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‘Looking Forward Looking Back’ exhibit explores both historic and contemporary works by women artists

At first, the pearl-swirled bonnets look as delicate as jewels churned into galaxies of embellishment. But a closer look reveals something more menacing: thousands of sharp pinpoints piercing through satin to scalp.

Angela Ellsworth’s provocative headpieces form a portion of the contemporary side of the all-women exhibition “Looking Forward Looking Back” at the New Mexico Museum of Art.

The show explores historic works by significant women artists as well as new projects by contemporary feminist artists.

The historic section features works by Louise Bourgeois, Eleanor Antin, Eva Hesse, Ana Mendieta, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith and Beatrice Wood.

Contemporary artists Ligia Bouton, Micol Hebron and Ellsworth usher the exhibition into the present.

“Understudy for Animal Farm” by Ligia Bouton is part of the “Looking Forward Looking Back” show at the New Mexico Museum of Art.

“Understudy for Animal Farm” by Ligia Bouton is part of the “Looking Forward Looking Back” show at the New Mexico Museum of Art.

Bouton’s “Understudy for Animal Farm” features pig masks stitched from pillowcases. At first, the pillowcases evoke feelings of comfort and familiarity. But they obscure the wearer’s identity as well as their vision, transforming into a veil or a hood. Bouton is an associate professor of interdisciplinary foundations at the University of New Mexico. Born in Brazil, she was educated in England.

“Understudy” spent four months at Arkansas’ Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

When the artist moved to Santa Fe and began raising children, her thoughts turned to George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” as she read through children’s literature peopled by domestic animals.

“Seer Bonnets” by Angela Ellsworth are based on traditional bonnets worn by pioneer woman of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Seer Bonnets” by Angela Ellsworth are based on traditional bonnets worn by pioneer woman of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

She decided to focus on the allegory’s end, when the pigs walk upright and dress in the farmer’s clothes as they enter the farmhouse.

“That farmhouse was the seat of power,” Bouton said. “It’s very rare in literature that we see that domestic realm as the seat of power.”

She began collecting pillowcases, their fabrics ranging from floral prints to the comic book heroics of Spider-Man, stitching them into pig’s heads. Bouton invites visitors to try them on before a bucolic farm background for a photograph. At first, it all seems frivolous and fun. Then the participants realize they can’t see.

Thoughts can shift to dark images of the wartime abuses at Abu Ghraib, the Ku Klux Klan and the ongoing ISIS beheadings.

“The whole piece is about seduction,” Bouton said. “It’s all created to draw them in. Some of them get uncomfortable. Then there are the people that are watching; they’re complicit.”

Twenty-three years ago, celebrated Corrales artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith addressed another abuse of power in time for the Quincentennial Columbus celebration.

Smith turned to paper dolls as a metaphor after watching them transform from Annie Oakley and Dolly Dimples into Barbie, the ultimate consumerist icon. She based the watercolor series “Paper Dolls for a Post Colombian World With Ensembles Contributed by U.S. Government” on a family from her own Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation in Montana.

Fittingly, their name was Plenty Horses. Smith added the names Barbie, Ken and Bruce to signal her parody, showing the figures dressed in white men’s clothing, a maid’s uniform “For Cleaning Houses of White People After Good Education at Jesuit School” and speckled in smallpox.

“There was very little to no truth-telling about the real history of how this country was founded,” Smith wrote in an email. “I thought in the beginning that the paper dolls would get lost in the backwash of new factual truth-telling that would occur during the celebration, but all government-funded exhibits, books and catalogs made it sound like the happy savages welcomed the invaders with their Manifest Destiny theory.”

Smith’s paper dolls toured throughout the United States and beyond.

“Though the stories I tell on each paper doll and its clothing are truthful, I’m also aware that satire and comedy help hold the attention of the viewer,” she added.

The Mormon-raised Ellsworth based her piece on the traditional bonnets worn by pioneer women of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as its fundamentalist sects. The pearls are actually corsage pins.

Ellsworth is the great-great-granddaughter of the Mormon prophet Lorenzo Snow, husband to nine wives. These headpieces are prickly in every sense of the word, displaying between 19,000 and 22,000 pins in a deceptively serene embellishment.

According to Ellsworth, the circular designs reflect Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s visionary “seer” stones he used to produce visions. In Ellsworth’s world, the bonnets are spiritual portals for women to access their own visionary powers.