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Artists delve into complicated relationship with money

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In 1896, the Arctic explorer Robert Peary discovered a 31-ton meteorite guarded by Greenland’s Inuit people.

The iron rock crashed into the ice nearly 10,000 years earlier. The indigenous people worked its sacred metal for tools.

Peary took the meteorite and sold it to New York’s Museum of Natural History. But he didn’t stop there. He also took six Native people for display with him, five of whom quickly died of tuberculosis. Museum curators skinned the corpses and displayed the skeletons. A little boy named Minik survived to see the exhibition, not realizing his father’s bones were part of the show.

Albuquerque artist Nina Elder transformed that horrific history into “Saviksoah Meteorite, Intact” (2018), with charcoal and pulverized meteorite on paper. The drawing is part of “Currency,” opening at 516 ARTS on Saturday with works by more than 130 artists and collectives. The exhibition explores our relationship with money and what we value.

” ‘Capital’ is a term that can be used in different ways,” said exhibit co-curator Manuel-Julian Montoya, an associate professor at the University of New Mexico’s Anderson School of Management. “What’s the difference between a priceless object and a worthless object?”

Elder began researching the Greenland meteorite about a year ago through conversations with indigenous leaders.

“All of the cultural leaders I talked to, they all talked about the void that was left behind,” she said.

The artist created her drawing from a historic photograph, slicing what had been the meteor’s shape into blank space. She ordered pulverized meteorite for her drawing from NASA. It was free.

The call “was almost a joke,” she said, “because I considered it something precious. Now it’s scientific currency.”

Bernalillo’s Scott Greene painted one of his trademark trash mountains in “Mountsanto,” an oil on canvas from 2018.

The painting began 10 years ago as “Sermon on the Mount.” Today it pictures a mountain of sheep, discarded tires, a tractor spewing pesticides, a satellite dish and other discards from 21st century life.

The artist lives on part of what was once the largest sheep ranch in this part of the country.

“There’s still farming going on here,” the artist said.

Greene is no fan of biotechnology. Monsanto has been criticized for the potential health effects of its pesticides and for creating what some consider a seed monopoly.

“Monsanto’s pretty much got its tentacles in just about everything,” he said. “They’re a monopoly; they’re making it so farmers can’t grow their crops alone anymore.

“How far from reality is this? We see the wit and satire and hyperbole, but is it really?

“We value the dollar more than the environment. It’s the reality that is upside-down.”

Albuquerque artist Leonard Fresquez organized an installation with 20 artists producing knock-off versions of prestige items such as Nike shoes and designer handbags.

“We live in a society where populism is king,” Montoya said. “It’s the difference between a person who reads novels and a person who reads a Twitter feed.”

Los Angeles artist (and onetime Beverly Hills nanny) Ramiro Gomez crafted cardboard cutouts of maids dressing a reproduction of a young girl from Velasquez’s famous painting “Las Meninas” (“The Ladies-in-Waiting”). Velasquez was the leading artist of the Spanish Golden Age.

Gomez placed the figures in front of an intricately gated Bel Air mansion.

“So how do we rate time and labor and work?” exhibition co-curator Josie Lopez asked. “How many people does it take to support the privilege of this individual?”

The New York Occupy Museums collective’s ongoing “Debtfair” campaign provided some inspiration for “Currency,” Lopez said. Sprung from the Occupy Wall Street movement, the collective asked New Mexico artists how debt affects them and their art.

Literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin described the concept of the carnival as a subversive, disruptive event in which the hypocrisy of everyday life was unmasked. In “Currency,” artists turn assumptions upside down to re-examine our relationship with money.

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