Just last week, I sat in the courtyard of Santa Fe Art Institute where one of the artists-in-residence, Eva Rocha, cast my left foot in plaster gauze. I waited as the cold white sculpture slowly dried on my skin until she wiggled the whole thing off. Rocha also cast the feet of other residents, who are contributing to this year’s Equal Justice theme. One by one, the feet multiplied. Small, large, bunyoned, narrow, crooked, clawed—it looked as if Rocha was slowly developing an almanac dedicated to feet.
But it wasn’t just about the feet unto themselves. On Friday night, when the institute held its signature event, SFAI 140, which presents 20 artists or cultural workers speaking for 140 seconds, Roche installed the casts on a barbed wire fence she had built just outside the entrance of the building, designed by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta. The feet—our feet—were covered in the grit of flesh-colored stucco and eerily hung from the lowest rung of the fence. She later changed the arrangement, stringing the feet up as if they were attempting to scale the fence.

The installation, titled Severed, was stunning and sinister, with evocations of crossings and cuttings, of the border wall and those who attempt to make it to the other side, of lost identities and milagros, of land separated and the violence of that separation. Other dark histories surfaced as well, such as when Juan de Oñate cut off the right foot of 25 Acoma men just over 400 years ago. Severed also related to much of Rocha’s other work, which speaks of sex trafficking. The installation was one that shored up so many interpretations, which all shared a sense of loss, of place, identity, maybe even innocence, all felt deeply on a bodily level.

Other SFAI artists-in-residence, who also spoke at the event, installed mixed-media artworks throughout the building and on the grounds that spoke to the theme of Equal Justice.  

E “Oscar” Maynard’s striped yellow tent, with figures handling snakes sewn into the fabric, was staked into the sod outside. Inside the building, a 4-by-6-and-a-half-foot hand-cut paper, titled Medicina Venenum, hung from the wall, a delicately cut patterning of a snake seen from above. During their 140 seconds at the podium, Maynard spoke of the Christian tent revival movement and the handling of serpents as an affirmation of one’s faith. Their artworks subsumed this history and alchemized it, making it a jumping-off point for asking in the middle of the presentation: “What poisons do you hold near?”

Israel Francisco Haros Lopez' sprawling pre-Columbian-inspired codices took from his growing lexicon of forms—flora, fauna and people—all of which seem to morph from one thing to the next: thick black lines cutting across purples, yellows, fuchsias and blues.

Race—its constructions and implications—was at the center of at least four artworks on display: Jay Critchley’s Whiteness House – Tarred and Feathered, installed in the Lumpkins Gallery; Veronica Jackson’s series titled The Language of Invisibility; Peggy Diggs’ White on White; and Tamara Ann Burgh’s The Enculturated White Man. Tarred and Feathered was a model of a white house covered in white feathers. Its construction was motivated by the question, “What does the White House look like after a Black president?”

Jackson’s black felt bulletin boards, two diptychs paired side by side, bore messages spelled out with black letters. The result was a black-on-black field, interrupted by single letters and words in white. The messages spoke of her experiences of feeling invisible as a black woman.
Diggs’ work had a similar, but opposing, approach—a white ground populated by white letters. The words, at first hard to discern, spelled out the message: “I am afraid of Black people.” It was no doubt a phrase gleaned from Diggs’ interviews of white people about their whiteness, conducted as part of her residency.
Burgh’s altar screen-like structures, crafted with obsessive detail, reference her own half-Inupiat father’s struggle with his Native identity.

Elsewhere were Farrah Miranda’s tongue-in-cheek installations, Cleanse and Detox. Cleanse featured a lineup of nearly empty glass jars, in what the artist called a “dystopian juice bar that serves empty elixirs” based upon New Mexico’s greatest “cash groups and livestock products.” Detox, alternately, poked fun at Santa Fe’s spa culture and the rise of healing industries geared toward the elite. A massage bed built of red and green crates were filled like a sarcophagus with long green cucumbers. Nearby, if you put on headphones, you could hear the words of a migrant cucumber grower.

Equal Justice took many forms in this exhibition, all of which were biting and evocative. (Those who didn’t catch the one-night-only Nov. 17 show are out of luck.) In many instances, artists did the work of reflecting on how deeply troubling pasts are felt in the present. In other instances, our deeply troubling present was the subject. Rerouting either through creative means shored up the capacity for art to become a field for engaging in other kinds of social criticism.