Walking onto the seventh floor of The Banque is overwhelming. Elevator doors open to an unfinished, raw space, sunny and full of hundreds of the handmade art pieces that make up The Cradle Project. It's hard to take in at a glance, just as it's hard to imagine what they represent. The 500 cradles stand for "the lost potential of an estimated 48 million children orphaned by disease and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa," according to the show's mission statement.
Naomi Natale began working on the show two years ago and solicited submissions from artists around the world. With the help of 12 dedicated volunteers, she's been able to bring the project to fruition. The original plan was to install the extensive project in the 20,000-square-foot Barelas railyard building. But in late February, plans changed. Natale learned that due to a lease of the space to Albuquerque Studios, her years-long planning effort needed to find a last-minute home. "We just kept going," says Natale. Luckily, two floors of The Banque building were donated. Volunteers carted the cradles into the space nonstop for two months, Natale says. It then took a solid month to set them up.
Natale, who lives in Albuquerque, graduated as a photography student in 2003 in New Jersey. She's never put on an exhibition before, aside from a small show of a few photos. But she chose to tackle this enormous, politically charged undertaking after spending 2002 in Kenya photographing children in slums and tribal reserves.
Natale was particular in choosing the organization she was going to raise money for, she says. She wanted to make sure 100 percent of the donations would get to the ground and not snared in red tape. Her final choice, the Firelight Foundation, supports grassroots organizations that are working with orphaned children with HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.
Though the exhibit's size is crushing, there is a way to navigate the sea of cradles. Each is numbered, and a small booklet gives the titles, artists and materials used. This little guide is essential to understanding the pieces, as the titles and materials lend weight that might not be readily obvious at first glance. What appears to be a black, surgical-looking, metal cradle is actually built from industrial diesel equipment. It's Alfons Poblocki's Baby Oil.
The most immediately appealing cradles are those that use obvious materials. Message in a Bottle by Audrey Bell is made entirely of plastic bottles, while Instar by Jane McMahan uses maybe 100 mother of pearl butterflies and barbed wire. But some of the more inconspicuous cradles carry significant stories. A cradle of white cloth and wire, for instance, doesn't jump out immediately. But it's made of discarded materials from houses in New Orleans devastated by Katrina, including cotton curtains, a wire garden trellis, a barbecue grill top and a faucet handle. Natale assumed the most moving aspect of The Cradle Project would be seeing all of the cradles in one space. Instead, she says, she's found herself moved by the individual artists' process in making each cradle.
Judy Chicago was the most high-profile artist to donate a piece, though her painting Imbalance of Power isn’t a cradle. Fernando Delgado built a cradle of sandblasted glass with the word "invisible" etched on the sides. At a certain time of day, when the light hits the glass, the words are projected onto the floor. Schoolchildren made cradles, as did community groups and individuals from around the world. One cradle from Zambia is made of a fishing basket. Each cradle evokes not only the subtext of African orphans but also flashes glimpses of the people who made them. To take in even a portion of the painstaking intricacies, Natale says, "You've gotta come twice."