SANTA FE — Soon after visiting the group exhibition Exposure: Native Art and Political Ecology at Santa Fe’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, I noted the onset of uncomfortable emotions: grief, regret, complicity, and dread. I was surprised, having thought of myself as mostly inured to “difficult” subject matter, shameful as that is to admit. The work of the exhibition’s 36 artists, most of whom identify as Indigenous, is all centered around the impact that nuclear testing, uranium mining, and the attendant contamination have had on the colonized peoples and lands of present-day Australia, Canada, Greenland, the US, Japan, and the Pacific Islands. That the show’s emotional impact was somewhat delayed felt apt. There I’d been in the museum, masked and studious, engaging in contemporary art in an institutional context; I surveyed the work, read the wall text, and pored over the helpful maps accompanying the pieces that situated them geographically. Meanwhile, I was marinating in a miasma of pain and evil without truly registering its effects. The exhibition’s power is almost undetectable at first, and then suddenly intense, a distant echo of the radiation that poisoned the land and bodies of those given voice and visibility in this show. 

This is not to say that individual works didn’t resonate in the moment as well. Especially engrossing is the video installation by the APY Art Collective, featuring recent interviews with Aboriginal survivors of the Maralinga nuclear tests which were conducted by the British government in Australia during the 1950s and ’60s. The subjects’ words neatly encapsulate the exhibition’s throughline of environmental racism at its most insidious, recollecting feelings of shock, betrayal, and confusion, even if slightly numbed by the passage of time. The government not only stole their land, but also rendered it uninhabitable for generations, while killing members of their families and communities and sickening them, their unborn children, and their grandchildren. 

APY Art Collective “Kulata Tjuta” (“Many Spears”) (Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara/Luritja) (2017), still

And as the global scope of this show demonstrates, this wasn’t an isolated incident. There is a photographic triptych by the Diné artist Will Wilson, documenting the Mexican Hat Disposal Cell on Navajo Nation land in Utah. This uranium waste pit, which dates from 1995 and ironically resembles land art on a monumental scale, was photographed by drones from three perspectives, each progressively closer. Though upsetting to see this waste in such close proximity to an iconic American landscape (the spires of Monument Valley are visible in the background of the first shot), it was only after reading the wall text that the human toll associated with this specific site became apparent — the debris in this pit is actually “waste from demolished buildings that were constructed with contaminated material, including a school.” Pretty chilling. I actually wouldn’t say there are any ‘skippable’ pieces in the entire show — each has something important, but also fascinating, to teach visitors. Did I mention the extremely helpful maps and wall text?

Kunmanara Queama and Hilda Moodoo, “Destruction I” (2002), synthetic polymer paint on canvas (photo by Addision Doty)

Despite its diversity of identity and media (the show features painting, photography, video, sculpture, and mixed media), Exposure comes together harmoniously as both a dirge for all that we’ve ruined, and a paean to the resilience of our planet’s Indigenous communities. It’s appropriate that this traveling exhibition kicks off its journey in Northern New Mexico, cradle of the atomic age, but the organizers (led by the museum’s chief curator Manuela Well-Off-Man) choose not to dwell on this fact, aside from including the state as one of the many sites of focus. This decision preserves the pertinence of the exhibition as it travels, but more importantly it avoids even a hint of hagiography for perpetrators like Manhattan Project director Robert Oppenheimer

Unlike radiation, our culture’s baked-in toxicity and oppressiveness are hardly invisible. Yet even the “wokest” among us remain undeniably active in the preservation of this system. To be confronted with the spectacle of such calculated cruelty in the name of progress, which is so poignantly reflected in this exhibition, is to bring our society’s more quotidian evils into stark relief. To acknowledge what’s on display here without recognizing the same forces woven into the fabric of our everyday lives just isn’t possible — there isn’t a shred of plausible deniability left.

Exposure: Native Art and Political Ecology continues IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (108 Cathedral Place, Santa Fe) through July 10.

Shaw Bowman is a writer and Emmy-winning producer. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his partner David and their border collies Wizard and Magic.