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Exhibiting Now: Decolonial Atlas

Arts & Culture | February 5, 2018

Sound floods your ears as you walk into the Decolonial Atlas exhibit. Throughout the space, images and sounds overlap with each other. Close your eyes and hear the sound of children laughing—open your eyes to see them “burying” someone in a grave of red clay. Watch a screen filled with slow dancing, and hear chaos, gospel, and the pounding of drums echoing through the headphones from other works nearby.

Curated by Pilar Tompkins Rivas and located at the Tufts Art Gallery, the exhibit is full of these contradictions, and within these contradictions lies mesmerizing beauty.

“It’s an incredibly impactful work…concerned with the interconnectedness of the world, but also the cost of that,” says Art History professor Adriana Zavala. “There’s a lot of video work in the show, but there are also works on paper, paintings, objects, sculptures, photographs. It’s very much an immersive exhibition.” Walking through the exhibit elicits moments of sensory overload, but that weight is tapered by an equally intense reverence.  Just as impressive is the sheer number of artists, 19, included in the exhibit, such as well-revered contemporary artists like Jeffrey Gibson, Laura Huertas Millán, and Postcommodity (an interdisciplinary arts collective comprising of Indigenous artists Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist).

Some especially distinctive pieces include Ricardo Estrada’s piece Tezcatlipoca, and Carolina Caceyedo’s Spaniards Named Her Magdalena, But Natives Call Her Yuma. American Studies Professor Jami Powell describes the Tezcatlipoca piece: “a skateboard deck featuring a depiction of the turquoise mosaic mask of Tezcatlipoca—an important deity in the Aztec pantheon—wearing an L.A. Dodgers Jersey.” Powell was enamored by this work, saying that “the gold leaf on this piece shines beautifully under the gallery lights and immediately drew me in.” She continues, “however, the complexity of this piece and the way it conveys the myriad entanglements of contemporary Chicano experience is really incredible.” Estrada’s piece contains layers of meaning that highlight the ways that art can engage with both complex histories as well as culturally specific references. Powell elaborates on some of these intricacies. “I mean, the figure itself is based on a 15th century mask that has been in the collection of the British Museum since the 1860s. On top of that, Estrada layers and incorporates images from his own experiences growing up in L.A. through the use of a skateboard and the Dodgers jersey.”

Walking towards the back of the exhibit, viewers are drawn into Carolina Caceyedo’s visually stunning work. Her multimodal piece includes split-screen video as well as overlapping audio and oral storytelling about the narrator’s relationship to water. Each screen shows different images, either congruent or contrasting. There are often images of the privatization of water in Caceyedo’s native Colombia and stirringly silent photos of walls of fully armed police officers in riot gear walking through the streets. Simultaneously, lullaby-like messages are whispered above your head in a mixture of English and Spanish. The viewer must strain their ears to hear Caceydo’s words clearly, and risk losing track of the quickly-transitioning video, or keep their eye on the video only to miss the dialogue, catching moments of phrases like “America is dying because we forgot the instructions on how to live on Earth,” “it is underwater that the evidence of the dams’ violence is hidden,” or “a dam is a siege of nature.” The end result leaves the viewer feeling haunted, split, and submerged.

For many, the exhibit’s existence holds profoundly personal meaning. Zavala, whose work is deeply immersed and concerned with Latin American art, was so moved with the exhibit that she based her graduate seminar Decolonial Aesthetics in Latin(x) American Art on the collection. “All of the artists whose work are in the exhibit are Latin American, broadly defined, US Latinx, and American Indian or Native American. The majority have their origins in Latin America.” In a largely White-dominated space like the museum and art world—93 percent of museum directors are White, as are 92.6 percent of museum board chairs, and 89.3 percent of board members—having an entire exhibit dedicated to art by Latinx and Indigenous artists is rare. “For me, the opportunity is rare that I have one, let alone 22, works that come from the part of the hemisphere that is closest to me and my work. We have a whole gallery of them…engaging with complex yet intersectional issues,” Zavala says.

Another strength of the show, outside of its showcasing of innovative work by marginalized artists, is its diversity in content matter. “I feel like I could grab any person on campus and take them over [to the gallery] and there would be something [in the exhibit] to speak to them,” Zavala says. She continues, “A student in the sciences might be interested in the work that counters extractivism. What is resource extraction? For students in the humanities, there’s plenty to think about in terms of how globalization impacts different communities differentially.”

Running parallel to the exhibit are a number of events for the public to attend, including a performance by one of the featured artists, a curator talk, and a symposium. Eulogio Guzmán, a lecturer in Pre-Columbian Art and Architecture at the SMFA, along with American Studies professor Jami Powell and SMFA professor Anthony Romero, are in the midst of planning a symposium centered on the Decolonial Atlas exhibit: “A Decolonial Atlas Open Seminar: Recasting Indigeneity.” The symposium is, as Powell describes, “a reading group that more deeply explores the major themes of the show: Recasting Indigeneity, Intervening in the Archive, Resisting Extractivism, and Dislodging Time. The reading groups will lead into the symposium, Decoloniality: Aesthetics and Methodologies the evening of March 1, which features a curator talk and a performance by Anthony Romero and Josh Rios as well as a panel discussion the afternoon of March 2.”

The organizers hope that the symposium will allow the audience and viewers of the exhibit to delve into the details of the exhibit more thoroughly. Powell adds that “in planning the symposium, we wanted to expand on the idea of bridging the two campuses [Tufts and SMFA]—and really communities of artists and academics—by facilitating conversations between people who in a really overly-generalized way fall into the categories of academic or artist.”

The exhibit is, Guzmán says, in many ways a showcase of “indigenous innovation, intelligence and strategy.” He emphasizes how Decolonial Atlas is one of a kind in many ways: “a brilliant show and a great opportunity for students to see a lot of the cutting-edge work and inventive approaches towards trying to gain a greater understanding of what has happened over the past 500 years.”