3 Questions

3 Questions with artist/activist Jacob Johns

Shooting victim returns to NM for exhibition

(Jacob Johns)

When local activist organization Three Sisters Collective asked Spokane, Washington-based artist and activist Jacob Johns (Hopi and Akimel O’odham) to attend and speak during a protest and prayer vigil in Española last September, Johns tells SFR he was happy to oblige. While at that protest—held to oppose the reinstallation of a statue of the Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate—Johns was shot, leading to a lengthy hospitalization. His accused shooter Ryan Martinez has been incarcerated since then and faces first-degree attempted murder and other charges in a trial scheduled to begin in September. Now on the mend, Johns will return to New Mexico for a new multimedia exhibit that responds in part to his experience. Forward Movement opens at 5:30 pm, Thursday, July 11 at El Museo Cultural (555 Camino de la Familia), and will be open to the public from 2 pm to 7 pm through July 14. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

How have you been since the incident?

I mean, I had these drains in my abdomen and my liver for six months, but I was slowly but surely able to remove some of them. The abscesses went away, too, so as far as it’s going, I’m pretty much healed up—I just have a lot of scar tissue on my abdomen, and my abdominal wall isn’t as strong as it was before. So I guess it’s like a giant hernia on my stomach. People are like, ‘Yeah, but you’re still alive!’ And I’m kind of like, ‘Yeah, I guess I am.’

How did you initially get involved in that protest, and would you change anything if you could?

I was coming through town for the US Climate Action Network’s West Coast meeting, and I like to support local movement spaces and network. I met Three Sisters’ Christina Castro, and she asked me to join the prayer ceremony in Española. The pueblos…they’re our cousins, so we stand together—it’s like your cousin asking you to go somewhere. And I’d watched some live streams of [the toppling of the obelisk] in 2020; I watched when [Scott Williams] was shot in Albuquerque [at a 2020 protest over an Oñate statue]. We’ve had some similar stuff where I live in Spokane, like, not monuments, but genocidal people who have streets named after them.

Would I change anything? The feelings my family have gone through could have been avoided. If I knew what we’d deal with afterwards? I’ve made promises to my daughter, who just turned 12, that I’d never put myself in harm’s way. But I had no idea someone would bring a weapon to a prayer vigil, let alone a gun. It was mainly women and children there, and suddenly one of the mothers was on a speaker yelling, ‘We need all the children to come to the center now!’ I saw what they were frightened of, but it’s instinctual—as a father, it’s important for us to stay present when there’s danger. Gun violence, too, is a symptom of the American mentality. Never once did I think I would come up against someone who had a weapon. They let dogs loose on us at Standing Rock, though, and that, too, was a turning point for me.

What can attendees expect at Forward Movement?

I use art as a way to convey messages for my own healing, and it has been important for me to paint images about the incident. I painted the shooter’s face, this giant picture of his face in court from when he was crying after they denied him bail. I did a very large painting of a photo that was taken of the shooter trying to run into the crowd—and it’s massive, like, 23 feet by 16 feet on loose canvas. This was very powerful for me. I also painted a photo that was taken of the people who had their hands on my chest as I was bleeding out and being taken out. The show is a combination of new stuff and old stuff. I have some video projects; inflatable screens that create pop-up theaters; an immersive meditation piece; a generative piece that’ll be filmed…there are pieces that are specific to my way of healing.

The people in these communities…violence is not new to these people, and they understand the pain. After what happened, so many people were jarred, so it’s about community care and expression and trying to find closure. Trying to convey everything that’s going on is not easy, so I guess it made me more focused. I had time to find clarity. They charged him with ‘attempted murder,’ but I did die. I blacked out when my lungs collapsed. Everything went on hold. When I came back into my body, it’s like I was a different person. Maybe not completely different, but on a new path. Whenever I see the footage, it reminds me of my past life. It makes me cry for this person who gave their life. It’s not me; it’s a different version of me. I look at him almost like an older brother. In order to come back, I had to agree to do more things that are going to be heavy. But this gives me clarity. It removes the fear.

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