25 November 2008

New Deal Murals and Populist Violence II: Albuquerque, New Mexico

[Ed. Note from Buster: Here's the second post in Lizzie B's series on populist violence in New Deal art. For the first part, go back here.]

The Scene: An apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Buster and Lizzie B sit at opposite sides of the living room amidst books strewn about the floor, furiously staring at their laptop screens.

Buster (not looking up): So, what are you going to do to fritter away the time in Albuquerque while I'm at the conference?

Lizzie B (suddenly brightening): Lots! At the Pueblo Indian Center, there's a cooking contest that's kind of like Top Native Chef. And downtown at the federal courthouse, there's a WPA* mural!

Buster: What's the mural of?

Lizzie B: Umm... I don't know... If I knew what it was of, wouldn't that defeat the whole point of going to Albuquerque?**

Buster (slightly grimacing): Right. Definitely.


A month later, I found myself in the cool desert sunshine on a quiet stretch of downtown Albuquerque, gazing up at the solemn federal building with Buster at my side. Turns out that he couldn't turn down the allure of investigation.

Opening the courthouse door, I immediately glimpsed a flash of bright colors high on the wall ahead. But after the rush of anticipation, I realized what stood between us and the art: an X-ray machine, a metal detector, and three security guards sternly sizing us up.

Once the guards realized that they had a couple of art appreciators in their midst, they relaxed and explained the courthouse rules: no cameras, no large bags, and surrender photo ID until leaving the premises.

Stripping off his belt, Buster was heard to mutter, jovially, for the benefit of the guards, "This mural better be pretty good!" Then he repeated himself a couple times; this I understood to be for my benefit.

And then there was Loren Mozley's 1680 Pueblo Revolt in Northern New Mexico.***

Buster and I gazed at the piece while one of the guards sidled up next to us, expectantly waiting for our reaction. And not seconds after Buster formed his lips to utter a question, the guard dashed over to an adjacent office to fetch an explanatory handout with background information and this (incomplete) image:

By 1680, Spanish colonists had ruled New Mexico for nearly a century, and as is clear in Mozley's painting, the local Pueblo Indians had had enough. During the revolt, all but one of the region's pueblos (villages) attacked the colonists in concert, killing forty monks and 380 settlers. As a result the Spanish retreated to El Paso, where they stayed for the next twelve years.

The mural does not shy away from bloodshed. On the left, horseback Pueblos wield torches, arrows and spears. On the right, Spanish soldiers lay down cover fire to protect civilians, though the effort seems futile. A woman cradles a baby while riding a donkey. A priest sags under the weight of a sack brimming with crosses. A young man extracts a bloody arrow from his torso as a child looks on in dismay. All seem doomed.

On either side of the image above are side panels (not shown). But don't imagine that they offer any solace. From right to left, you'll find skeletons strewn among desert cacti, a mass of flames licking discarded crosses and an icon of the Virgin, and, finally, a heap of slumped dead friars.

Buster and I stood there in silence.

"It's a beautiful mural, isn't it?" the guard asked.


* What I didn't realize at the time (and also got partly wrong in my last post) was that the agency responsible for putting murals depicting "the American Scene" with regionally appropriate subject matter in newly constructed public buildings was the Treasury Department's Section of Fine Arts ("the Section"), not the WPA, which oversaw the Federal Art Project and was administered quite differently.

** To see some great Southwest New Deal art, check out this virtual exhibit of the Museum of International Folk Art's show of Hispanic WPA artists.

*** Mozley (1905-1989) [biography here as pdf] was born in southern Illinois, raised in New Mexico, and spent much of his career as an art professor at the University of Texas in Austin. Before that time, he worked and studied for several years in New York, where he rubbed elbows with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.


Buster said...

Last night I was skimming through my books of pacifist poetry and prose, trying to find something to speak to the horrendous fact of Gates staying on as Secretary of War (let us, for a moment, not pretend) for Obama.

I stumbled across this gem from Paul Goodman that may speak to the presence of images of populist violence sponsored housed in federal buildings:

Flags, 1967

How well they flew together side by side
the Stars and Stripes my red and white and blue
and my Black Flag the sovereignty of no
man or law! They were the flags of pride
and nature and advanced with equal stride
across the age when Jefferson long ago
saluted both and said, "Let Shays' men go!
if you discourage mutiny and riot
what check is there on government?"

the gaudy flag is very grand on earth
and they have sewed on it a golden border,
but I will not salute it. At our rally
I see a small black rag of little worth
and touch it wistfully. Chaos is Order.

lizzie b said...

Yes. That's it exactly!
I love that scattered among our public buildings there are these reminders of popular rebellion against oppressive power, even rebellions that weren't permanently or completely successful. I love that these struggles are documented for public reflection and rumination.

McFly said...

I really like the way this mural commemorated a Native American uprising that held the colonizers off their land for 12 years... maybe I'm just thinking of Little Bighorn, but I feel like these events are typically contained in a two-step narrative that begins with a brave revolt and small victory by the colonized that has its immediate answer in an overwhelming, crushing response by the colonizers. I know 12 years is just 12 years, but still...it's refreshing that Mozley chose an event whose aftermath doesn't lend itself quite as neatly to the idea that these rebellions were quixotic romances, exercises in foretold doom that could only tilt the balance of power in one direction. I could also be reaching here. It's too bad those silly art preservation rules prevented you from photographing the mural, Lizzie. I would have liked to see the effect with the dead friars and skulls among the cacti.