How to decolonize a museum? Try an axe.
El Museo del Barrio has had its own internal struggles, regarding whether to focus on its Nuyorican roots or to represent the Latin American diaspora more broadly. But “Raphael Montañez Ortiz: A Contextual Retrospective” proves that at best, he can do both. The ambitious exhibition shines the spotlight on the museum’s founder, who continues to do radical and compelling work at the age of 88. With this exhibition, the legacy of Montañez Ortiz should be cemented both for his art and for the museum he founded.
As I browsed the exhibition, I thought of recent protests: London environmentalists clinging to artwork about continued fossil fuel extraction, or last year’s 10-week campaign, “Strike MoMA” , which claimed to link the activities of council members there to war, the prison system, environmental degradation, patriarchal violence and more.
The El Museo exhibition is in part a timely response to this ongoing tumult in the world of art museums. But it’s also a reminder that all of this isn’t really new. In the window in front of me was a photo taken by Jan van Raay on May 2, 1970, document a demonstration in front of the Museum of Modern Art. Signs emerging from the crowd read: ‘Black and Puerto Rican art must be here’ and ‘Racist museum’.
Another, a May 6, 1970 news clipping from the New York Post, features a photo of an alarmed mother pushing a crib away from a tangle of New York University students, some of whom appear to be covered in blood. . The headline, ‘On Campus: No Respite at All’, reveals the scene to be a guerrilla theater re-enactment of the Kent State massacre a few days earlier, when four unarmed students protesting the war in Vietnam were shot down by the Ohio National Guard.
Montañez Ortiz initiated this action and, together with Joan MacIntosh and Richard Schechner of the Performance Group (the forerunner of the Wooster Group), recruited the student collaborators. Next to the clipping were Montañez Ortiz’s typewritten instructions from his “Survival Handbook for the Guerrilla Theater of Blood and Flesh” (1968), detailing how to obtain animal blood from butcher shops.
As the subtitle suggests, this is a “contextual retrospective” that places Montañez Ortiz, sculptor, performance artist and film and video artist, in history, among his peers – names less known and bold as varied as Gordon Matta-Clark, Ana Mendieta, Faith Ringgold and Hermann Nitsch — and in his role as founder of El Museo del Barrio. The museum-wide exhibit on this unsung artist, who taught the art at Rutgers for more than 50 years, is divided into four sections: “Destruction,” “Decolonization and Guerrilla Tactics” (which includes the photo , the press cutting and the manual), “Ethnoesthetics” and “Physio-Psycho-Alchemy”.
The spectacle of destruction dominates the Brooklyn-born artist’s early period. For the experimental short film “Golf”, from 1957-58, he punched holes in a source film on the subject of the title, corrupting the sound and flooding the frame with white circles, as if the film were attacked by bullets from golf.
In 1958’s “Cowboys and ‘Indians'”, Montañez Ortiz, who identifies as being of Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Native American descent, uses similar Dada tactics to do more personal and political work.
Using a tomahawk, he randomly cut up a western film, then shuffled the fragments into a medicine bag before stitching the film back together, creating a shamanic remix, with bits thrown upside down and inside out. upside down, chaotically laying bare the mix of sentimentality and violence. which constitutes the genus.
The destruction continues in a room full of what the artist calls his “archaeological finds”: burnt or destroyed mattresses, sofas and chairs turned into wall sculptures. Dating from 1961 to 1965, they were made around the same time John Chamberlain was making his colorful sculptures of wrecked cars (and years before Chamberlain started carving functional sofas from foam blocks with a knife) . On the wall, in their brown and ash hues, they anticipate the sculptural installations of found objects by Nari Ward.
Montañez Ortiz’s process of undoing often emphasizes performance rather than a completed (or destroyed) object. The exhibition’s best performance documentation is a video recording of his “Piano Destruction Concert: Humpty Dumpty Had a Great Fall,” recorded live at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1996. He is accompanied by his wife, Monique Ortiz- Arndt, in peasant dress operatively singing the part of Humpty Dumpty atop a ladder. Montañez Ortiz provides the main musical accompaniment as he takes an ax to a piano, in an instant scraping his blade across the exposed inner strings and rhythmically cutting through the structure of the piano, creating a performance that is both dramatic and surprisingly musical. By dissecting a piano in the space of an American art museum, Montañez Ortiz seems to hijack the suffocating and codified ideals of Western high culture.
All is not destruction. The curators of the exhibition, Rodrigo Moura and Julieta González, have chosen to show the work of Montañez Ortiz alongside a motley range of other artists, creating accumulations and dialogues that amplify the importance of each object. Take for example two pyramidal sculptures covered in luminous feathers, “Maya Zemi I” and “Maya Zemi II” (both from 1975), which rest on a table-like plinth, surrounded by an eclectic yet energizing mix of works other artists.
A zemi is a sculpture containing a spirit, in the tradition of the Taínos, the indigenous people of Puerto Rico. A display case of pre-Columbian Taíno artifacts, all different forms of axes, rests nearby. But the same goes for a marvelous triptych, “Bird Transformation” (1972), of photographs by the American artist of Cuban origin Ana Mendieta; she covered the body of a mannequin bathed in dim lighting with white feathers. Across the room runs a slideshow, “Unsettled Objects” (1968-69) by German artist Lothar Baumgarten, made up of 80 images from the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England. The slides are overprinted with the artists’ own texts, which critique the colonizing role of anthropologists and archaeologists. Notably, this museum no longer displays human remains, such as its famous collection of Shuar shrunken heads (tsantsa).
The exhibition’s flagship work, “The Memorial to the Sadistic Holocaust Destruction of Millions of Our Ancient Arawak-Taino-Latin Ancestors…” (2019-20), is also one of the most recent in the exhibition. artist. Like an enlarged Joseph Cornell box, the assemblage transforms thrift store finds into a serious work of art: it recalls a medieval Christian altarpiece. In the central scene, where one might find the figure of Christ on the cross, there is instead an assemblage of skulls, skeletal hands and swords all spattered with blood. (A closer look reveals that these materials are toys or possibly Halloween decorations.) A stuffed cheetah crosses the top of the central frame, and the altarpiece wings on either side are inlaid with reproductions of early printed books. illustrating scenes of Spaniards torturing the native population encountered. (A late 17th century edition of Bartolomé de Las Casas’ Narrative of the First Voyages and Discoveries of the Spaniards in America, source of some of these images, is under glass nearby.)
There are a few clunkier works here that detract from the whole, especially the digital vinyl prints from the late 1990s and early 2000s. history of witch trials in the colonial United States than a work of art. But the glitchy hypnotic video works in this final piece are worth capturing.
As I left the museum, I reflected on how recent and past protests by museums are also proclamations of faith in their power, that their cultural role deserves to be challenged. Activists at MoMA or the Whitney may be clamoring to “decolonize this place,” but Raphael Montañez Ortiz, despite his interest in destruction, has helped build a decolonized space for more than half a century. It’s not perfect, but, in its retrospective, El Museo del Barrio rivals those museums with terrific, thought-provoking art while preserving space for beauty and wonder.
Raphael Montañez Ortiz: a contextual retrospective
Until September 11. El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan. 212-831-7272, elmuseo.org.