BY SUZANNE SERIFF
Since the inception of the Gallery of Conscience in 2010, the Museum of International Folk Art has mounted three successful exhibitions in this space: Empowering Women: Artisan Cooperatives that Transform Communities (2010); The Arts of Survival: Folk Expression in the Face of Disaster (2011); and the Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942–1946 (2012)—all exploring how traditional artists joined forces in the face of change or disaster to provide comfort, council, prayer, and hope through their art.The Gallery’s purpose has recently evolved. While staying true to its mission of engaging and connecting communities around issues of social justice through the power of folk arts as tools for social change, future exhibitions in the space will not be formally organized by professional curators alone. They will be community-driven, co-created, collaborative, participatory, and cumulative.
The first exhibition with this new direction was unveiled on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2012, when Let’s Talk About This: Folk Artists Respond to HIV/AIDS opened as an “exhibition-in-progress.” Just as improvisation in jazz begins with a melodic phrase, invites a response, and builds on a theme, this exhibition issued a call for visitors and local community artists to respond to an initial set of a dozen or so pieces of artwork from around the world. The result, which has built on the initial theme, is rooted in the magic of improvisatory call-and-response, and history in action. The exhibition’s formal opening is July 7, 2013, in conjunction with International Folk Art Market, and it will continue through December 2013.
Why showcase folk art as a response to HIV/AIDS? Studies have shown that one of the most effective ways to reach people is through traditional, familiar, hence readily understandable forms of storytelling, primarily the visual and performing folk arts. A figurative embroidery piece entitled Let’s Talk About This inspired the exhibition’s title. Its creator, South African artist Maria Rengane, said of the importance of talking about the disease and speaking out for treatment and education, “You must not be ashamed of speaking out, telling the community! When you keep quiet you sign your own death warrant.”
On view in the current exhibition are works by local artists as well as international artists speaking out about AIDS. On display is the work of four Hispanic Spanish Market artists whose pieces were part of an AIDS awareness campaign sponsored by the exhibition’s community partner, Southwest CARECenter, of Santa Fe, which reaches out to the Hispanic and Latino population with its Es Mejor Saber HIV testing campaign. Andrew Montoya, Diana Moya Lujan, Tomas Salazar y Weiler, and John Gallegos used the campaign’s logo, a Sacred Heart of Jesus, or its message, Es Mejor Saber/It’s Better to Know (your status), as the starting point for their traditional art. Another New Mexican artist, San Ildefonso potter Kathy Sanchez, contributed two of her traditional pots to the exhibition, pieces that are used in her work to educate women about AIDS through Tewa Women United.
Other HIV/AIDS-themed folk art on view includes a tower of 600 beaded dolls representing the children orphaned by AIDS in just one South African village; an AIDS Memorial Quilt block from the NAMES project, commemorating eight New Mexicans who died from the disease; and a carved wooden sculpture of an AIDS protest march in Mozambique’s capital, by Camurdino Mustafá Jethá.
Local community partners that have helped shape this exhibition, in addition to Southwest CARECenter, are N’MPower, based in Albuquerque, an LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning) resource center for youth; and the Albuquerque Area Indian Health Board, among others. Groups affected by HIV/AIDS and invited to dialogue sessions also shaped Let’s Talk About This. One such session, “Telling Stories, Remembering Lives,” included those connected to the AIDS Memorial Quilt in New Mexico. Some of these individuals made quilt panels at weekly sewing sessions in the 1990s or had friends and loved ones remembered in the quilt, others were parents of children who had died of AIDS or are currently living with HIV, and others were community activists involved in the early days of providing AIDS support and care in Santa Fe. All shared their stories and contributed to the exhibition through their participation.
Let’s Talk About This has evolved since its December 1, 2012, opening. Early visitors to the Gallery were invited to interact with the issues raised in the exhibition by talking, writing, or drawing their responses for others to see. These were left behind in a kind of asynchronous conversation, and through a cumulative process, the exhibition has grown, changed course, and developed in response to community needs and sentiment.
In conjunction with International Folk Arts Week, and with the enhanced exhibition, visitors can meet artists whose work is on view and will be featured in the 10th Annual Santa Fe International Folk Art market, July 12 through 14: South African beadworker Lulama Sihlabeni, Rwandan basket maker Janet Nkubana, Peruvian retablo maker Claudio Jiménez Quispe, Cuban naïve painter Roberto Gil Esteban, and Mozambican sculptor Camurdino Mustafá Jethá. Also present will be New Mexican and Native American artists, including several local quilters who contributed their talents to the AIDS Memorial Quilt on display in the gallery—Sharon Wirtz, Debbi Wersonick, Deb Baca, and Jane Gabaldon. Visitors are invited to continue the improvisatory dialogue that began in 2012 and to become part of the community seeking to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Suzanne Seriff, PhD, is director of the Gallery of Conscience and chair of the Artist Selection Committee for the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. She divides her time between Santa Fe and Austin, Texas, where she is senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.