Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 2, 2018
Rocío Aranda-Alvarado SITElines.2016: much wider than a line Eds. Irene Hofmann and Kathleen E. Ash-Milby. Exh. cat. Santa Fe: SITE Santa Fe, 2016. 160 pp.; 70 color ills. $35.00 (9780985660239)
SITE Santa Fe, July 16, 2016–January 8, 2017
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Installation view, SITElines: much wider than a line, SITE Santa Fe, July 16, 2016–January 8, 2017 (photograph © 2016; provided by SITE Santa Fe)

I remember thinking sometime around 2010, when SITE Santa Fe presented The Dissolve, that it seemed odd how much the site—Santa Fe, or geography more broadly—mattered so little in that year, or any other prior year’s, biennial. Rather, The Dissolve was about media (technologies of moving images) and not about place. When Irene Hofmann stepped in as director of SITE Santa Fe in 2011, she overhauled the biennial format, taking two years off before presenting SITElines.2014 Unsettled Landscapes. Where other biennials had rejected place as a precept, this biennial exhibition (created with two guest curators, Candice Hopkins and Lucía Sanromán) featured art solely about the Americas, from Tierra del Fuego to Nunavut.

SITElines.2016 much wider than a line continued the clarion call of the first SITElines biennial, attempting yet again to visualize the vastness and complexity of the Americas. Here as was the case before, SITElines reminded us to think hemispherically. That is, the title much wider than a line, a phrase borrowed from Leanne Simpson’s book Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back (2011), was intended to convey the idea of taking “geography as a structural framework for exploration,” by looking to the “vast territory of the Americas, the region of New Mexico, and the city of Santa Fe and its surroundings” (10)—moving from the macro and the continental, to the micro and local.

The resulting exhibition bloomed from the vision of five curators, Rocío Aranda-Alvarado, Kathleen Ash-Milby, Pip Day, Pablo León de la Barra, and Kiki Mazzucchelli (in tandem with Hopkins, Hofmann, and Janet Dees, early on) who brought together the work of thirty-five artists, hailing from the Navajo Nation, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Venezuela, Peru, Manitoba, and Cuba, among other far-flung places. SITElines also supplied two texts, a catalogue as well as an interesting assortment of supplemental readings that made up the exhibition’s “Sourcebook.” In the second volume, one found excerpts of articles on topics that included strategies for decolonizing within settler colonial societies and the legal rights of forests in the Amazon, along with pages from Simpson’s book, which is based on Nishnaabeg stories of re-creation. Both companion texts emphasized history as an important part of the present. In the same way, histories of the Americas rang loudly within the work of the contemporary artists on view. The curators also integrated cultural forms and artifacts that might not be categorized as art proper. This included ethnographer Pierre Verger’s photography of Brazilian culture and its African origins from midcentury, and Paolo Soleri’s architectural visions for the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in the 1960s.

The exhibition opened with a nod to Soleri, archival material providing context for the maquette of an amphitheater made out of micaceous clay by Eliza Naranjo Morse. The maquette represents Soleri’s design in miniature for the campus of the IAIA, now the Santa Fe Indian School. Designed in 1964 under arts director Lloyd Kiva New, the then-futuristic amphitheater housed performances and ceremonial offerings by its student body. For the curators, Soleri’s amphitheater design was an important fulcrum of the exhibition (a historical photograph graces the catalogue’s cover) because it “did not derive from a European conception of theater” (52). It was also a local example that rejected Eurocentrism. Drawings sprawled across the walls, typed historical documents about former events stitched together histories, and New’s notes accompanied the architectural model. Each attempted to resuscitate a feeling, a place, a vision, since the building is now slated for demolition. The presentation of Soleri’s theater in the gallery seemed stunted, however, burdened by words and documents, an abundance of archival material that never fully cohered in a profound way.

Once I moved past this curious introduction, I fixed upon the watercolor renderings of Abel Rodríguez, tropical sketches drawn from memory of maloca plants. An indigenous elder from the Amazon’s Igaparaná region in Colombia, Rodriguez was forcibly removed in the 1980s from his land. These drawings, from the series The Cycle of the Maloca Plants (2009), were the most haunting if poignant works in the exhibition, for it seemed that Rodríguez, who is not a trained artist, was drawing to remember and to help others remember, too. His images showed the same scene over and again, though in each, another plant blooms or another animal populates the scene.

