Intergalactic Franciscans and Junípero Serra Protests in Interwoven
November 24, 2015
This September, Pope Francis visited the US to canonize Junípero Serra, who is respected and reviled across California, depending on one’s definition of ethnic cleansing. This year, as every year, fourth graders across the state will choose one of the missions Serra helped establish to build out of sugar cubes and toothpicks. They may even visit their local mission, before moving on to other state educational standards.
Katie Dorame, one of 15 artists included in Interwoven: Indigenous Contemporary at the USF’s Thatcher Gallery, remembers these field trips and grade school lessons well from her childhood in the Los Angeles area. As an adult, Dorame realized that her younger self didn’t see enough alternatives to the history of the Spanish conquest of California, including her Tongva ancestors who suffered greatly following the establishment of Mission San Gabriel Arcángel in 1771
In a body of paintings called Alien Apostles, Dorame reimagines the Spanish interlopers as reptilian extraterrestrials and intergalactic invaders. Two of these pieces, Neophyte Baptism(2014) and Mission Revolt (2014), are based on historic paintings found in California missions. In Mission Revolt, three robed friars with radiant green alien heads crouch above the decapitated bodies of two colleagues. A nest of snakes slither out of the neck of one of the unfortunate clergymen. A Native person draped in fur stands above the Franciscans, wielding a bloody sword that glistens in the light. The scene is fanciful, but references events Dorame and other Californians were not likely taught about as children, such as mission revolts by Tongva, Chumash, Kumeyaay, and Yokuts people
Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie, one of several prominent artists in the exhibition, addresses the canonization of Serra directly with a newly created video. The piece, No (2015), begins with the camera panning across relief prints depicting the brutality of the Spanish conquest, such as a mass hanging of indigenous people and a conquistador throwing a naked baby. Superimposed flames and austere religious music accompany these images. The video then documents scenes from recent protests at Mission Dolores against the exaltation of Serra. One protester’s sign reads: “Jesus forgave killers, he didn’t make them saints.” The video, along with Dorame’s paintings, echo loud in the Thatcher Gallery, which is housed in one of California’s oldest Catholic universities
We Become Them(2010) is a video and series of prints by James Luna, a Southern California artist who has been working for over 30 years in installation, performance, and multimedia art. The video rotates through a number of photographs of masks from unidentified indigenous cultures. After each image is presented, Luna contorts his face to mimic the faces for the viewer. These translations, which leave Luna’s mouth gaping or his eyes bulging, are humorous and light, but engage with serious cultural artifacts. Luna calls the piece “an exercise in the spiritual, physical and mystical act of Indian dance and ritual.”
Along with Dorame, "Interwoven" presents the work of a number of emerging artists, including several associated with the Indigenous Arts Coalition, which grew out of a student group at the San Francisco Art Institute. Rye Purvis, who is originally from a small town in New Mexico, says she likes to play with people’s expectations of what Native art is, creating pieces that are less traditional but deeply influenced by her upbringing and hometown. Two large paintings by Spencer Keeton Cunningham draw from street art, graffiti, and cartoons. The paintings incorporate icons associated with indigenous North America, including traditional, stereotypical, and everyday images like an igloo, tipi, drum, hatchet, cigarette, and oil derrick.
Exhibitions like "Interwoven" can face the dilemma of presenting art practices that are sometimes ignored or exoticized by the fine art world, but doing so in a way that continues grouping talented artists based on ancestry. Such exhibitions can be worthwhile, as many artists are in conversation with one another, but the execution requires thoughtfulness and nuance. The diversity of practices and bold works included in "Interwoven" avoid simplification or an anthropological approach. The artists are neither expected to embrace stereotypically motifs nor reject particular cultural histories.