Identity. Geography. Culture. These spheres—and others—all inform lived experiences in the Americas.
SITE Santa Fe's current biennial show—its third and final in the SITElines series exploring contemporary art in the Western hemisphere—opened last August and includes 23 contemporary artists whose work explores the personal, political and psychological ramifications of the show's themes through individual and diverse lenses presented in myriad mediums. Casa tomada (House taken over) is named for Argentine writer Julio Cortázar's 1946 short story in which two siblings, shut in and tending to their ancestral home, are cast out without their belongings by a mysterious force that invades their property. In writing of the exhibit for the show's catalog, co-curator José Luis Blondet characterizes the story as an "unresolved and unresolvable tale of dispossession and class."
Casa tomada, which opened on Aug. 3, continues through Jan. 6 with concurrent programming, including artist talks, films and performances (see sitesantafe.org/events for the complete schedule).
For the last six weeks, the New Mexico Fund for Public Interest Journalism—SFR's nonprofit partner—explored the complex exhibit with students chosen for the fund's first cohort in its paid internship program. Applications for the program opened in late summer to all area students. The four students chosen for the program toured the exhibit; read and researched information on the artists; met weekly for discussions and training on reporting and writing; and interviewed artists, curators and others involved with the show.
This week's cover story features their stories.
Ruby Woltring, a Santa Fe Prep senior, interviewed one of the show's three curators, Candice Hopkins, for a discussion of how the curators found unifying themes in the show, and the way in which New Mexico's history of conquest and displacement makes it a particularly appropriate setting for the works included.
University of New Mexico senior Celia Raney investigates the challenges of presenting Indigenous art in a museum setting through interviews with SITE's Indigenous Outreach Coordinator Winoka Begay and Navajo artist Melissa Cody, whose work is part of the exhibit.
New Mexico School for the Arts senior Maya Forte writes about the compelling photography of renowned Chilean photographer Paz Errázuriz, whose work mines subjects often overlooked in society.
Santa Fe Prep junior Bettina Broyles interviewed artist Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, whose sculptural installation is informed by Guatemalan history and serves as a meditation on the role of materialism in forging identity.
For this project, the Journo Fund worked with SITE's robust education department, which already runs several youth programs, such as its Zine, Gallery Guide and Scholars program. Joanne Lefrak, SITE's director of education and curator of public practice, says the fund's internship program dovetailed well with the education program's current mission "because the intention of a lot of our programs is to encourage deep thinking and deep looking at contemporary art."
As for Casa tomada, Lefrak says, "it's not an easy show … because it asks a lot of questions about how we think of how history has been written, who are the people who write history and what are the multiple perspectives included in history." Much of the work, she notes, addresses "challenging experiences of trauma, both cultural and personal … so it takes a lot of thoughtfulness to engage with this particular show."
Young museum-goers, however, often rise to the challenges of complex contemporary art, Lefrak notes. "I don't think our society gives enough credit to young people," she says. Teenagers and people in their early 20s "have grown up in a world in which the concepts of diversity are not new. … It really shows how much we can learn from them."
The Journo Fund is currently fundraising for its second training cohort, which will report and write on environmental issues. For more information, please visit nmjournalism.org.
Belonging Together: Curator Candice Hopkins discusses threading the narrative of the exhibition
By Ruby Woltring
“Sometimes the best expressions come together not because everyone agrees on something, but because people bring different ideas to the table, different artists, different ways of framing in a tradition.”
—Candice Hopkins, one of three head curators of Casa tomada
Hopkins is speaking on the topic of the exhibition's cohesion, on the intersection of artistic and cultural perspective, on forming fluidity across differing ideas. The unifying theme of Casa tomada is the concept of ownership and borders, illustrated by the work of 23 artists from across the Americas. Each piece contributes a singular narrative regarding a sense of belonging, inciting conversation especially pertinent in our current political climate—an intention cultivated in curatorial meetings during the formation of the show between Hopkins and the exhibition's other two curators, José Luis Blondet and Ruba Katrib.
