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

By Rodriguez, Roberto | Black Issues in Higher Education, November 14, 1996 | Go to article overview
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(Barbed) Wired for Controversy: Symbolic Sculpture by Native American Rejected by University of New Mexico


Rodriguez, Roberto, Black Issues in Higher Education


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 Pine 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.

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