ALBUQUERQUE — Many Worlds Are Born, the current exhibition on view at 516 Arts in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is the first of two exhibitions slotted this year to examine disparate histories of the state (the second, Technologies of the Spirit, opens on June 11). Both grew out of Art Meets History, a national initiative led by Ric Kasini Kadour (who co-curated this exhibition alongside Alicia Inez Guzmán, PhD) that “looks at how the divergent histories of race, conflict, and colonialism in New Mexico inform how we imagine our futures.”
Kasini — an artist, writer, and cultural worker splitting his time among Montreal, Quebec, and New Orleans — has previously co-curated at 516 Arts via 2020’s Radical Reimaginings, another show that invited artists to use collage to rethink the world we know and the stories that underpin it. Guzmán, hailing from the Northern New Mexico village of Truchas, has long been telling New Mexico’s stories in her practices of writing, editing, and curation. With particular expertise in land use and its intersections with culture, her work has allowed others to access the area’s multiple histories, resisting the urge to reduce the past to a singular narrative.
In addition to its partnership with Art Meets History, Many Worlds Are Born is organized as part of Desierto Mountain Time, a collaboration between contemporary art institutions in the southwestern US and Chihuahua, Mexico, aimed at deepening conversations and exchange in the region.
The show — spanning the entire two-story stretch of the building with work from more than 10 artists both local and from farther afield — draws its name from the “godfather of Chicano literature” Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Última, a work that wrote New Mexico into literary history. The passage goes: “Millions of worlds are born, evolve, and pass away into nebulous, unmeasured skies; and there is still eternity. Time always.” The paragraph goes on from there: “Still there is eternity. Silent, unopposed, brooding, forever.” It’s the soul, Anaya concludes, that is as enduring as time.
Many Worlds Are Born does however challenge — in moments even oppose — that span of eternity squarely behind us that we call history by calling it up from the depths and starting new conversations with it. This is the intent of the Art Meets History initiative, “to pick up the unfinished work of history,” as the project’s website puts it.
Dominating the front window is a sculptural installation by Nikesha Breeze, “child of wind, Blackdom Land Effigy” (2022), a protective figure rising from a skirt of dark earth and radiating pampas grass from its crown. While entirely made of earthy materials — a cow skeleton, clay, wild sunflowers — there is something ethereal, too. A similar sensation to the one evoked here — of being asked to remain grounded while simultaneously transcending the old, prescriptive handcuffs — is one that returns with varying levels of success throughout the exhibition.
On the wall adjacent to Breeze’s sculpture is Diego Medina’s (Paro-Manso-Tiwa) “long has the light wandered to lay itself upon you” (2022), a mural grappling with what feels like geologic-scale time. Beginning five feet above the cement floors, it expands to near ceiling height, requiring such a skewed angle of looking that at first I saw a flock of birds in its sunset colored strata. Yet when I stepped back, I saw humans casting shadows as they moved through land rising and falling like prehistoric oceans. Medina’s mixed media mural feels to be not just on the trail of El Camino Real (a route of 15,000 miles used for many centuries to ferry goods and ideas, stretching from Mexico City to Ohkay Owingeh in Northern New Mexico), but something more ancient, too. Medina’s precision while compressing multiple fragments of time into a single — albeit expansive — mural made this piece stand out not just for its scale.
Moving beyond the first room, the changing violin tune of “Stages of Tectonic Blackness: Blackdom” (2021), a performance (and here presented as a two-channel installation) by Nikesha Breeze in collaboration with Miles Tukunow, Lazarus Nance Letcher, and MK, drifts from the back room and underlays the other work: EveNSteve’s “The Blue Swallow” (2022), a large in-camera collage with hand scrawled text; Leo Vicenti’s (Jicarilla Apache) collodion prints “Tsi gha taa ye (you can almost see through it)” (2022); and Joanna Keane Lopez’s sweeping installation “Lópezville, Socorro, New Mexico” (2022). These works grapple with themes such as the entropy and contamination of place, the endurance of small things like the yellow flowers of a creosote bush, and the practices that support symbiosis between human beings and the land.
It is here that we are also presented with the first of many selections of historical images pulled from the Albuquerque Museum photo archives, grouped by their relevance to particular artworks. To create the works on display, artists poured through the archive and many participated in a lab designed to spur reflection on personal and shared histories in New Mexico.
While engaging with these archives is a point of emphasis of the Art Meets History initiative, I found myself wondering if the through lines were made explicit enough as to feel meaningful. The pairings and presentation instead created a viewing experience where too often I was trying to follow the logic or search for the relationship between these distinct items instead of being swept up in the poetic momentum of the new “more resonant visions,” as Alicia Inez Guzmán eloquently puts it in her curatorial reflection.
I see the soul that exists outside of time, the one Anaya wrote about, in these works — in the photo transferred hands gripping ladders in Margarita Paz-Pedro’s (Laguna and Santa Clara Pueblos) fragmented ceramics, in Leo Vicenti’s darkly textural prints, in Jeanna Penn’s vibrant collage — and I wonder about the use of the contrast. In Paz-Pedro’s “Mano a Mano” (2021), she overlays images of Indigenous women’s hands at work onto porcelain fragments, brilliantly posing questions around Indigenous labor, arts practices, and the shaping of the land through the presentation of four plates placed directionally on the wall, constellated with embellished shards.
Upstairs, the collection of Penn’s collage illuminates sites that supported Albuquerque’s “small but notable” Black population from the 1940s to the 1960s, each layering watercolor, photographs, and sketched structural maps of the places they represent: a gas station, a hotel, a nursery, a home. Paz-Pedro’s and Penn’s works represent the most clear and resonant use of archival photographs to clarify, to question, and to imagine fully everything the past and future holds.
Perhaps a story needs a starting point. And these stories begin with the archive, the necessary point from which to diverge. While I believe these photographs could have been made better use of in the gallery space, maybe they represent exactly the multiplicity we are after — the many old stories, the many, many worlds that arise because of and despite them.
Many Worlds Are Born continues at 516 Arts (516 Central Avenue SW, Albuquerque, New Mexico) through May 14, 2022. The exhibition was curated by Alicia Inez Guzmán, PhD, and Ric Kasini Kadour.