"We started to develop different threads, and one of the things that we talked a lot about, and we felt were represented in each of the answers that we wrote, was a kind of language that is starting to frame political discourse in the US," Hopkins says. "We thought about different ways of entering that language, which is often couched in ideas of who has the right to be in a place, who doesn't, and who decides that."
Hopkins finds New Mexico to be a fitting home for such themes, given its past of conquest and displacement. One of the first objects visitors encounter upon entering the exhibit is conquistador Juan de Oñate's foot. Well, not his actual foot—this foot is made of plaster, a replica of a replica, but it holds more historical relevance and connotation than his real foot could. Approximately 20 years ago, someone stole the right foot off a bronze statue of Oñate in an act of defiance toward the canonization of oppressive historical figures.
Hopkins was passing this Oñate monument in Rio Arriba County on her way to Taos when she was struck by a moment of clarity. She had to have the foot in the show. A colleague pointed her in the direction of the anonymous foot thief, who allowed her team to create a cast of the foot for display. Hopkins vowed to maintain the individual's secrecy during their correspondence. At the time, the thievery of the foot was considered a felony (the statute of limitations has since expired). Yet, it's a felony that the foot's apprehender considers to be his life's work, an act of historical reclamation.
"I thought the foot was an excellent object to speak on all of these complexities," Hopkins says, "and I think it goes to show how something as simple as a sculpture can actually be an incredibly resonant gesture; especially now." The foot proves a concrete example of the presence of historical context in the show.
To foster potency in the message of the exhibition, Hopkins and the other curators opted to feature a limited number of artists, therefore encouraging more ambitious works in higher quantities. When requesting new work from selected artists, they made sure to brief them on the context of the exhibition, and specifically, what was being done with Oñate's foot.
Featured artist Lutz Bacher was especially intrigued by this initiative, and the curators hung her piece, a commentary on the selectivity of American history, next to Oñate's foot, portraying the relationship between the statement on historical fallacy present in both pieces. The curators made decisions with the intention of creating a dialogue between pieces through the use of autonomous statements and styles.
"An exhibition is really something that you build," Hopkins says, "so the way that we started was with a core group of people that we were all really excited about, and we were thinking, 'What kind of relationships can we bring out of the works that we've already chosen [to] start to create an exhibition that is full of all of these very specific kinds of narratives throughout?' So that's the way it works—a lot of discussion and dialogue and thinking about these artists' practices."
Though the artists drew inspiration from a breadth of cultural history, Hopkins saw the immediacy of current issues as a unifying force in the show: "The work that we concentrated on is from artists from the Americas, and with that, I think you have artists that talk about that particular history," she notes. "Even if they're coming from very different environments, talk of xenophobia is really pervasive right now, especially with the election of [President-elect Jair] Bolsonaro in Brazil and, of course, Trump in the US. And so, even though these countries have very different histories and they're far away from each other, there are some things that are shared at the moment."
Rewriting History on Museum Walls: Casa tomada tackles the history and challenges of presenting Indigenous art
By Celia Raney
The walls of SITE Santa Fe are smeared with different accounts of history. Loss, hardship, pain and perseverance wrap room after room with an intimacy gleaned from personal experience. But if you don't know the artists' backgrounds, you'd probably be confused, and see only pretty pictures on white walls.
Casa tomada tackles controversy, false history and misrepresentation to present contemporary fine art made by Native and Indigenous people—which, in a museum setting, has often been misrepresented, aiding the idea that Indigenous people are disappearing.
"There has always been this story going around in many universities and in many schools that indicates Indigenous people or Native people in general are a vanishing race," says Winoka Begay, Indigenous outreach coordinator for SITE and a Navajo woman. "Native Americans are contemporary, they are around, they are existent, they are doing powerful and successful things."
Even so, Native art shown in historical and anthropological-leaning museums is at risk of being mislabeled, and in cases of very culturally significant art, might not be appropriate for display at all.
"Pieces that [these museums] carry that are more archaeologically based; more of the pottery, more of the rugs, things that we have utilized within our cultures, are often brought into those museums and are often mislabeled," Begay says. For example, a Navajo piece could be mislabeled as Northern Cheyenne.
