Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe: Re-examining the Concept of “Folk Art”

The “City Different’s” folk art museum on Museum Hill is a popular destination. Its rooms are chock full of materials affording colors, textures, craft techniques, and little narratives in dioramas and retablos with amazing detail. The cornucopia of collectibles is partly due to the fact that the museum is the repository of the massive “folk art” collections of “mid-century modern” designer Alexander Girard, who designed the display of his collection in the museum as a labyrinthine, near immersive experience.

Important as that is, that exhibition does not solely represent the mission of the museum. One can understand the dilemma: the modern-era concept of “folk art” is a colonializing one, something that Girard, from his mid-century viewpoint, probably could not appreciate. For all the brilliance of the designer–and the museum also has an exhibition of his own career from his days as head of Textile Design for Herman Miller to his work as house designer for Braniff Airways–his interest in dolls and parades and their paraphernalia supports what today might be considered a somewhat infantalizing, old-school approach to “other cultures.”

But the museum is also a member of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience (, a network of global sites, institutions, and memory initiatives that “connect past struggles with today’s movements for human rights.” For many indigenous cultures–historically those cultures provide us with the authentic, craft-intensive folk art that everyone loves–are also cultures that have been marginalized or even under erasure by rapidly urbanizing nations in what we used to call the “third world.”

The Museum of International Folk Art has several other small exhibitions that support a recognizable global trend on the part of formerly oppressed people, or people forcibly assimilated to the demands of economic development and modern urban environments, to reclaim their original crafts as forms of resistance.

An example is the exhibition, “Crafting Memory: The Art of Community in Peru,” which focuses on the plight of migrants: people forced for economic. political, or environmental reasons to leave their ancestral communities and who are denigrated in the city. For example, the signature Peruvian wool hat called the chulla and the full skirts called polleras typify traditional dress that stigmatized their wearers, who were derided as “chola” or “cholo,” an ethnic slur. Qarla Quispe, a young artist working in Lima, creates defiant polleras from potato sacks or prints with contemporary graphics to tell the stories of the wearer’s family. She is part of a movement of artists who mix old cultural traditions with new. They are paired in the museum with T-shirts by Peruvian

collective AMAPOLAY, which combines urban immigrant street graphics with motifs from the Andean highlands, a mixture of tribal and urban called chicha (from the popular music style named for a type of beer). The shirts raise awareness regarding the plight of migrant cultures.

The chullo, the colorful knitted hat with ear flaps worn by young men who reach maturity in the Andes is revived by Aymar Ccopacatty, an Aymara artist, who knits a gargantuan version out of the plastic bags that litter Peruvian cities today–a critique

of the consequences of modernization. The chullo were individually crafted by fathers for their sons and became part of their identity, but also became a symbol of migrants’ tribal origins that helped make them targets. The late twentieth century saw violent cultural changes in Peru during the twenty-year conflict between the military and paramilitary, and the forces of the Maoist Shining Path. Towns were decimated across the map and the particular victims were the rural poor. More than 70,000 inhabitants disappeared. One story has it that the chullo could help a grieving family identify a body otherwise too disfigured or decayed. The refuse plastic fabric of Ccopacatty’s sculpture reflects that history but also speaks of the disfigurement of traditional ways of life and the deterioration of the Peruvian land.

“Sights of Memory: The Art of Community in Peru” is curated by Amy Groleau. It opened in 2017 and closes July 17, 2019.


Depths and Possibilities — Activist Art (a review)

Review of Gregory Sholette’s Delirium and Resistance: Art and the Crisis of Capitalism. Forward by Lucy R. Lippard. Ed. by Kim Charnley. London: Pluto Press, 2017.

Delirium and Resistance is an abstract title, inscribed on an abstract book cover. The restless reader might hastily judge it as just one more theoretical tome in the vast sea of perspectives on crises in art today. But appearances are deceiving. Gregory Sholette’s new book intends to splash cold water in the face of aesthetic narcosis. It’s like Alice came upon a mushroom marked “Eat Me” that, when consumed, eradicated Wonderland, or at least made it into a house of cards observable from the outside. Some of us might not want to awaken from our opioid aesthetics (our neoliberal delirium) or embrace the possibility of change, hobbled as we are by our addictedness and fear. The author aims to open our eyes, and, when we do, it is remarkable how invigorating our new acuity turns out to be.

Delirium and Resistance (henceforth D&R) is a book of essays Sholette wrote over about twenty years (from 1997 to 2016), but covering movements going back to the 1980s, with references to the 1960s. The book is divided into three sections: “Art World,” “Cities Without Souls,” and “Resistance”—respectively, these deal with art today as a supreme capitalist enterprise, the paradox of artists vs. gentrification in cities, and, finally, the efflorescence of social practice amid a bare art world. D&R builds on the author’s signature concept of artistic dark matter: the ninety-nine percent who support the art industry with tuition, fees, dues, purchases of art materials, and debt, and through their own unremunerated artistic efforts—all amounting to a “missing mass,” while a tiny number of artists and artworks meet with material success.

In making itself known through multitudes of extra-institutional activities, this dark matter ironically illuminates the fully financial phenomenon that is art today—a system of bare art, to use a term borrowed from Giorgio Agamben’s “bare life,” the reduction of life to mere subsistence devoid of agency. With bare art, art is stripped of its rhetorical high ground, its secrets about ineffability, and its charmed lifestyle. It materializes as pure capital. In Sholette’s eyes, we are currently witnessing a fermentation of dark matter activity, a critical moment in which dark matter is becoming visible, even chic, as museums and other art institutions scramble to embrace social practice of all stripes, from performance art to community advocacy and even commonplace activities like cooking.

So, resistance is endangered by the hallucinatory bounties of capitalism, but the bloated system might be reaching a tipping point. Sholette believes that it is, and, if anything is to be gained, we must engage with the efforts of the past, an archive of mostly un- or under-theorized activity, as a resource.

What makes the book significant is not only Sholette’s theoretical acumen, but also his authenticity. Like an emancipated Alice, his perspective draws from both within and without. As an activist and professor of art, Sholette has taken part in a number of key activist art groups since the 1980s, (PAD/D, REPOHistory, Gulf Labor Coalition, and, with Olga Kopenkina, the Ukrainian Imaginary Archive, IA). He witnessed first-hand the disruptions of the streets with Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, events that involved artists self-exiled from the art world. D&R’s essays were written at different moments in the past decades of activist art in “an attempt at formulating a broader thesis about art as resistance.” (151) That resistance, though atomized in thousands of particular contexts, relentlessly moves its aggregate mass towards liberation from anaesthetizing aesthetics, and eventually, perhaps optimistically, to cracking the code of capitalism itself.







“Wall Quilts” Bring the Feminist Art Tradition to the Land of Georgia O’Keeffe

This summer I met up with artist Sabra Moore at Angelina’s Restaurant, with the big chili pepper sign, on Fairview Street just by the Rio Grande in Española. We were about to tour the district elementary schools where she has been working to create permanent tile mosaics created from individual paintings by the school children throughout the rural area.  (read more – pdf attached)  Ryan-Moore