With artist Nani Chacon’s new mural complete, Santa Fe’s Coe Center eyes the future of Indigenous arts creation and stewardship

Artist Nani Chacon's new mural at the Coe Center practically glows. (Courtesy Coe Center)

Since the idea of murals, their longevity and the place of public art in Santa Fe has been such a hot button issue in the wake of the upcoming Vladem Contemporary wing of the New Mexico Museum of Art, which will ultimately result in the destruction of the Gilberto Guzman mural, Multi-Cultural, I’m pleased to report that the new mural from Albuquerque-based artist Nani Chacon at the Coe Center’s massive new project warehouse space on Pacheco Street is a triumph.

But let’s go back a bit. The Coe Center (1590 Pacheco St., (505) 983-6372), for those who don’t know, serves as the steward for over 2,000 pieces of Indigenous art across a wide spectrum of styles, tribes, mediums, etc. The idea is that the organization cares for the art, shows it to those who’ll respectfully view it or otherwise become inspired and, when we’re lucky, engages with contemporary creators who want to get a glimpse at the items in the pursuit of their own practices. Still, according to Creative Director and Curator Bess Murphy, the organization has long known it would need more space to properly conduct its mission. Then, last year, the Coe was presented with an opportunity to buy out its current office space, as well as a warehouse next door which had previously housed Consolidated Electrical Distributors.

“We experimented and considered a number of options over the years, and we were renting,” Murphy tells SFR, “but then the owners of our current building and project space decided they wanted to sell both buildings at the same time; Consolidated Electrical moved out, and we were able to purchase the entire campus.”

Muralist Nani Chacon standing with her new piece, you can’t take it with give it all away at the Coe Center. (Courtesy Coe Center)

Immediately, Murphy says, the Coe knew it wanted a mural to emblazon the new warehouse, and Chacon’s name was the first uttered amongst the search committee. Although Chacon (Diné and Xicana) works in a variety of mediums (if you missed her presence at the 2019 Que Chola show at Albuquerque’s National Hispanic Cultural Center you should be bummed), she’s primarily known as a muralist. This might have something to do with her deep intentions, including an emphasis on site-specific creation. In other words, Chacon considers the places and spaces that will bear her art a little more deeply than other artists might, and this is how the mural You can’t take it with you…so give it all away came to be. This isn’t just a wall on an old warehouse in Santa Fe, it’s the exterior of reclaimed space for Indigenous folks smack-dab in the middle of stolen land. It’s free to view for anyone who happens by. If that’s not powerful, I don’t know what is.

“They approached me about a month before Indian Market and wanted something to launch the space,” Chacon tells SFR. “I love that the focus of this piece was about process, too. That was very freeing for me as a muralist—it allowed me to contemplate the work as it was happening, to make adjustments or aesthetic changes. Sometimes when you’re on a tight deadline, you don’t have the freedom to shift, so having that freedom, having an open deadline...even though it was an outdoor, public piece, it felt more like a studio process in how I was able to get to know the work, know my intention.”

Chacon’s piece is a stunner, too. Two Indigenous women stand back-to-back, showcasing the process of basketry. Among them, the sun rises and falls in a dazzling display of movement, and when the light hits the piece during what we know as the golden hour, the mural almost glows. According to Murphy, Chacon became enamored with a pair of baskets in the Coe’s collection during her planning phase, one crafted by Diné artist Elsie Stone Holiday in the ‘90s, another from an unknown Seneca creator circa 1800-something. Together, the baskets in Chacon’s mural showcase a mix of traditional geometric shapes and patterns alongside a more modern bent. Time is a great, big circle of rhythms and immutable circuitousness; what’s past is prologue, perhaps, or, at least, we should consider where we come from as we evolve.

Chacon’s mural is also a good reminder that Santa Fe, for all of its arts bravado, can sometimes play host to inaccessible work. Even in my own lifetime, it feels like public art has become harder to come by—and how many pieces wind up locked away in museums or hidden in private collections? Thank goodness for free museum days for residents, or for those who share their collections, like the Thoma Foundation’s Art Vault or, in this instance, the Coe Center.

“It’s remarkable to me that there isn’t a lot of public art in Santa Fe that is solely dedicated to Indigenous people, but I always feel like all murals are ephemeral,” Chacon says. “I think our landscapes are ephemeral, our monuments, our institutions—all of it will, in some way, disappear. My work is always about dialogue, conversations with landscapes and with people. Whatever time [a mural] is able to facilitate that, that was the intent of the work.”

Luckily, though, You can’t take it with you…so give it all away will likely be available to view at the Coe Center for some time to come. Murphy says the organization is already hosting artists in the new annex space: Erica Lord (Athabaskan/Iñupiaq) and SFR fave Eliza Naranjo Morse. Even Chacon spent time using the warehouse to prep work destined for SITE Santa Fe.

“I am happy I was able to create that piece and given artistic freedom,” Chacon says. “I like that I was able to center women. It’s been awhile since I was able to create work like it. This felt very freeing, and also empowering.”

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