Although it falls on the shoulders of the curators of Casa tomada to ensure that Native art in the show is respectful of Indigenous culture, Begay says such considerations are easier when working with Native artists because "you would expect they would have that knowledge already, of not putting something that could be offensive into a museum because it is of their own culture, of their own background."
Melissa Cody, a fourth-generation Navajo weaver, grapples with a history of pain and loss both of her people and her personal story through her installation at SITE.
"I thought that all little girls growing up on and off the reservation were weavers, and when I found out that other children in my first grade, second grade and third grade classes didn't go home for the summer and weave at looms, it kind of blew my mind," Cody says. "I felt that this was something very special."
Cody now sees herself as a steward of information, drawing from that experience. She weaves in Germantown Revival style, named for the wool blankets given to imprisoned Navajo people in Germantown, Pennsylvania, before the Navajo Long Walk. They couldn't herd and shear sheep, so they unraveled and re-wove their rationed blankets into styles traditional to their respective regions and aesthetic preferences.
"Even in those dire times, there was still this cultivation of creativity that was happening, an intermixing of ideas amongst the weavers," she says.
Cody dyes her own palette using aniline dye, constructing the eclectic look of the Germantown blankets, which were colored with the same dyes.
Her weavings play with new variations on the style; some include text and word-play, others are influenced by the video game era through her use of pixelated designs.
"I thought about the dire need to preserve the knowledge that I was gifted," Cody says, "so I needed to push forward and have the work I was creating be representative of the current generation."
In a fight to be recognized as more than "just" a Native American artist, one of her goals is to present her work with her name first, not her region, tribe, and then medium—as Native American art had been largely attributed until 15 to 20 years ago.
"We may be Native American artists, but we are trying to break out of this umbrella of being stuck in the realm of 'Native American art' where we're just seen as craftspeople. The museum and gallery community are catching on, that the work that we are creating is no less than what you can find in any museum across the country."
Begay echoes the sentiment.
"We have self-determination that there is a positive representation of us," she says. "We are human and we are still alive and we are working toward recovery from historical trauma through revitalization of our language and our culture."
Jaclyn Roessel: Curating Culture: Decolonization and Indigenous Representation in Museums:
2 pm Saturday Dec. 1. $5-$10. SITE Santa Fe, 1606 Paseo de Peralta, 989-1199.
Rare Portraits: Paz Errázuriz’ photographs challenge viewers to see subjects often hidden in society
By Maya Forte
Paz Errázuriz' photographic series Niñas reveals members of a Chilean brothel in an unexpected light. Figures laugh and relax, seeming comfortable in their complex identities. By playing with the boundaries of marginalized groups, Errázuriz shows viewers the dark sides of humanity: the struggles of the underground individuals below the gilded surface of society.
As Errázuriz told The Guardian in a January 2016 story: "They are topics that society doesn't look at, and my intention is to encourage people to dare to look."
For SITE Santa Fe's Casa tomada exhibit, the show's press kit describes Niñas as "digital prints of analog photographs paired with ID cards issued by the Chilean police to track and survey sex workers in the city of Talca, Chile, between 1968 and 1976." The incorporation of the official identification cards brings the work into the political context of Chile under the Pinochet regime, a time in which many groups—specifically women—were oppressed and pushed to society's margins.
Errázuriz has never been one to follow the rules. Her work's focus has earned her notoriety in the art world, as she always looks toward the outskirts for her subjects, and has become world-renowned for revealing through her pictures what others wish to hide.
The self-taught photographer, originally from Santiago, has quickly become one of the most internationally recognized Chilean photographers. Her work has been collected by the Tate, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Chilean National Museum of Fine Arts.
She first caught the public eye in the 1970s, when Errázuriz decided to document the lives of those marginalized by the Pinochet dictatorship. In the face of curfews, jail and worse for gender noncomforming people, for example, she made portraits of these figures in a more intimate light.
It is implicit controversy that drives Errázuriz: subjects who operate outside traditional boundaries. As Aesthetic Magazine once put it, Errázuriz's typical subjects include sex workers, patients of psychiatric hospitals, boxers and members of the circus.
