SANTA FE — “I’m a storyteller,” Nathan Young (Delaware/Kiowa/Pawnee) told me as we chatted about Activation/Transformation, his site-specific installation at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe. He was quick to explain that the attribute is not unique to him, but rather a shared activity within his community, a lifeline of and to his culture.

Growing up in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and in the Native American church, Young had an early interest in and direct engagement with art, since he knew many of the makers of the art of the church. Today he is a multidisciplinary artist and composer with an expanded practice that includes curatorial work as well as research. He is also a founding and former member of the artist collective Postcommodity

Young created Activation/Transformation upon invitation from Andrea Hanley (Navajo), chief curator of the Wheelwright, to create an interpretation of the museum’s collection using the objects that comprise it. Focusing on silver as it relates to the complex story of Santa Fe — the city and its people — he selected close to 200 objects.

(photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Activation/Transformation harbors a myriad of stories, some known, some never to be. Bridles, tools, bow guards, belt buckles, utensils, cigarette holders, jewelry, and other objects of personal adornment, care, and function, ranging from the 19th century to the present, are presented in a visually dynamic display on a rectangular tabletop, protected by plexiglass. The composition, though abstract, is akin to the Zia sun symbol; horse work objects concentrate at the center while other objects radiate outward as directional indicators of traveling, identity, and placemaking.

“I was thinking about how people make a place in a community, what that looks like in Santa Fe and how I could reflect that with the collection. And so I started with the horse in mind — the horse is important to Plains Indians, to my heritage,” said Young. “And so, in a way, the installation is designed to radiate out from these animals that help us cultivate the land to the things that people would use as signifiers of who they might be as an individual. I looked for pieces that were distinct, that looked like they came from a place, from a life.”

Crafting one’s own stories about each piece and the relationships between them is tempting, if not inevitable: this shot glass and that hair comb, a spur and a shoe horn. Wall text panels that include each known artist’s name as well as the tribal association and descriptive name of every object offer corrections to and guidance for such imaginings.

Nathan Young (Delaware/Kiowa/Pawnee), installation process (photo courtesy the Wheelwright Museum)

Over the years, the museum’s collection has been built of pieces from Native and non-Native people. Young’s focus on silver intensifies a symbolic reading of the material: silver’s shine indicates beauty, strength, and value, while its tarnish results from either use or neglect. By selecting pieces with engravings, patterns, and designs, and other details signifying craft and labor, he draws attention to the ways art moves and works. And he reminds us that there are multiple kinds of knowing, learning.

“Activation/Transformation points to a transformative moment at the museum, as it is the first installation of its kind in its 84-year history,” said Hanley. “I was excited to see the personality of the museum unfold as Nathan made his selections in the collection. I saw a sense of humor and curiosity, a respect for quality and sometimes anonymity of pieces made by Native American artists that dated back to the mid-1880s which make up Nathan’s installation.”

On one of the gallery walls, we read the lyrics for “Santa Fe Story,” a song yet — or perhaps never — to be heard, displayed in vinyl lettering. The text, created by Young, points to his broader art practice which includes sound and experimental music, and scholarship of Indigenous sonic agency. A riff on country western music, “sung in the style of Johnny Hubcap or Charlie Lovehandle” and in the chords of D, G, A, and B minor, the song (we imagine) has the cadence of, say, the clip-clop of a horse’s gait, and carries the artistic influence of Terry Allen. The vaguely Christian characters of George, Tom, and Peter, amid references to authenticity, legend, style, and tradition, point to white colonialism and the supremacist story settlers tell themselves. 

Young shared, “It’s my hope that people will think more about how unique this place is, its place in the myth of the American West, and how important it is as a container for ideas about the Southwest … and kind of reevaluate their thinking of what Santa Fe meant then, and what Santa Fe means today.”

Nathan Young: Activation/Transformation continues at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian (704 Camino Lejo, Santa Fe) through April 3, 2022.

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Nancy Zastudil

Nancy Zastudil is an independent editor, writer, and curator working toward equitable representation in the arts. She regularly edits artist books and exhibition catalogs, and writes about visual art for...