Pato Hebert Interview: A Conversation on the Multiplicity of Life

patoPato Hebert sat with me under the Villa Sassetti veranda to soak up the sun and reflect how life led him to where he is now.

  1. You have said: “My sense of family is likewise [referring to his artistry] flexible and complex. My families consist of people related by both blood and choice, and we stretch across languages, desires, continents, class and race.” Can you explain what this quote means to you?

“Yes, it means really what it says. My mom is from Panama, my pops is White from the U.S. My brother married a woman from Tokyo, my nieces and nephews visit their obaa-chan speaking Japanese. We exist in at least three of four different languages. So the language of love and family debate is a multiple language.  So, my sense of love, home and family are multiple. In order to feel like I am me I need that aggregate, the plurality and multiplicity. But I do not romanticize family, it can be full of drama and difficulties even as it is full of magic. [Like the] Black diaspora [it] is not simply at peace but I do not experience it as only in tension.”

  1. What does the inter-relatedness between art and public policy mean to you?

“The department is constantly trying to massage this. Even the questions, what is policy? What is art? Politics is often about power and art is often about creativity. When we think about power and creativity, how do those two things relate? In a really sinister way, how is power super creative about re-establishing itself, abusing itself or others rather. Thinking about art, we think about what is art for and what does art do? Who gets to lay claim to art? Then this enters a conversation of the politics of art and the art of politics, creativity and power, but there is the ‘politics art’ and politics pulse in everything we do, there is the art of how someone dresses themselves in the morning and the politics of how someone gets down their block.”

  1. From your perspective, what is the role of art and expression in popular culture today? What shifts should we make within our art culture?

“I love popular culture and I love the creativity pulsing through it. One challenge we have in the U.S. is the notion that [popular culture] is the only cultural realm. There are these false splits between culture and whatever is called Fine Art, often with a capital F and a capital A, instead of understanding how these realms inform each other all the time. Fashion is constantly pulling from “Fine Art” and Fine Art is constantly referencing and pulling from all kinds of other cultures.”

  1. What moves you most in life, either to inspire or upset you?

“All kinds of stuff. Being with living things and growing things really helps me. That could be old people and young people, that can be the ocean or the forest. These things teach me a lot and challenge me a lot.”

  1. How did you initially begin your advocacy work for HIV/AIDS? Was there a specific incident that prompted your dedication to HIV/AIDS advocacy?

“I was living in the early to mid-1990s in San Francisco’s Mission District in a house full of lesbians, one of them was my girlfriend at the time. One of my roommates brought this flyer, she said “You should go to this event,” and the event was a reading by queer Latino men organized by writer Ricardo Blanco. It was happening three blocks from my house, so I went. I had never heard men of any kind  be that full and rich in public and talk about family, emotions, desire, religion, creativity, sex, drugs and community in such a creative, candid, fierce, playful way, I was really riveted. Then I went to a reading in Oakland of Black writers where Blanco [moderated] and then I went to an event at Galleria de la Raza, which is a community based art gallery back in the Mission [District] in San Francisco that had been around for a few decades at that point and was trying to figure out how it might grow into the future and respond to what a new generation of artists and young people needed from a community art space. There were many of us there, but he [Blanco] was there too. I was really shy at that time and I still can be very shy and self-conscious. I said “My name is Pato and I saw you at a reading you guys did and I was really impressed and I am a visual artist and I really like what you do with writing and I think we should collaborate some time.” It was kind of uncharacteristic of me. He was a really amazing community organizer and he was running a thing called the “School Against Aids” and he was like “Cool, why don’t you come teach a class around photography?” I began to find a sense of community there and that was the start.”

  1. We know you have visited and lived in Panama before. How has living in another culture impacted or changed your artistic expression?

“Living in a place like Panama I learned a lot about syncretism. Syncretism is the making of something new from many constituent parts…. In a place like Latin America, and especially a place like Panama, this is true around race, true around language, and true around cultural sensibilities. Navigating this kind of complexity teaches me in my art to be open to different kinds of materials and sensibilities. Being aware of these intense and violent histories, the tectonics, or “big plates moving underneath”, that are always impacting what’s at the surface and what come out of that. I spent a lot of time there while deciding to become an artist, so it was central to that arc of formation in me.”

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