In another one of her works in SITE's show, black and white figures appear, the last of a tribe permanently preserved in the portraits. The piece focuses on a completely different type of marginalization: those who are losing their culture. Entitled Nómadas del Mar (Nomads of the Sea), this 1996 collection of photographs includes portraits of some of the remaining members of the Kewaskar, a tribe that once inhabited land along the southern point of South America. In a catalog essay on the exhibit, co-curator José Luis Blonder recounts that Errázuriz spent eight years photographing the remaining members of the tribe, whose numbers were fewer than 30, "partially to debunk the myth of their disappearance."
In her work in Casa tomada, Errázuriz uses the medium of portrait black-and-white photography to present a "voice to the underrepresented," says SITE guide Nina Scibelli during a tour of the show. Indeed, by using portrait collections for both of her pieces in the exhibition, the artist creates connections to the past by showing real people who face the idea of losing their homes. The faces create a uniquely human approach to the feeling of loss—each face embodies the story of loss, whether of their culture or the difficulty of being forced to live life on society's margins.
Children of Trade: Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa’s work meditates on material culture through the eyes of a vase
By Bettina Broyles
A beautiful pot falls, the sound of intricate ceramic flying under the counter, under the trash can, even under the dog. The unmistakable sense of fear that accompanies a free-falling fragile object before it hits the ground radiates from a beautiful installation at SITE Santa Fe's Casa tomada. Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa's second large sculptural installation, "Revindication of Tangible Property," serves as a commentary on material culture and how it affects identity as a whole.
Ramírez-Figueroa worked on his installation in Berlin and Guatemala City. While doing his research in Guatemala, he focused on Los Altos, a temporary state established in the mid-1800s between Mexico and Guatemala. Los Altos developed an interesting blend of Guatemalan and French culture, which inspired him to study the Maya creation book Popol Vuh and French ceramics from Los Altos. Originally discovered in the Guatemalan highlands by a Dominican priest who translated it from the original K'iche' language, Popol Vuh is one of only two surviving sacred texts from Mesoamerica.
This Mayan material culture is shown in the brown arms that hang at the top of the piece. The French aspect is displayed in the dangling intricate pots. However, these pots are unusable because they are made out of plastic and have purposely misplaced or closed openings. Ramírez-Figueroa says that the piece "adapted French influence. The colorful pots that hang from the wooden limbs … reference this sort of material culture."
The whole piece shows the mix of objects present in a community that no longer exists, almost like a key to a door that has been ripped from its hinges and made into a chair. Material culture can define identity from a historical perspective in a way that can't be shown through texts. It displays a sense of melancholy that feels out of place and unnatural, drawing from the failed independence of Los Altos, and the irony of a pot that was made in such a way that it cannot possibly serve its purpose. It coaxes an intricate empathy for the creation and loss of cultural identity.
Ramírez-Figueroa was first drawn to the idea of material culture when a fire destroyed his home in 2013. "It made me think about this attachment to material things and identity," he says, "especially to small things that have very little value. Even to mass-produced things, because I miss all those things, you know? I miss the little cups. I missed … I don't know, some ugly shoes that were old."
This attachment to the commodities in life surrounds every waking moment. Every mass-produced or handmade object creates an indentation on the soul. When these things are taken away, the indentations become longings for a life once known. The sentiment of melancholy and loss surrounds this biennial, which is grounded in the short story "Casa Tomada" by Julio Cortázar. "Casa Tomada" describes two siblings losing their home and belongings in a house taken over by a mysterious force.
Material culture runs deep in our own humanity. "We are totally identified with material things and products, and in some ways art is also a part of this," Ramírez-Figueroa says. "But I guess art is allowed to bring consciousness to the fact that it is doing this. Things that you buy at a boutique or even luxury items, you're buying them, but at the same time, you do play into this illusion that by owning you have a new identity."
In Ramírez-Figueroa's piece, the art serves as a reminder of the deep cultural identity associated with material objects. The US especially has developed such a deep relation to material culture that it almost drowns in it. Mass-produced objects line the shelves and children pull at their parents' arms to get a closer look at one cheaply made object out of the thousands.
But culture has always had a material aspect. Ramírez-Figueroa displays in his work that most of this culture is understood in terms of wealth and status, creating an identity out of the things we own and not the people we have become.