In mid-June, as he had done so many times before, George Rivera packed more than a hundred pieces of art into a suitcase and boarded a plane bound for a place where rifles can seem more common than paintbrushes.
This time, his boarding pass took him to South Korea to put on an art exhibition about 3 miles south of the North Korean border, just outside the demilitarized zone (DMZ).
Housed at the DMZ Museum through the end of 2018, the exhibition includes 23 pieces from current CU Boulder students, specifically created to reflect the tensions of the DMZ and the history of conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
The artists in the show were instructed to make diptychs—compositions created on two separate panels—no larger than a sheet of printer paper so they could all fit in Rivera’s suitcase. Each piece addresses the theme of liminal space, or the state of being on both sides of a physical boundary like the 5-mile-wide, landmine-ridden DMZ.
An artful ambassador
The Korean trip was just Rivera’s latest in an extended stint of globe-hopping as ambassador for his art collective, Artnauts.
A professor of art and art history, he formed Artnauts in 1996 to take art to contentious locations around the world and explore the social issues of the time. Since then, he has put on more than 300 art exhibitions in more than a dozen conflict-affected countries.
“They are human beings,” Rivera says. “They get caught up in webs of conflict and history, but they’re just like you and me.”
Rachael Choi, a rising senior in the Leeds School of Business, is one of the students whose art is being displayed at the DMZ Museum. As a Korean American, Choi was especially interested in the exhibition and passionate about her contribution: DMZ is Forgotten.
The piece alludes to the way the Korean War, often dubbed the Forgotten War, has faded from the world’s collective memory.
Not without risks
After more than 20 years of bringing art to conflict areas—from Russia to Chile, Bosnia to the Palestinian territories—Rivera has learned to expect the unexpected.
Recalling three close calls with bullets, Rivera says, “You can see them coming at you.” One of those times, he was photographing art along the Israeli West Bank barrier during an Artnauts trip to Bethlehem.
As the rounds whizzed by, Rivera said, he froze, helpless to move until it would have been too late.
He emerged from the gunfire unscathed and unfazed by the prospect of doing it all again.
When the Artnauts decide to show an exhibit, Rivera said, “you don’t know what’s going to happen, but we’re going.”
No slowing down
Over two decades since traveling to Mexico City for his first Artnauts project, Rivera has shown no signs of slowing down. He already has plans for exhibitions in Chile and Croatia later this year.
“We’ve got to bring humanity to the inhumanity they’re facing around them,” Rivera says. “They need it the most.”