In his now-classic book The Myth of Santa Fe (1997), Chris Wilson traces the city’s complex cultural history, from its founding as a pueblo by the local indigenous population to its settlement by Spanish colonists, and from its brief yet significant Mexican era to the Santa Fe of today – a melting pot of ethnicities and an exotic tourist destination. But there is another Santa Fe that stands apart from the tourist sites and trinket shops. SITElines.2016 takes a critical look at this local context, offering unexpected connections between contemporary art and the city as a political, social and cultural environment. The show transcends its setting, too, by attempting to apply its central themes to the whole of the Americas.
SITElines, the newly transformed SITE Santa Fe biennial, is a six-year-long series of three interconnected biennials, each organized by its own group of curators. Its subtitle ‘Much Wider than a Line’ is taken from Leanne Simpson’s Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back (2011), a book that argues for the cultural and political resurgence of indigenous people in the Americas. With its international group of curators (Rocío Aranda-Alvarado, Chile; Kathleen Ash-Milby, USA; Pip Day, Mexico and UK; Pablo León de la Barra, Brazil and Mexico; and Kiki Mazzucchelli, Brazil and UK), SITElines proposes to cover a vast territory: from Nunavut in the Canadian Arctic to Cape Horn in Chile. Placing Santa Fe as the conceptual and geographical centre of this undertaking underscores New Mexico’s embodiment of the complexities of postcolonial America, with its beginnings as Native American land, to a Spanish colony, a Mexican Province, an American Territory and, finally, a US State.
Several of the more than 30 participating artists are represented by large, room-size installations. One of the most compelling of these is a new commission by Brazilian artist Jonathas de Andrade: a large series of black and white portraits titled ‘A Study of Race and Class Bahia><Santa Fe’ (2015–16) references a controversial 1952 UNESCO study on the titular theme carried out in inland settlements in Bahia, Brazil.
Mexican artist Graciela Iturbide’s photographic series ‘Those Who Live in the Sand’ (1979) depicts the Seri people, who reside in the desert coastal region of Sonora, Mexico. The photographs are the result of a 1970s government programme that invited artists, musicians and filmmakers to document Mexico’s indigenous groups. Iturbide’s beautiful and emotive photographs respectfully depict the Seri negotiating the tension between their traditions and modern life.
A series of spare black and white photographs by New Mexico-based artist Miguel Gandert invites viewers to explore the realities of Hispanic families in the rural areas of New Mexico along the Rio Grande Valley, as well as in the urban areas of the state around Albuquerque and smaller towns to the north. Having grown up in New Mexico, Gandert is able to photograph people and contexts not always accessible to outsiders, giving his images an intimate character, as they examine the multifaceted lives of Hispanics and local indigenous populations.
I was thrilled to discover the work of French photographer, ethnographer, historian and botanist Pierre Verger, a pioneering researcher of Afro-Brazilian culture and religion in the 1940s and '50s. His powerful yet often intimate, spontaneous and erotic black and white photographs reveal deep connections between religious ceremonies in West Africa and Brazil. Traces of vernacular traditions can be found in the ponchos and coats woven by Mexican artist Carla Fernández, who for years has travelled throughout Mexico with her workshop, Taller Flora, studying the practices of traditional hand spinners, weavers, embroiderers and garment-makers. The colourful ponchos (quechquemitls) in the exhibition were made in close collaboration with local groups in Mexico that generate income for the producers and can be worn by the visitors in the gallery. Similarly, Puerto Rican artist Jorge González’s beautiful Banquetas Chéveres (Cool Stools, 2015), which visitors can carry through the galleries, attempt to recover traditional furniture-making craft from the artist’s home country.
Among the most visually stunning works in the exhibition are the simple yet captivating drawings by Abel Rodriguez, a 70-year-old member of the Nonuya, an indigenous group of the Colombian Amazon. Rodriguez became an expert in local plants and led scientific research groups into the rainforest. When guerilla warfare in the region became too intense, he moved to Bogotá, where he began making detailed plant drawings. These are one of the most complete references of plant diversity in Colombia today.
David Lamelas’s pseudo-documentary road movie The Desert People (1974), set in Los Angeles, traces the disappearing language of the Tohono O’odham, a Native American group that resided in the Sonoran desert. Displayed sparely in a vast white gallery, Cildo Meireles’s iconic yet minute sculpture The Southern Cross (1969–70), a small cube of soft pine and hard oak – two woods that are traditionally rubbed together by the Tupi people in Brazil to create fire – employs the language of minimalism
to evoke Indigenous spirituality.
SITElines.2016 is remarkable not only for its thoughtful selection of carefully installed works, or its consistency and coherence (despite employing five curators), but also for the way its larger curatorial enterprise radically reinterprets the biennial model. If all biennials were as thoughtful, serious and pleasurable as SITElines.2016, no one would complain of ‘biennial fatigue’ again.