“You are what you say you are. I’m a curator,” Niomi Fawn tells SFR. “To curate is more than just putting art on walls. It’s world bridging.” Over the last 18 months, Fawn has emerged as a curatorial force in art spaces and businesses around the city, often working with LGBTQ artists. She has a growing reputation as the city’s “queer curator,” but her projects are designed to empower a diverse cross section of individuals and communities.
"When I think 'queer,' it means giving space to voices that need to be heard and are often just moved to the side," Fawn says. "That can mean people who identify many different ways." Fawn's company, Curate, just won a $10,000 grant from the Santa Fe Arts Commission for a public art project called HITCH. The multi-artist collaboration is her most ambitious venture yet and a culmination of a decade of activism in Santa Fe's creative community.
Growing up in Hawaii and California, Fawn's first passion was surfing. She competed professionally during her teen and young adult years. Surf culture came hand-in-hand with the punk rock movement, and Fawn drew inspiration from Bikini Kill and other riot grrrl trailblazers in her own musical experiments. Between surfing competitions and band practice, she penned poetry-filled zines and dreamed up goth outfits à la Bauhaus to wear to the beach. Fawn was always in search of female surfing heroes, in reaction to the machismo of the 1990s surf community.
"I remember being at a party in high school and having this guy back me into a corner and say, 'Girls should be skinny and sit on the shore. They shouldn't be in the water,'" Fawn says. "It was actually really scary. I was in a hypermasculine space in the surf world, so I found ways to reclaim safe space and my female body." Fawn started teaching surf classes for women and painted portraits of Gidget and other iconic female surfers on old surfboards. "My best vengeance was that I beat that guy at the next surf heat," she says.
Fawn visited her mother's family in New Mexico every summer throughout her childhood. Rolling tamales with her grandmother and learning her family's migratory history, she developed a powerful connection with her Hispanic roots. Fawn has lived in Santa Fe intermittently for the past 10 years and has worked to carve out space for the city's alternative arts scene. In the early 2000s, when she was studying interior design at Santa Fe Community College, she organized a series of salons that connected the music and visual art communities.
"I was throwing giant shows for so long with all of these bands, so I was actually curating people," she says. "You're curating bands, you're curating content." She got more serious about her visual art practice during a stint in North Carolina, a national capital of furniture design. Her interior design aspirations combined with a growing passion for graphic design, and by the time she returned to Santa Fe, she was ready to take a deeper dive into the visual art scene.
Fawn joined Meow Wolf in 2009, as part of the second wave of artists to work with the collective. It was two years before the group's seminal installation, The Due Return, at the Center for Contemporary Arts. "Curating became more serious when I was in Meow Wolf, because you're creating space," says Fawn. "When someone gives you the space and the walls to say something, it's your job to take it seriously." She left Meow Wolf to found Curate in early 2015, just as plans for The House of Eternal Return were taking off. For her last official project with the collective, she curated a group show called Everything, Everything at Iconik Coffee Roasters.
Since that first exhibition at Iconik, Fawn has embraced her role as official curator of the café. She's mounted 13 shows in all, using the space to break down barriers between the fine art world and the everyday lives of Iconik's patrons. Fawn also founded Hydra Collective, a three-person feminist art collaborative with Santa Fe artists Alicia Piller and Andrea Vargas-Mendoza. The group has showcased femme and lesbian artists at the AHA Festival of Progressive Arts and other events. "Femme as radical is such an underappreciated part of our community," Fawn says. "Because I can move through the hetero world in a more liminal way, it's my job to be an ambassador. I have the responsibility to speak louder and say, 'Your perceptions are not true. Let me educate you.' The same goes for curating."
In September 2015, Fawn curated a group exhibition of local LGBTQ artists called Chronicles of the Future at Warehouse 21. It was a breakthrough moment: She appeared on KBAC's The Big Show with Honey Harris, and Mayor Javier Gonzales attended the opening reception. Her new project, HITCH, is another step forward in creating a platform for voices that are often silenced. Fawn will work with 10 local artists to retrofit parking meters with sculptural sleeves that support secure bicycle parking. Sandra Wang and Crockett Bodelson of SCUBA, Eliza Lutz and Frank Buffalo-Hyde are among the participating artists.
"The bike was a really important moment in the history of women, as far as their own ability to move themselves through the world," Fawn says. "It's a classic feminist symbol." Similar to her curatorial work at Iconik, Fawn sees HITCH as a way to bring art—and new narratives—directly to the community. It's also, quite simply, a response to the city's need for more bike racks. "There's an initiative for this city to become more bike friendly. Let's get on it, then," Fawn says.
HITCH will debut at various locations in downtown Santa Fe and the Railyard Park beginning Aug. 4.