(Barbed) Wired for Controversy: Symbolic Sculpture by Native American Rejected by the University of New Mexico

Article excerpt

(Barbed) Wired for Controversy: Symbolic Sculpture by Native American. Rejected by the University of New Mexico

The University of New Mexico has rejected a sculpture it had commissioned from a Native-American artist because his final product includes barbed wire.

The work, "Cultural Crossroads," by Bob Haozous, "is not the work we commissioned," says Bob Walsh, director of UNM's Fine Arts Museum. "It is substantially different."

The model that Haozous presented is different from the final product, says Walsh. And while a number of changes were made from the original model, it is one change, in particular, that has raised the ire of the university -- the razor wire that sits atop the work.

The sculpture depicts a migration scene from an old Aztec picture book. Three Indians are shown migrating toward Albuquerque in the United States. According to Haozous, the work depicts a border crossing.

"Everything in the work is a symbol," says Haozous, explaining that the full title of the work is called "Cultural Crossroads of the Americas." The barbed wire, which appears both in his work and along the U.S.-Mexico border, "is a dehumanizing part of our lives....It's tremendous symbolism."

As to why it was not part of the original model, he says: "The work matured in the studio."

Censorship or Contractual Obligations

At the moment, the university is withholding payment to Haozous and is attempting to get the artist to remove the wire from the work. One of the other alternatives is to remove the sculpture altogether from the university grounds, says Walsh, who insists that the issue is not about censorship but about contractual obligations.

"It depends on your point of view, and I admit there are other points of view," concedes Walsh.

If the barbed wire remains, it would both subvert the process and be unfair to the other artists who submitted their works, he says, because they participated in a competitive process.

"The piece he delivered may be better than the one he proposed, but we really want that piece [that was approved]. The one he delivered is significantly different," complains Walsh.

The issue, says Walsh, is about respecting the integrity of the process. More than 200 people from the public approved the model. "Next time, when we ask people to help us choose, they will wonder: `why should I bother to vote?' It encourages cynicism."

"We know art is controversial," adds Walsh. "I love his work because it is controversial. The wire gives it a different bite and meaning."

Haozous believes the controversy is not about the process, but rather about the message. People object to the fact that it's not decorative art -- not the kind of art that whites have become accustomed to seeing or that they have come to expect from Native Americans, says Haozous.

"They don't want to see the holocaust against brown people, about what they're doing to them on the border," accuses Haozous.

Public Discussion Proposed

The commissioned work is actually a joint venture between the city and the university. Jane Sprague, assistant coordinator for the city's public art program, says the city found the work to be acceptable. The city's art board, she says, found the work to be a "social, cultural and political commentary, within the context of what he [Haozous] proposed. It was his type of art work and the board found it acceptable."

Sprague says there is no precedent for handling such a dispute when the city approves and the university disapproves of a piece of art. She notes that the sculpture is on university property and that UNM has committed more money to the project. The city's portion is $15,000 and UNM's is $65,000.

Sprague says that the city's art board believes it is important to have a public discussion so that the campus and surrounding community can address the issue. The Native American Kiva club at UNM, the Albuquerque Arts Alliance, and the Washington, D. …