LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Artist Rigo 23’s statue of incarcerated Native American activist Leonard Peltier has traveled across the county, stood watch alongside the water protectors at Standing Rock, and survived bomb threats. But it almost met its demise in the back of a U-Haul truck in Oakland last month.
The 12-foot-high statue was the centerpiece of Rigo 23’s 2021 exhibition Time and Again at the Richmond Art Center, whose curator, Roberto Martinez, volunteered to drive the artwork down from the Bay Area to the artist’s Burbank studio. He packed the disassembled redwood, metal, and clay sculpture into a U-Haul on Thursday, December 22, and parked it outside his home in East Oakland, with the intention of delivering it the next day.
“He wakes up and there’s nothing there,” Rigo 23 told Hyperallergic. “He calls and says, ‘I have news and it’s not good.’” Martinez began driving all over town frantically looking for the U-Haul, while police and even a private investigator aided in the search. Rigo has never put a price on the work, but estimates its worth at $100,000.
Rigo 23 (born Ricardo Gouveia) made this sculpture in 2016, after an initial design made of clay, based on a self-portrait that Peltier made in prison in a pose reminiscent of Rodin’s “The Thinker.” In December 2016, the statue traveled to Washington, DC, where it was installed on the campus of American University. On its cross-country journey to DC, it stopped at Standing Rock, the Pine Ridge Reservation, Alcatraz, and other sites, where individuals stood on its momentous feet, acts of solidarity documented in photos. Soon after it was installed, however, the university received a bomb threat and a letter from FBI Agents Association requesting its removal, which the school acquiesced to.
Peltier is a Native American activist who was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences after being convicted of murdering two FBI agents in a 1975 shootout on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He has always maintained his innocence, and a movement for clemency has been ongoing for decades, with one of the original prosecutors in the case asking for clemency in 2017.
After the truck theft, a few days passed with no leads. “It’s a living monument. The feet are charged with the energy of 1000 people,” Rigo said. “I was particularly distraught that the feet would be destroyed.” The following Tuesday, a woman named Darby identified the truck based on the license plate she had seen in a news story about the theft, and the police eventually found the car abandoned on East 22nd Street by Lake Merritt. Racist graffiti, including the n-word, was scrawled on the truck, and the sculpture’s left arm was missing, but it was otherwise intact.
Despite the controversy the statue has elicited in the past, and the significance of Peltier’s legacy, Rigo doesn’t think it was a targeted attack — instead, he said, it was probably someone’s “last-ditch effort” to stave off the worsening scourge of poverty in the Bay Area.
“At first we didn’t know how to interpret this theft, but as the days passed, it became clearer that in all likelihood this was just another U-Haul truck theft in the Bay Area,” he told Hyperallergic. “One more episode of societal breakdown in an area where teachers can not afford to live near the schools nor the students they are supposed to nurture and teach.”
He added that when it was eventually found, the truck contained a baby stroller and shopping cart, “icons of urban homelessness in the USA.”
A few days later, Rigo received a message from an Instagram user who sent a photo of a dog standing on the sculpture’s missing arm outside an RV encampment. Martinez and a police officer went to the site, and, with a long pole with a loop on the end used to restrain dogs, hooked the arm and dragged it over a makeshift fence.
The Leonard Peltier statue, a bit worse for wear, is now safe in Rigo’s studio. He plans to send it to South Dakota at the end of February for a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Wounded Knee Occupation of 1973.