SANTA FE, N.M. — Titling an upcoming Santa Fe art exhibit “War Department” is intended to be both ironic and provocative.
That’s because the experience of war can’t be caged in one administrative unit – it forever flows into a soldier’s everyday life, affecting family, community, and a warrior’s own thoughts, feelings and actions, explained Lara Evans, guest curator of the exhibit that opens with a reception this evening at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art.
“Oftentimes, we have a narrow idea of what art about war looks like,” she said, describing what she looked for in choosing the 16 pieces for the exhibit, which will be on display in the North Gallery through July 31. “I was looking for pieces where the references were perhaps coded – not the heroic moment shown in battle, or the man with a headdress on.”
Instead, you will see Jean LaMarr’s (Paiute/Pitt River) “Untitled (Cover Girl),” 1990, that depicts a Pueblo maiden posed almost as an exotic odalisque, but with a bored, disgusted expression. She also can be seen as Mother Earth, within patterned geologic layers, while a war plane speeds across the black atmosphere above.
Or “On Drinking Beer in Vietnam” (1971), a painting by T.C. Cannon (Caddo/Kiowa) that shows two somber men in fatigues, one’s arm draped over the other’s shoulder, with a feather attached in the hair of each to signal both their Native and warrior identities. In the background: a distant mushroom cloud.
One piece that particularly engages her, Evans said, is a brass ring made by Teresa Quintana (Kiowa). Its ornament is a soldier aiming a long-barreled gun. But when you’re wearing a ring and point your hand toward a target, the soldier’s barrel points off to the side.
“For me, that implies the damage is not always where it is meant to be,” Evans said. “It often can be lateral.”
She said the artist also has spoken about the ring referring to the toy soldiers her brothers would play with and the number of people in her family who have served in the military.
Overall, the ring can bring to mind how bodily adornment and toys both can create a mindset related to war, Evans said.
Artworks in the exhibit were chosen from the museum’s permanent collection, which is housed at the Institute for American Indian Arts. The move out to there from the downtown museum in 2010, more than doubling available space, broadened the visibility and uses of the collection, which totals 8,000 works of art, according to Tatiana Lomahaftewa-Singer (Hopi/Choctaw), curator of collections.
Not only do instructors and students view the works as part of the curriculum, but artworks increasingly have been made parts of exhibitions, both locally and at other museums, such as the Maxwell Museum in Albuquerque and the Harwood in Taos, she said.
Almost every piece has been donated, generally from students, faculty and staff at IAIA over the years, but efforts have been made to include contemporary Native artists who had no connection with the college, she added.
A mystery is connected with one of the pieces in the War Department exhibit.
Called “Boxer,” it may be a work done by Alfred Young Man (Cree) in the 1960s, but no one is sure – not even Young Man himself, Evans said. Technicians have scanned the canvas with a near-infrared camera to see if it can detect a signature penciled in on the back – the way students regularly signed their works, she said. There’s nothing conclusive so far, but the data is still being analyzed.
The painting features figures in shades of white, black and gray in different orientations on a yellow and orange background. They include Nazi soldiers and boxer Joe Lewis, an African-American whose famed rematch with Max Schmeling became a propaganda focus in the pre-war era.
But a third set of figures is U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, making a link to the Vietnam War, Evans noted.
Other works explore rituals and ceremonies, and how they give meaning to a war experience, she said.
And the world of protest also is included.
“Life on the Eighteenth Hole,” 1990, by David Neel (Kwakwaka’wakw) uses as its focus a photograph of a protester from the Oka Crisis in Canada, a stand-off that set Mohawks against police and soldiers. Native protesters occupied a site that they claimed as tribal land and a burial ground, but which developers intended to use for a golf course and condos.
Neel’s artwork frames the portrait with lines of people involved in the stand-off, as well as four eagle feathers. “Shots were fired. There was one death. Native defenders were beaten,” Evans said.
The golf course was not built and the federal government bought the land, but it has not yet been transferred to the Native community.