SITElines.2016: New Perspectives on Art of the Americas

In its second iteration under the new vision of Director Irene Hofmann, the 2016 SITElines Santa Fe Biennial, Much Wider Than A Line, breaks away from the stereotyped narrative of non-white art to present works that translate several spiritual traditions into thoughtful contemporary pieces. Under the curatorial eyes of Rocío Aranda-Alvaro, Kathleen Ash-Milby, Pip Day, Pablo León de la Barra and Kiki Mazzucchelli, and spanning art from thirty-five artists across the Americas—this show’s muscular agenda defies the far-reaches of its own geo-political complexity. Although the works seem happy to simply dwell in the complexification of their co-existence, a loosely shared language that is new to intellectual discourse does emerge among them.

The show begins with Argentinian cultural matriarch Marta Minujín’s, Comunicando con tierra (1976), a recreation of her large scale interactive nest made of earth collected at the sacred site of Machu Picchu as an act of spiritual solidarity among the Americas, and US writer and activist matriarch Margaret Randall, whose poems collected from locals in Mexico, Cuba and Nicaragua in the 1970s, installed here as artworks, use historical poetry as a form of radical citizenship.

Echoes of this early visionary art by women are seen in several of the show’s works, most unexpectedly among the artists using textiles. Maria Hupfield’s, It Is Never Just About Sustenance or Pleasure (2016), features felt jingle gloves and boots that when they premiered with a performance on opening night, became magical vessels that transported the wearer into imaginative places where Indigenous traditions were applied to the now to redefine community and gendered relationship. Margarita Cabrera’s, Space In Between (2010-present), reappropriate US Border Patrol uniforms, and with Mexican immigrant needlepoint sewers, turn them into several cacti sculptures that symbolically and ironically re-cast the voices of power. Xenobia Bailey’s, Sistah Paradise’s Revival Tent (1999-present), a hand-crocheted site for mystic seers, hacks into an African American spiritual tradition and cosmology that we know little about.

When introducing this work, the artist talked about what she learned in the kitchens of her caretakers as a girl; the secrets of everything from the best Gumbo recipe to reading the stars in the night sky to see future events; to the African diasporic foraging, healing and survival skills that allowed the maroons who escaped plantations in the 20th century to move into the swamps and trees: invaluable oral intelligence that is never taught in Western schools but that we are seeking in our current ecological crisis. Perpetuating the existence of this knowledge and offering it for global consumption in work that references the domestic but is not craft or folklore, points to an emerging space where what has been ‘secret women’s wisdom’ can now exteriorise to propose fresh dialogues to an art market that has never included it, and in a larger cultural tradition that has worked to suppress it.

This theme goes on from other perspectives in Colombian botanist Abel Rodríguez’s Amazonian medicinal plant taxonomy drawings, The Cycle of the Maloca Plants (2009)—Indigenous knowledge that he has preserved despite displacement and Western education, and in Zacharias Kunuk’s Inuit worldview, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001), an enduring film that (with as much drama as Keeping Up with the Kardashians) speaks back to the intellectual Anthropocene from the lived experience of those in the far north whose survival is intimately tied to the earth’s cycles. Raven Chacon’s, Native-American Composers Apprentice Project (2004-present), recordings of Navajo teens who do his crash course in classical composition, are the most ephemeral of these works but also conceptualise what is felt and known by kids of their traditions, as if through a musical excavation of their genetic cellular memories. Pink Lightning, an extraordinary piece written by a thirteen-year-old girl, is a powerful aural depiction of sunset over sacred mountains.

There was a lot of interest in the even more conceptual Brazilian works, including by Hans Ulrich Obrist, who jetted in for the opening. Here, memorable photographic oeuvres include, A Study of Race and Class: Bahia><Santa Fe (2016), by Jonathas de Andrade that explores historical racism and classism in a contemporary photo essay set in Santa Fe, and the mid-20thC works of late French photojournalist and Afro-Brazilian ethnographer Pierre Verger, as well as Mexican Graciela Iturbide’s 1978 photographic documentations of native life and ritual in Mexico, which all disrupt the ‘anthropologist’s gaze’ by entering into the “other” experience and attempting to be one with their subjects.

One piece, Winter Stories in Springtime, by Julia Rometti and Víctor Costales, involves two empty wall ‘vitrines’ with a hint of a needle stitch. The artists came to Santa Fe on a SITElines commission in the spring to investigate a local tradition and create work around it. They chose the myth of the Spider Woman of the Navajo carpet weavers but were told by the weavers that their weaving can’t be talked about till the winter, when the spiders are hibernating. This work-in-progress is so conceptual that an out-of-town dealer suggested privately that it, along with fellow Biennial works, were The Emperor’s New Clothes. If the establishment has no name for the intelligence that is on show here, and is at risk of missing the views it offers into the understanding of “the other”, the “woman’” and the “far reaches of the inner self”—then the very wide line that’s been traced in the metaphoric sands of Santa Fe needs to be defined. Raven Chacon said, “Activists have a solution. Artists complicate things so we can see them better.” Much Wider Than A Line is a glimpse into the artistic materialisation of a sacred aspect of the complicated ‘invisible’ that despite playing a crucial role in human existence is still far too rare in the everyday world.

Caia Hagel (  @hungryforfortune

Much Wider Than A Line runs with additional talks, performances and new commissions through January 8, 2017,

1. Paolo Soleri Theater, c. 1975, Courtesy of the Institute of American Indian Arts Archives, Santa Fe, NM.