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Immigration and Colonization: Grappling with Past and Present New Mexico

Exploring the state's complex history alongside debates surrounding Confederate monuments at the SITElines biennial, Santa Fe

In 1993, a bronze equestrian statue honouring the founder and first colonial governor of Santa Fe de Nuevo México, Don Juan de Oñate, was erected in Alcalde, approximately 45-minutes north of Santa Fe near the Ohkay Owingeh pueblo. Oñate was a particularly brutal ruler: he was tried and convicted in 1606 of unusual cruelty, and was subsequently banished from New Mexico. In what is perhaps his most infamous act, following a Spanish-led massacre in 1599 at Acoma pueblo that left over 800 men, women, and children dead, and dozens more enslaved, the so-called ‘last conquistador’ ordered his soldiers to cut off the right feet of all surviving men over the age of 25. Nearly 400 years after this heinous event, on the night of 29 December 1997, two men calling themselves The Friends of Acoma took retribution by removing the right foot of the Oñate monument. ‘Outside of “Indian art” and “gaming”,’ the duo wrote in a statement to the Santa Fe Reporter, ‘we have become an invisible people, even to ourselves. Our Hispanic brothers have forgotten on whose land they dwell.’

Their symbolic act of decolonial justice – rather more than the Julio Cortázar short-story for which this exhibition is named – provides the opening gambit for ‘Casa tomada’ (House taken over), the third iteration of the SITElines biennial since its re-conception as a platform for the art of the Americas. In a bold gesture, this year’s curatorial team of José Luis Blondet, Ruba Katrib and Candice Hopkins (also co-curator of the inaugural SITElines in 2014) has authored a series of works commemorating the Friends’ protest. Visitors to the exhibition are greeted by a clay cast of the missing appendage (spurs and all), as well as an open plaster mould, and a vitrine containing letters, press clippings,  photographs and  a medallion made of bronze melted down, purportedly, from Oñate’s erstwhile foot.

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Reproduction of cover of  Juan Fresán’s graphic translation of Julio Cortázar’s Casa tomada, 1969, Minotauro, Buenos Aires. Courtesy: SITE Santa Fe; photograph: Kyra Kennedy 

Bringing the complex colonial history of New Mexico into view alongside more recent debates surrounding monuments to the Confederacy in the American South, ‘Casa tomada’ positions itself squarely in the midst of present-day political struggles and debates around immigration, race and colonization. Indeed, in this relatively intimate presentation of work by 21 artists and collectives, there is an emphasis on the deconstruction and reconstruction of historical narratives, as well as the symbolic economies and representational systems of disenfranchised populations and marginal identities.

The exhibition alludes repeatedly to dismemberment. Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa’s Revindication of Tangible Property (2018), a mobile sculpture comprising wooden arms from which artefacts, ornaments and household wares are suspended, departs from a passage in the Mayan sacred book Popol Vuh in which everyday objects revolt against their humanoid masters. A pair of luscious paintings by Victor Estrada figure organs without bodies; one composition even centres around a disembodied foot à la Philip Guston. Laden Sole (2004) by Jamasee Pitseolak is a stone and ivory sculpture of a shackled boot in a size that, gut-wrenchingly, might be suitable for an infant. Even the more institutionally-oriented contributions by Stephanie Taylor and Lutz Bacher, respectively, assert the force of deconstruction as a critical method. The latter, whose billboard on SITE Santa Fe’s recently renovated façade reproduces a found photograph showing a disassembled American rocket, emphasizes not only the building’s resemblance to an aerial projectile, but also its incongruity with the city’s dominant Pueblo Revival architecture.

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Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, Revindication of Tangible Property, 2018, wood, expanded polystyrene, epoxy resin, mineral pigments, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist, Proyectos Ultravioleta, Guatemala City, Mendes Wood DM, São Paulo and Sies & Höke, Düsseldorf
 

Melissa Cody presents a suite of small-scale weavings that span the last three years, and are informed by the Navajo Germantown style which emerged during the Long Walk (1864–66), the forced migration of Diné people from their ancestral lands. According to the artist, Diné weavers unravelled their government-issued blankets made from wool produced in Germantown, Pennsylvania, and then re-wove them into new geometrical designs. Incorporating text, as well as bold combinations of colour and pattern that challenge the eye, Cody’s work twines the histories embedded in this artistic tradition with accounts of contemporary life in ways that are both visually stunning and conceptually precise; its stakes are unequivocal. 

Despite such meticulously wrought connections, ‘Casa tomada’ in general suffers from a conservative ‘white cube’ installation that, like the formulaic literary reference anchoring its title, raises concerns about its actual relationship to the artistic, urban and socio-political context in which it is situated. It’s particularly disappointing given the exhibition’s intellectual promise and agonistic potential. Installed in nearby Railyard Park, Eduardo Navarro’s newly-commissioned outdoor sculpture Galactic Playground (2018) – a large-scale, multicoloured game board upon which rests a gnomon whose shadow determines the ‘rules’ of play – seems, ironically, to confirm the limitations of SITElines’s hemispheric perspective. Its fanciful prompts for audience participation – inviting viewers to ‘collaborate with a rainbow to make a film’, for example – contrast starkly with the specific political claims made inside the galleries.

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Melissa Cody, US, 2015, wool, aniline dyes, 88 × 33 cm. Courtesy: Collection of Malia Sias; photograph: Sam Minkler

Perhaps most refreshing, though,  is the ample space given to work by artists of colour, as well as artists (with some exceptions) not already ubiquitous on the international biennial circuit. In an era when white-supremacy is increasingly normalized, it is impossible to overstate the importance of spaces in which counter-narratives and nuanced identities can manifest. That this exhibition should occur in the self-proclaimed ‘city different’, with its troubled history and bustling tourism industry, makes it all the more apt.

SITElines 2018:'Casa tomada' runs at SITE Santa Fe until 6 January 2019.

Main image: Victor Estrada, The Spirit of the Living and the Dead and Cotton Candy / Posada (detail), 2017, oil on panel, 1.2 × 1.5 m. Courtesy: the artist and Telles Fine Art, Los Angeles

Matthew Rana is an artist and writer living in Malmö.

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