Likewise, Anchorage-based artist Sonya Kelliher-Combs approaches a cataloguing sensibility, but from a different angle. Her sculpture, mixed-media creations combining reindeer and sheep bones with rawhide, hung from the walls in somber arrangements. Each work doubled as a reliquary, a sacred housing for remnants of animal bones. Like Rodríguez, her work is based upon a reverence for and attunement to all biological life. Like Rodríguez, moreover, her knowledge of all living things was passed through indigenous lines, in her case Athabaskan and Iñupiak elders.

Garments and textiles inhabited much of the space, too, including: Cuban artist Juana Valdes’s porcelain-cast and flesh-tone rags, from the series Colored China Rags (2012); Jorge González’s Puerto Rican textile revival in Banqueta Chéveres (2015–16); Colorado-based Jeffrey Gibson’s jingle-covered garment, for his performance Like a Hammer (2016); Carla Fernández’s San Juan Chamula Wool Coat (2014), part of a longer project of documenting, studying, and preserving Mexico’s indigenous textile heritage; and Monterrey-based artist Margarita Cabrera’s cactus plants sewn with fabric and colorful thread. Fernández’s ponchos, some stitched with phrases, hung within the gallery ready to be donned by biennial visitors. There was even a mirror on the wall for those who wanted to look at their silhouette. But rather than just seeing, wearing the garment meant feeling its texture and bearing its weight. Cabrera’s bulbous saguaros were made with the help of various community members from Santa Fe, who together reconfigured border-control uniforms purchased in Mexico into desert flora.

There were other media parallels as well, in particular with the inclusion of music and avant-garde film. Tanya Tagaq’s throat singing, derived from Inuit culture, was part of programming offered off-site at Santa Fe’s Lensic Theater. Taqaq performed in front of a projection of Nanook of the North, a 1922 silent ethnographic documentary film by Robert Flaherty. Raven Chacon’s work as a composer-in-residence with the Native American Composers Apprentice Project offered yet another musical dimension, as he taught Native youth the art of composition. Later, world-class musicians played the students’ compositions. The exhibition included the project’s musical notations and visual and audio recordings as materials for contemplation. Other films—including David Lamelas’s The Desert People (1974), Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001), and Javier Téllez’s To Have Done with the Judgement of God (2016)—featured indigenous peoples within semi-fictionalized narratives. Those peoples included the Tohona-O’odham, the Inuit, and the Tarahumara (or Rarámuri). Atanarjuat was, importantly, the first film written, directed, and acted in the Inuit language. These films offered alternative visual narratives in the genre of film, which has confronted and continues to confront how to ethically represent indigenous peoples in a way that neither romanticizes cultural practices nor relegates those practices and their creators to a static place in history.

After spending much time contemplating the artwork, I walked away with a few important axioms that seem even more prescient now. It was clear from the outset that the institution geared conversations away from art’s homelessness, in modern or even postmodern senses of the word, to artists’ ideas about home and homeland. Of course, when thinking of either conception, displacement and dispossession play significantly into how peoples from across the Americas conceive of their origins. In fact, it is almost a given that experiences of loss are woven into stories of home. But thinking about geography posed other questions. In some cases, ideas of home were also looped into broader non-Western conceptions of cosmology. Certain works further put pressure on the nature of authenticity, especially in relation to the performance of identity and histories of racial formation in colonial and contemporary contexts. Finally, the exhibition offered yet another platform for imagining a mode of ecological relationality not solely oriented around humans.

These axioms resonated with me. No doubt they resonated for others, especially those interested in actual, metaphorical, and institutional processes of decolonization. Though the exhibition was powerful for these reasons, I found that with so many voices working to curate the exhibition and shepherd information, the conceptual thread holding the diverse texts and artworks together felt fragmented at times. And while the inclusion of each of the curators’ perspectives in the text was a democratic gesture, it was disjointed for me as a reader and in some cases repetitive. Perhaps this is what the Americas are: a plurality of voices that sometimes refuse to coalesce. If that was what SITE intended, then I applaud them, though I cannot say for sure whether that was the case. Still, the exhibition was strong and very timely. More than that, it was clear that there was recognition of a real need to balance multiple points of view, an act more necessary now than ever. I find refreshing, even political, the institution’s willingness to embrace indigeneity as a core tenet of an international biennial. 

Alicia Guzman
Contributing Faculty, Santa Fe University of Art and Design

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.