"A house divided against itself cannot stand” is a biblical adage reiterated by Abraham Lincoln in a famous speech delivered on June 16, 1858. Lincoln’s statement, which came as a warning to a nation poised on the brink of civil war, reverberates today, as migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers are demonized by the Trump administration. In some arenas of public discourse, inflammatory rhetoric and incivility have become de rigueur. Artists are addressing the current moment, using their work to illuminate truths and reveal absurdities.
Of the projects in Casa tomada, the latest in SITE Santa Fe’s SITElines biennial series, Los Angeles-based author Andrea Fraser’s 2016: In Museums, Money, and Politics makes plain the case for demystifying our polarizing rhetoric. It’s a project based on her book of the same title, which investigates political contributions by the trustees of more than 125 art museums in the U.S. during the presidential campaign year. The project, a wallpaper showing pie charts arranged in a grid — each chart detailing Democratic contributions in blue and Republican contributions in red — reveals that cultural institutions are not all hotbeds of liberalism. Some pie charts are indeed dominated by blue, but others reveal more of a balance. Some are predominantly red, like the Huntington Museum of Art in Huntington, West Virginia; the Contemporary Austin in Austin, Texas; and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia.
“SITE is on here,” said independent curator and writer Candice Hopkins, a returning curator from the previous SITElines biennials. She makes the point that location is not necessarily a predictive factor of types of political donations. “You have the Nasher Sculpture Center in Texas, which you would presume would have more Republican donations, but it’s 100-percent Democratic,” she said. Fraser gives a talk about the project at SITE on Friday, Aug. 3.
Casa tomada was curated by Hopkins, José Luis Blondet, a curator of special initiatives at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Ruba Katrib, curator of the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 in New York, with Naomi Beckwith, a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, advising. There are fewer artists than in previous SITElines biennials, allowing for more works by each artist, but Casa tomada continues SITE’s advancement of the contemporary art of the Americas. The title, which translates as “house taken over,” is taken from Argentine writer Julio Cortázar’s 1946 short story about a brother and sister who are forced out of their home by unseen and unnamed forces. Home is a recurrent theme throughout the exhibition, as well as the meaning of being a guest in someone’s home and what it is to be a host. The show also takes up the circumstances of leaving a home behind and finding a new place to live, exploring that passage through projects that reflect on diasporas and migrations, as well as long-term engagements with place, particularly among indigenous communities whose cultures have survived centuries of conquest.
Home, in the contexts of the exhibition, can be an abstract idea. It’s also a loaded term as it relates to concepts of ownership. A point of reference for the exhibition as a whole is a cast made from the stolen foot of artist Reynaldo Rivera’s monumental sculpture of Juan de Oñate, the 16th-century conquistador and founder of the province of Santa Fe de Nuevo México under the viceroyalty of New Spain. In the current climate, when protests and actions surround the removal of Confederate monuments around the country, the equestrian sculpture of Oñate — as much a symbol of conquest as it is an emblem of nation-building under Spanish colonial rule — similarly opens the door for fresh perspectives on history.
The right foot of the bronze statue was sawed off in December 1997, around the time of the quadricentennial of Oñate’s arrival in the region. The damage perpetrated on the statue was no mere act of vandalism; it was meant to send a message, a reminder that in 1599, Oñate ordered the amputation of the right feet of 24 men from Acoma Pueblo. It was one of several punitive measures meted out to the Acoma people after hundreds were taken prisoner following a fierce battle between Acoma warriors and Spanish colonial forces that left about 800 Acoma men, women, and children dead, an incident that became known as the Acoma Massacre. To this day, the man who stole the foot from the statue has not been publicly identified.
SITE is exhibiting the foot in a prominent place near the entrance to the exhibition. “We were interested in Oñate’s foot as this metaphor for how history is told. Monuments often are made to tell only one side of history,” Hopkins said. “When the man and his accomplice took the foot, they said it was an opportunity to tell all sides of history. When I was driving with José Luis past Alcalde, I told him the story of the monument, and he said, ‘We need the foot.’ ” In 2017, filmmaker Chris Eyre, who was working on a documentary about the incident, was shown the actual bronze foot, whose permanent location remains unknown to most. “We contacted Chris and he responded right away, and was really interested in working with us to find a way to exhibit it. He’s been our conduit with — we call him Mr. X. We’ll be showing the cast of the foot in micaceous clay.”
The indigenous peoples of the Americas have seen their houses taken over; for them, the story Casa tomada is more than just a metaphor. The exhibition includes histories of peoples forced out of their native lands or pushed to the fringes of society. Their stories are told through a mix of conceptual and materially based projects. Casa tomada includes a number of pieces by contemporary indigenous artists, including a series of specially commissioned text-based mono prints by Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds, the largest showing of his prints to date. “Edgar is from Oklahoma, but his wife is from Navajo Nation,” Hopkins said. “Some of the text is from songs you hear on the radio as you’re driving through Navajo Nation, but others are things that were said during the massacre at Washita River, when Custer killed everyone.” The incident, known as the Washita Massacre, occurred on Nov. 27, 1868, when George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry attacked an encampment of Southern Cheyenne on the Washita River in Oklahoma, killing men, women, and children. The print series is titled Surviving Active Shooter Custer. “Edgar was interested in how this idea of mass shooting is not something new, but goes back in time. It goes back in time to Wounded Knee. It goes back in time to this moment, which directly impacted his family and his people. Until we come to terms with this past, we’re not going to figure out the present moment.”
While Casa tomada doesn’t take a didactic approach in its presentation, there are still lessons inherent in the subject matter of the works. Some, like Edgar Heap of Bird’s prints, deal with difficult topics. Others, such as Ángela Bonadies and Juan José Olavarría’s La Torre de David — prints and drawings that document the takeover of an unfinished bank building in Caracas and the establishment there of a residential community — reflect narratives that arise from changes in social and political landscapes. While Casa tomada’s focus is on the Western hemisphere, its contexts and concerns are global. ◀
▼ SITElines 2018: Casa tomada; through Jan. 6, 2019
▼ Public opening 10 a.m. Friday, Aug. 3By admission (no charge Aug. 3 and 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Aug. 4)
▼ Art Talk with Andrea Fraser6 p.m. Friday, Aug. 3$10, discounts available; tickets at sitesantafe.org or at the door
▼ SITE Santa Fe, 1606 Paseo de Peralta, 505-989-1199