May 19, 2017 – January 28, 2018
IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Santa Fe
Claire Vaye Watkins set her 2015 novel Gold Fame Citrus in a not-so-distant future, in the aftermath of a disastrous event: the entire western United States has been engulfed by a massive sand dune, erasing any recognizable features of the landscape and causing panic along the East Coast. Levi, an erstwhile scientist and leader of a small band of nomads who inhabit the dune sea, keeps a catalogue of the new species of plants and animals that have developed since the cataclysm, including the Wandering Joshua, a tree whose tap root can sense water sources and which drags the plant across the sand, sometimes up to one hundred yards per day. This is adaptability at its best, and Gold Fame Citrus is a story of how humans survive after the collapse of capitalist society, how quickly the species is able to reinvent itself and cleave to a new world order, even as the federal government seeks to deny its existence. Levi elucidates the state’s attitude toward the dune sea: “Step one: establish that it’s barren. Step two: destroy it.”
This statement, although meant to hearken to a post-apocalyptic future, could easily have been made hundreds of years ago, or even in the present day, about the land inhabited by indigenous tribes in North America. The idea that a governmental body wants to invalidate and erase these cultures is not new, and the threat looms in myriad everyday realities. Desert ArtLAB’s exhibition Ecologies of Resistance at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (May 19, 2017-January 28, 2018) explores these realities for a specific local community and ultimately proposes solutions based on practices of self-determination. For the collaborative’s founding members, April Bojorquez and Matt Garcia, desert ArtLAB “reconceptualizes desert/dryland ecologies not as post-apocalyptic growth of wasteland, but as an ecological opportunity.” Rather than imagine a fantastical outcome in which new species develop in desert environments, Bojorquez and Garcia seek to broaden local communities’ understanding of the resources that are already available to them and which indigenous cultures have been utilizing for thousands of years.
The focus of Ecologies of Resistance is a small plot of land that desert ArtLAB purchased, with the help of a Creative Capital award, in Pueblo, Colorado, a town that has historically had a high Chicano population. A low platform in the center of the MoCNA gallery features an arrangement of detritus the artists gathered from the plot while clearing it. These miniature Fireball Whisky bottles, nails, a railroad spike, a spoon, and bits of wire are remnants of the life of the town; desert ArtLAB’s mission is to revitalize that life by introducing new flora into the space. After years of neglect, the soil of the site was rocky and dense; a specimen jar in the exhibition displays that gray and chalky substance. The artists therefore planted rows of cholla cactus, which acts as a sort of tiller, loosening the soil and enabling enrichment by new minerals. A wall-sized photograph of the plot in Pueblo with its rows of cholla provides a visual anchor for the installation at MoCNA. The cholla, long a staple in indigenous diets, is the first of many edible cacti that Bojorquez and Garcia will introduce to the site. This past June, the cholla bloomed for the first time, dotting the landscape with bright magenta and attracting bees. The buds themselves will be part of a public roast as the artists continue to educate the local community about the benefits of indigenous botanicals.
Much of the work of desert ArtLAB resides with the communities with which they interact, the people they engage and teach through their practice. Ecologies of Resistance is a carefully curated display of the archive that Bojorquez and Garcia are compiling through their work with the landscape and the communities in Pueblo. In addition to the litter and the jars of soil samples and other specimens, the show includes framed, pressed stems of amaranth—an ancient plant that has the power to resist Roundup, that Monsanto-manufactured herbicide embodying the chemical pollution of corporate agriculture. Amaranth thrives in desert climates and has become an emblem for desert ArtLAB, their own Wandering Joshua, hearkening to the potential inherent in the ecosystem they are building and the cultures they serve.