When artist David Sloan (Diné) stepped onto the Santa Fe Plaza on Indigenous Peoples Day last month, he wasn't expecting a diverse cross section of the city's citizenry united in pulling down the obelisk monument at its center. By the time he left that afternoon, however, he knew he'd need to paint the day's events. Indeed, with the police standing down and a decentralized movement forming, the people used tow ropes and chains to topple the racist monument, and Santa Fe might never be the same.
"I'd heard there were protests on Saturday, and I'd gone down to the Plaza a couple of times just to see what that was all about that day and Sunday," he says. "By the end of Monday, I was thinking it was like something out of a movie. To really be there in the moment…I thought I could—I should—document that."
Sloan took no part in the actual removal of the monument, but says he's glad to have been there. He's primarily known as a printmaker (he runs the Santa Fe Community Screeprinting studio at YouthWorks! and, full disclosure, has printed shirts for my mediocre punk band), but the new untitled piece is a watercolor. Local art fans might not have seen such a piece from Sloan before. He works in the medium often and just doesn't usually share those pieces.
"It's the easiest way I know to create an image as vivid as my memory," he explains, "and in my memory, it was all these people, all walks of life, all kinds of Santa Fe citizens; it was jovial. Everyone was tearing up. Everyone was happy."
The piece itself is almost dreamlike with vignettes of human movements dotting the altered perspective of the Plaza. Protesters raise their fists; some climb the once-imposing monument; a large cadre holds the tow ropes and, in the sky, Sloan's ancestors look on.
"It's just the events I saw," Sloan tells SFR, "like a description, rather than choosing sides."
Amber-Dawn Bear Robe (Blackfoot Sikiska), an assistant professor in art history at the Institute of American Indian Arts, likens Sloan's piece to a form of old-school political cartoon, or even journalism.
"I draw the connection to how the history of Indigenous people was not documented," she tells SFR. "Around the time of the Civil War—it was the first war to be photographed because of the daguerrotypes, but before that, wars were illustrated [and reported] by journalists who wouldn't even get there until it was over, so these were recreations of those moments of war. I'm making the connection that David is doing this same kind of journalistic representation of the incident, but he was there."
Bear Robe says the history of the obelisk shape itself is a long and murky one. Generally, she says, they denote a sense of place, but their very design is representative of Egypt, certainly not America. Additionally, she adds, there have been myriad artist responses to the concept of the obelisks and monuments over time. Barnett Newman's 1963 "Broken Obelisk," for example, which deconstructed the concept, flipping the shape upside down. Even more apropos, says Bear Robe, might be the Samuel de Champlain statue in Canada's capital city Ottowa, part of which once included a genuflecting Native figure placed in subservience beneath a decidedly more triumphant representation of the French colonizer.
"There was a lot of protest around that," she says. "You have this kneeling, basically naked and nameless Indian statue—and it's memorializing the colonization of that region—so there was a lot of protest by Indigenous people, and what ended up happening was that the [Native] part of the statue was taken away, just removed, and that's problematic because it's erasing it and not addressing the history. It's just a 'let's kill the Indian' kind of thing."
Santa Fe faced the inverse of that when the city removed a statue of the colonizer Diego de Vargas from Cathedral Park in July. What makes the citizen-spurred tearing down of the Santa Fe obelisk so different, Bear Robe notes, is that rather than unceremoniously removing it from view, those who took part in bringing it down became part of an impromptu piece of interventional and ultimately reconciliatory performance art.
"It was kind of a ceremony," she explains. "It was people taking back space, seizing space to bring attention to the history and the land. That's what art does: Art brings attention to space and place and history, and the removal of the obelisk did just that."
In other words, while a large contingent of Santa Fe's populace has voiced vitriolic disapproval of the obelisk's removal—and the police seem to be regularly announcing new charges against just about anyone they can identify from that day—the action's ultimate intent was to make room for healing. As Bear Robe says, harmful monuments, protests aimed at them and art pieces spawned by them are nothing new—we've been having the should-it-stay-or-should-it-go conversation about the obelisk in Santa Fe since the 1970s, probably earlier. But the people taking matters into their own hands not only accomplished what Mayor Alan Webber promised and failed to do in June, it paves the way for something different. That is, it can if Santa Feans finally let go of hollow "We've always gotten along!" talking points and realize people don't tear down monuments for no good reason.
"What the obelisk was celebrating was a violent act," Bear Robe says. "It was almost an act of peace, in a way, to take the monument. It forced us to look at something we could easily ignore, and is it going to rub people the wrong way? Yes. But in order to move on, there's got to be discomfort. Santa Fe is in its own vortex bubble, so when Indigenous people say or do something, it's shocking. It shakes [people's] idea of what Santa Fe is: the pretty sunsets, Indian Market, tourism."
Which brings us back to Sloan's untitled watercolor. In it, he's somehow captured both beauty and intensity; a frozen moment that Sloan says he has no plans to mass market.
"I just painted it because I wanted to see it," he says. "I went there that day because I am Diné, and I have an accountability for the people who couldn't be there."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story named the wrong statue removed by city officials at Cathedral Park. SFR regrets the error.