ALBUQUERQUE — Fronteras del Futuro: Art in New Mexico and Beyond at the National Hispanic Cultural Center (NHCC) in Albuquerque engages with contemporary issues relevant to the border state and similarly multicultural regions through artworks that draw upon science, technology, fantasy, personal narratives, and cultural identities. The exhibition is inspired by speculative fiction, which is apparent in the way many of its 31 artists (who are primarily based in or otherwise have ties to New Mexico) tap into pop culture properties for critical commentary.
“Listening” (2018), a photomontage on aluminum by Ehren Kee Natay (Navajo), sets the tone for Fronteras del Futuro. The artist, dressed like a Star Trek crew member, has inserted himself into a historic photo (c. 1958) of his grandfather, Ed Lee Natay, who wears a pearl-snap Western shirt and side-tied headband. The pair sit side by side listening to the 1958 record Natay, Navajo Singer, the first commercially-released album recorded by a Native American musician. The artist explains that, while he is a member of the Navajo Nation, growing up disconnected from Diné culture left him with a desire to “understand what knowledge and wisdom was lost” through the forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples. He says contemporary technology has enabled him to connect to this past. A smart curatorial choice to offer this work as introduction; themes of lost and found, assailed and protected cultural identity continue throughout the show.
Three prints by Chicano artist Tony Ortega are on view, two of which could be mistaken for enlarged panels from Wonder Woman and Superman comics. Upon closer inspection, Diana Prince has been replaced by the iconic Frida Kahlo, and Superman is now “Super Hombre” (2015) with dark skin and a Pancho Villa-esque mustache. Both heroic figures hover, action ready, in front a Mayan pyramid. The third print, “Mickey Muerto at Teotihuacan” (2017), presents a less heroic image. The eponymous mouse, depicted as a José Guadalupe Posada-style calavera, gives a tourist-photo-op thumbs up in front of Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of the Moon, which has become the base for Cinderella’s Castle. This hard-to-miss metaphor speaks to the commercialization of Indigenous spaces where ancient sites, like Teotihuacan which is surrounded by restaurants and hotels, have become akin to theme parks.
Mickey Mouse and Superman make several appearances alongside characters from other US and Mexican comics in the highlight of the exhibition, “Codex Espangliensis from Columbus to the Border Patrol” (1999), a collaborative work by Enrique Chagoya and Guillermo Gómez-Peña, both born in Mexico City and currently based in San Francisco, designed in collaboration with book artist Felicia Rice. This accordion fold, letterpress book was inspired by pre-conquest Mesoamerican codices. It is a critical epistolary that brilliantly collages pop culture, ancient Indigenous imagery, and colonial European prints with texts in English, Spanish, and Nahuatl. Assiduous in its message and design, “Codex Espangliensis” presents an episodic narrative explicating the complexities of the history of the Americas.
Another series of sci-fi and fantasy references appear in acrylic paintings on canvas by Albuquerque local Ryan Singer (Navajo), depicting scenes “where the worlds of Star Wars and Navajoland collide.” Growing up in northern Arizona, Singer spent summers herding his grandmother’s sheep through a desert landscape reminiscent of Tatooine. In “Rainbow Flavor” (2021), memory and fantasy meet as a pair of Jawas and an R5 astromech wait in line alongside locals at a food truck offering fry bread and sno-cones. “Land Back” is scrawled across one side of the truck, a slogan for the movement focused on “the reclamation of everything stolen from the original peoples.”
Laura Alvarez’s serigraph “The Double Agent Sirvienta: Blow Up the Hard Drive” (1999) introduces the artist’s spy character who disguises herself as a domestic servant to collect sensitive information from her clients, subverting the image of the Latinx maid by placing her in a position of power (Alvarez is currently developing a graphic novel about the character). Across the gallery is comic artist and political cartoonist, Eric J. Garcia’s lithograph “Tamale Man” (2005). Wanting for a comic book character relevant to his cultural background, Garcia created the anthropomorphic “marvel from the masa” to address real world sociopolitical issues with humor. Along similarly lighthearted yet critical lines, Angel Cabrales posters for his imagined B-movie series “It Came from Beyond the Border” satirize politicized phrases like “illegal aliens” as crowds cower under threat of flying conchas.
Other works in the exhibit combine traditional Latinx artforms with contemporary materials and ideas, like Marion Martinez’s circuit board sacred hearts or Patrick McGrath Muniz’s news media-critical retablo “Divinus Informer.” Nikesha Breeze’s haunting dual-channel video “Stages of Tectonic Blackness: Blackdom” (2021) explores queer Black resistance through movement, music, and mourning rites. It is a reminder that, while New Mexico is often characterized as a tricultural state (White European, Hispanic, Indigenous), in reality it is a multicultural mosaic with a significant population of creative practitioners.
Fronteras del Futuro: Art in New Mexico and Beyond continues at National Hispanic Cultural Center (1701 4th Street SW, Albuquerque, New Mexico) through January 8, 2023. The exhibition was curated by Jadira Gurule.