An Evening Redness in the West
by Jonathan Lockyer
From pandemics to famine and environmental catastrophes, the idea of the Apocalypse has managed to intrigue and entertain for generations. Through literature, film and the visual arts, invocations of these world-ending scenarios continue to capture our collective imaginations. While these fictitious dystopian worlds are often based on real-world occurrences, or speak directly to our collective unease with the world we inhabit, there are few that have experienced the nightmarish conditions brought on by the Apocalypse.
In that vein, a recent conversation with Candice Hopkins put forward the following question: “After up to 90 percent of the continental population of Indigenous peoples has been lost as a result of the inherent violence of ongoing settler colonialism, who would understand the end of worlds better than Indigenous peoples?”1 This is the starting point for An Evening Redness in the West, a new group exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Curated by Hopkins – MoCNA’s Chief Curator – the exhibition features work from 11 artists and collectives from Canada and the United States. Its curatorial vision is built around the central idea of the Apocalypse as interpreted from Indigenous perspectives. The exhibition’s title is taken from Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian (1985), which captures the banality of the violence that was implicit in the ideology of Manifest Destiny and its enactment in the settlement of the American West. This ideology was foundational in the shaping of the present-day state of New Mexico and its surrounding regions, both on a cultural and geographical level.
The exhibition is a curatorial progression of Hopkins’ previous work on the 2011 exhibition Close Encounters: The Next 500 Years, in which Hopkins and her co-curators considered the legacy and ongoing influence of colonization, and possible futures for Indigenous peoples as imagined by a collection of international Indigenous artists and writers. Grounded in a southwestern perspective, this new exhibition addresses the cultural genocide and environmental degradation that have created Apocalypse-like conditions for Indigenous peoples and their communities for more than 500 years. In doing so, the exhibition acknowledges that while the Apocalypse brings our present world to an end, it also gives birth to the possibilities of a new future.
It was appropriate, then, that the exhibition’s opening events coincided with the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts’ (SWAIA) annual Santa Fe Indian Market. Taking place over a two-day period following the third Thursday in August and located in and around the historic Santa Fe Plaza, Indian Market has been a staple of the Santa Fe community since its inception in September 1922. Indian Market has also allowed generations of Indigenous artists from Canada and the United States the opportunity to generate significant revenue – artists retain 100 percent of all sales – as well as exposure of their work to the more than 100,000 local and international visitors whose patronage brings millions of dollars into the local economy each year. However, since its inception, Indian Market has been a public exercise in the unbridled consumption of Indigenous art by predominantly white buyers, collectors, and gallerists.2 Indian Market and its inseparable connection to the city of Santa Fe foster an ongoing romantic understanding of the American west and a disassociation from the colonization of both land and people.
The exhibition stands in stark defiance of this fantastical engagement with Indigenous visual and material culture that transpires. On the eve of Indian Market, Death Convention Singers’ sonic procession wove its way through the streets of the Santa Fe Plaza, in jarring opposition to the Plaza’s festive vibes, creating an atmosphere akin to an Acid Western. The performance became a point of decentralization, functioning as both a critique of and replacement for the capitalist structure of the looming Market, with the sprawling deserts of New Mexico standing in for a post-apocalyptic landscape.
Duane Linklater’s Tautology (2011–2013) is a counterpoint to the gaudy neon “Cowboy and Indian” signs that hang in the windows of haute couture western wear shops surrounding the Santa Fe Plaza. Challenging the racist iconography of the countless Hollywood Westerns that are projected in these shops is Linklater’s thunderbird, an Anishinaabe cultural symbol imbued with deep spiritual meaning that acts as a mediator between worlds. Linklater’s work is a symbolic gesture that functions as a site for the cultural empowerment and rejuvenation of Indigenous peoples in the face of objectification and appropriation.
Similarly, sculptural and textile works by Naomi Bebo, Virgil Ortiz and Rose B. Simpson elicit a menacing beauty while referencing the survival, adaptability and resistance of Indigenous peoples – what Anishinaabe author and scholar Gerald Vizenor has termed survivance.3 For Ortiz and Simpson, the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, which saw the Indigenous Pueblo people of Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico (present-day New Mexico) drive out the territory’s Spanish colonizers, serves as inspiration for their storefront installation Wanderlust (2015). Through a series of ceramic masks and costumes, the artists imagine a post-apocalyptic world 500 years after the Pueblo Revolt, where Indigenous people have continued to create new ways to not only adapt, but also thrive in their world. Two works by Bebo address the maintenance of agency in the face of conflict. Beaded Mask (2010) and Woodland Child in Gas Mask (2015) use Woodland beadwork to ornately adorn objects of necessity – in this case, gas masks. Each mask is a signifier of not only one’s ability to survive, but also to find new and meaningful cultural forms of expression and empowerment.
The message behind Hopkins’ curatorial vision and the work of the artists included in the exhibition is both refreshing and necessary, not only within the context of the Santa Fe Indian Market, but also in terms of understanding larger geopolitical conditions. As a reminder of how such conditions are experienced by many Indigenous peoples, a large glass jug sealed with a cork plug sits under a vitrine at the entrance to MoCNA’s main gallery. The jug contains a radiant orange liquid taken from the contaminated Animas River that runs through the states of Colorado and New Mexico in the traditional territories of the Ute and Navajo peoples. In August 2015, the Animas turned a Tang-like hue as nearly 3 million gallons of mine tailings leaked into the river. Deposited in the gallery by Death Convention Singers at the completion of their performance, it is a bleak reminder that the Apocalypse does not exist as a fictitious occurrence but is something that we live within and that we, in turn, contribute to the makings of our world’s end. This is by no means new territory for Indigenous peoples. Like so many foundational works of dystopian and apocalyptic fiction, An Evening Redness in the West situates itself as part of a much larger conversation concerning the world’s end by invoking the terrifying realities of our collective history.