Growing up in Cochiti Pueblo, Virgil Ortiz didn’t consider himself an artist. He was just making pottery—the same traditional pottery that his ancestors had been making for generations, in the style that his mother and grandmother taught him to make. The patterns from this traditional Cochiti pottery have stuck with Ortiz throughout his career, even as he branched out into photography and fashion design. Now, he’s an artist who takes on countless media: He’s designed textiles, movie sets and costumes, written a screenplay and has exhibited his pottery and other works at museums, galleries and fashion shows all over the world. But as far abroad as he’s roamed, New Mexico—and Cochiti Pueblo in particular—is still home for Ortiz.
This month, Ortiz has an exhibit opening at the Albuquerque Museum. This exhibit, which will occupy the atrium of the museum until June of 2017, focuses on a subject that has been central to much of his work from the past several years—the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. 1680 is when the Native people of several Pueblos throughout New Mexico united to fight back against the colonizing Spanish, who had been enslaving them and destroying their way of life for over a century. It’s an event that you might not know much about, even though it happened right here in New Mexico. As Ortiz says, “[the Pueblo people’s] history is not taught in schools nor included in history or textbooks. My big plan is to educate the world about these events using my art.”
The way that Ortiz does this is beautiful and astonishingly original. Rather than a straightforward telling of the events of 1680, he has created a rich storyline injected with science fiction that tells of a different invasion: the invasion of 2180. Ortiz’s fantastical revolution takes place when the Castilian people attempt an invasion of the Pueblos after destroying several of them with weapons of mass destruction. The people of the Pueblos, fed up with having their families and their lands destroyed, rise up in arms to defend themselves. The mannequins in Ortiz’s exhibit at the Albuquerque Museum are some of the warriors in this battle, and they each have their own story to tell.
...included in the exhibit are two murals and several ceramic works by Ortiz. One mural depicts Po’pay, the character modeled after the Pueblo leader of the same name who lead the rebellion in 1680.
These characters, dressed head-to-toe in monochrome red or black, look like a militarized Daft Punk. In modified motorcycle helmets, double-breasted coats and angular armor, these warriors seem to have adapted quite well to hyper-modern warfare (and to the fashion runway, for that matter). They stand on top of a dividing wall on the east side of the atrium, looking down on passersby as if ready to strike at any moment.
Also included in the exhibit are two murals and several ceramic works by Ortiz. One mural depicts Po’pay, the character modeled after the Pueblo leader of the same name who lead the rebellion in 1680. He’s the “Translator [and] Head Commander of the Spirit World Army,” says Ortiz. The mural of Po’pay is on the north wall just outside the entrance of the museum.
Then there’s Tahu. According to Ortiz, she is the “leader of the Blind Archers, purposefully blinded by the invaders [because of] her fighting skills and spiritual visions.” She appears in the giant mural on the west wall of the atrium as a half-mechanized, futuristic warrior, looking across an open sea. On the other side of the mural, staring back at her, is a Castilian: dressed all in black and helmeted, this soldier looks like a cross between a conquistador and Darth Vader. Although I suppose the two really aren’t all that different, when you think about it.
One of the most interesting objects in the exhibit is under glass. It’s a ceramic mask, bearing the stark black and white designs that are characteristic of Cochiti Pueblo pottery—but this is an artifact of the future, not of the past. The mask is totally alien, with hair sprouting from the side and an odd number of slits for eyes. It’s a ceremonial object for a ceremony that doesn’t exist yet. This object, to me, carries a lot of the meaning behind Ortiz’s artwork, and this exhibit in particular: the Pueblo people are still here, and still adapting. They remember their history, but they’re preparing for the future, too.
The two parallel timelines in Ortiz’s story serve to teach two profound lessons: that the oppressed Native people of this country have rebelled—and successfully freed themselves —in the past, and that such a rebellion is possible again in the future. His artwork is a testament to the tenacity and strength of a people who have never been afraid to fight back.
“Our story and history has been ignored for too long,” says Ortiz. “Through it all, the Pueblo People have fought to maintain [our] way of life, our language, ceremonies and art. I want to give proper thanks to our ancestors who fought for our way of life, and to prove that we are still here and prospering.”