mar 3, 2022 11:10PM

With one fist raised in the air, the man featured in Eddie Arroyo’s June 13th, 2020, Uhuru Konsyan Honoring Arthur McDuffie (2020) holds a microphone up to his mouth with his other hand. Behind him, an American flag flown upside down flaps in the wind. The figure cuts a familiar image of defiance. Arroyo’s painting, based on a photograph taken in Miami during Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, is reminiscent of so many of the photographs that populated news outlets and social media feeds as Americans across the country took to the streets in protest of George Floyd’s murder.

In Arroyo’s solo exhibition “Talking to Real Americans,” on view through March 19th at Spinello Projects in Miami, the artist creates a record of recent history. From demonstrations against Burnett Oil by water protectors in Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve to protests for immigration reform in downtown Miami, Arroyo pay tribute to social movements in stirring figurative paintings. “Talking to Real Americans,” which includes paintings made between 2019 and 2022, is ultimately a meditation on citizenship and the right to belong. “I was born in the U.S., but it has never felt like home,” Arroyo, who is of Colombian and Peruvian descent, said in an interview with Artsy. “I wanted to use this idea of ‘Americanness’ as a way to understand what it means to live on this land, to question what nationalism and citizenship mean.”


Arroyo first gained public notoriety as one of eight artists who pulled their work from the 2019 Whitney Biennial in protest of Warren B. Kanders, who, at the time, was vice chairman of the Whitney Museum’s board and owner of defense-manufacturing company Safariland. (Days later, Kanders resigned from the board after months of protest.) It was at the biennial that Arroyo was first introduced to Decolonize This Place, the grassroots organization that staged protests against Kanders and the museum. Arroyo described seeing Decolonize This Place as a flashpoint for his practice: “My work deals with gentrification, and I’ve always thought about it through the lens of colonization,” he said. “However, learning about decolonization provided me with a whole new language for my work.”

Arroyo resonated with the institutional critique Decolonize This Place posed through their various actions at cultural institutions throughout New York. In Arroyo’s practice, the Miami native sought to explore the art world’s role in accelerating gentrification in his own community, specifically the impact of Wynwood Art District on Miami’s Little Haiti. To better navigate his participation in the biennial, Arroyo reached out to New York organizations like Take Back the Bronx and Chinatown Art Brigade, even joining the organizations’ demonstrations. “I did what I would do in Miami, which is community outreach,” he said. “My art is rooted in these conversations I have with people.”

Many of the works on view in “Talking to Real Americans” draw from Arroyo’s own political activism. Arroyo uses reference photos from the demonstrations he attends, homing in on compositions that expose the tensions and dynamics protestors negotiate on the street. In May 17th, 2019, Museum of Chinese in America (2021), Arroyo depicts a demonstration—organized by Chinatown Art Brigade, WRRQ Collective, and NYU Asian American Political Activism Coalition (NYU APAC) in collaboration with Decolonize This Place—protesting the artwashing of Manhattan’s Chinatown. In the painting, Arroyo emphasizes the dissonance between the lived realities of the protestors and the oblivious white couple strolling past the demonstration.

Rendered in loose brushstrokes, Arroyo’s paintings incorporate a sense of movement that captures the pace of resistance. In FTP, November 1st, 2019 (2020), demonstrators stream down subway stairs in an act of mass fare evasion in protest of police brutality on public transportation. And in Friday, January 31st, 2020, FTP 3, Jail Support in Front of One Police Plaza (2022), a group of gleeful demonstrators camp outside NYPD headquarters awaiting the release of their comrades.

Arroyo has always painted sites of conflict. Born and raised in Miami’s Little Havana, the artist’s first exposure to painting was through his father—a beautician by day and a prolific artist who obsessively portrayed matadors and bullfights in his paintings. Arroyo, however, chose to turn his attention to a different type of power struggle. After receiving a BFA in painting from Florida International University, he began documenting the detrimental impact of real estate development on predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhoods.

In Arroyo’s “Developers Survey” series, which he began in 2011, the artist depicted buildings and urban landscapes in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Miami’s Little Haiti, where he currently lives and works. Wielding a somber color palette, the artist spins the visual tradition of American landscape painting to excavate the underlying power structures that drive gentrification. Although the landscapes appear deserted, Arroyo focuses on distinct subjects that evidence a community grappling with displacement.

In 1 NW 62nd St Miami, FL 33150 (2022), which features a building located in Little Haiti, the artist reproduces a mural created by local Haitian muralist and sign painter King Serge Toussaint. The mural depicts horrific images from last summer, where horse-mounted border troops appeared to be whipping Haitian immigrants in Del Rio, Texas. In “Talking to Real Americans,” 1 NW 62nd St Miami, FL 33150 is displayed alongside King Serge Toussaint (2021), a portrait of the man behind the mural. Although Arroyo cites Edward Hopper’s sparse, mood-driven realism as an influence, Arroyo’s political paintings—brimming with the dynamism and vitality of communities in flux—aggregate around a thematic foundation of solidarity that comes into sharp contrast with Hopper’s portraits of human isolation.

For Arroyo, incorporating social activism and racial justice into his art practice means intermediating a state of constant contradiction. What colonial power dynamics does the art world reflect and enable? What does it mean to bring scenes of protests and demonstrations into the art market? Arroyo acknowledges that his unique position as an artist and activist is not easy. “Operating as an artist, specifically with the Whitney, made me realize that there’s a lot of compromised negotiation that needs to happen in living and existing on this land,” Arroyo said. However, as referenced in the exhibition title “Talking to Real Americans,” he believes an important aspect of navigating this contradiction is communication, adding, “I try my best to make art that avoids speaking at my local community, but instead, with my community. That’s where I always start.”

Isabel Ling

Thumbnail image: Eddie Arroyo, “May 17th, 2019, Museum of Chinese in America,” 2021. Courtesy of Spinello Projects.