How many times have you walked though the plaza, strolled right by the obelisk””the tall pointy monument on the same side as Haagen-Dazs””and never once stopped to consider why it was there or what it said?
When the artist and political activist Charlene Teters saw the obelisk, she not only noticed it, she saw it as an invitation to create art.
Teters shared her experience of recreating the obelisk as well as creating other installation pieces during a talk entitled “Perceptions and Portrayals: The Education of Charlene Teters” at SITE Santa Fe on Nov. 8, 2011.
In Whose Honor””a film documenting Teters’ fight against the stereotyped Indian sports mascot Chief Illiniwek at The University of Illinois while she was a graduate student studying art””is part of SITE’s current exhibit, “Agitated Histories.”
On one of the four sides of the obelisk there was a plaque that, before it had been defaced several years ago, read: “To the Heroes who have fallen in various battles with savage Indians in the territory of New Mexico.”
Most notable about the incendiary plaque””as if it needed anything more in addition to its crass and dehumanizing sentiment””is where it’s located, directly across from the Palace of the Governors where American Indian vendors sit daily beneath the portal, selling their artesan made jewelry and crafts.
Teters remembers this inscription and instead of just becoming enraged, she took it further and saw the inscription as an invitation to respond””creatively.
The time Teters spent at the U of I in the late 1980s taught her the importance of being politically involved, using her art as activism. Art was a way to make her voice bigger.
Teters constructed her own version of an obelisk. She used adobe bricks that incorporated donated personal objects by Santa Feans in the mud mix. By inviting the public to participate in this way, she was highlighting the fact that humanity is present in not only the making of a monument but also in the long lasting presentation of it.
History is not something relocated to a cold past, void of context and any relationship to the present. It’s comprised of stories of people, by people, and imbues what was gained, what was lost and marks those changes through the repetition of retelling.
In effect, history creates our current reality. Teters is well aware of this and she uses the power of her art to influence both””history and reality.
Teters left one word from the original inscription of the plaque on her obelisk: “savages.”
What do you do once you build an obelisk made out of adobe?
Park it in front of the state house and let all the many viewers who pass by participate in the piece by having to decide who exactly the “savages” are.
For all the injustices that exist in the world, it’s not enough to simply stand back or even stomp around with both hands in the air, giving the bird to everyone and anyone who contributes””through their ignorance””to the cruelty and crises of humanity.
As a student about to graduate from IAIA, I find myself asking more and more: What is the purpose of my art? How do I use my voice, my words to comment, question, and quite possibly affect change?
Teters took an object that was recessed and almost invisible””it was so ordinary””and turned it into an event that demanded attention because it was engaging, thought provoking and extraordinary. She titled it ”˜Obelisk: To The Heroes.’
The obelisk was not shown in a gallery or a museum. It wasn’t for purchase.
Her conviction, intention and purpose around her art””what she creates and how””are rooted in a deep desire for connection, compassion and change, not in how much profit she could earn.
In another installation, ”˜Mound: To the Heroes,’ Teters occupied a narrow room, filling countless pantyhose with dirt and coiling them all about the floor. On the far end of the room, a photomural takes up the entire wall.
The image is of the flag raising at Iwo Jima, however there’s an exception. Much like the erasing of all words except one on the obelisk, all the soldiers have been erased in the photo except one, Ira Hayes, a Pima man.
The pole of the flag is just out of his reach. Is the flag being held out to him or held away from him?
The later interpretation calls into question those citizens of the United States who continue to wrestle for the inclusion of their own basic rights.
The pantyhose create an eerie effect of bloated legs and invite the viewer to see the connection between our bodies and the earth and of burial grounds.
The stark photomural draws in the viewer as well. It’s easy to wonder isn’t this that famous photograph? What’s different and why?
After pondering the image, it begins to feel haunted. The undertones of political unrest and social injustice suck at the mind and its obvious Ira Hayes will never be able to hold the flag, despite his service and devotion to his country.
So much of what Teters creates is not for sale and this makes her a revolutionary in the face of a capitalist consumer culture.
The questions she asks and the subject matter she illuminates are invaluable to our society and the experience we have as human beings.
Oddly quiet and shy, Teters physical presence seems contradictory to her work. If you saw her milling about at the Farmer’s Market, her dark hair in a braid, adorned with simple beaded earrings, a long, nondescript coat and black boots, you might not think much at all, other than the obvious””she’s beautiful.
Viewing her work though, one might imagine her to be full of angst and accessorizing herself with it””tattoos, piercings, blue streaked hair, studs, chains, ripped tights and stained tee-shirt.
Thankfully, she puts all that expression into her art where it can and does interrupt history””the stories we’ve blindly retold and accepted””remaking what we think is possible and who exactly we think we are.