Species in Peril Along the Rio Grande
516 ARTS, Downtown Albuquerque
September 28 - December 28, 2019
By JAMES CHARISMA, January 2020
“Biodiversity—a word encompassing all living flora and fauna—is declining faster than at any time in human history,” published the editorial board of The New York Times in a May article, estimating that “around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades, unless the world takes transformative action to save natural systems.”
This depressing truth led to a recent discussion in Albuquerque: how to organize an art exhibition that highlighted species in crisis due to climate change; specifically, those located in the Rio Grande region. In response, Albuquerque Museum Curator of Art Josie Lopez and University of New Mexico Art & Ecology Professor Subhankar Banerjee organized a series of collaborative, interdisciplinary dialogues between scientists, professors, artists, curators, and nonprofit organizers throughout 2019 about how to harness creative practices to tackle one of the most challenging crises today. “Despite the overwhelming scientific information that is available, many people simply are not aware of what is happening in our own backyard,” Lopez said in a statement. “The bird die-off in the Pecos, the loss of wildflowers in Colorado, and the threats to species due to barriers being built on the US-Mexico border are just a few examples.”
Lopez and Banerjee partnered with the non-collecting, contemporary art museum 516 ARTS in downtown Albuquerque to curate an exhibition and raise public awareness with a series of public programs titled, “Species in Peril Along the Rio Grande.” Nearly two dozen contemporary artists in the Rio Grande area were invited to participate and present works that could help educate and spur efforts to address ecological threats. According to present estimates, more than 45 animals—from bald eagles to bats, falcons to ferrets—and over 25 native plants are considered species in peril throughout the region.
Prints, paintings, sculptures, and mixed media installations fill the two-story space at 516 ARTS. In the front window, globe-sized twig balls are suspended over an oversized straw bird’s nest as part of Santa Fe artist Nicasio Romero’s Bolas y Nido (2019), a structure representing the endangered birds around Ribera and El Ancon, two communities near the Pecos River where the artist has lived for over 45 years. Here, bird species loss is a plight that Romero has made literally too large to ignore.
Equally immense is artist Marcia I. Santos’ Affective Cartography (2019), an illustrated wall map of the borderlands around Ciudad Juárez in Mexico and El Paso, Texas. Natural flora, fauna, plains, and hills are cited alongside social and political constructs, such as graveyards, flags, and walls. Across the room, Kaitlin Bryson and Hollis Moore’s handmade papermaking process sheds light on the future loss of cottonwood trees in the bosque alongside the Rio Grande. With Its Vitality Comes Through Fluctuation (2019), Bryson and Moore reflect on the unique conditions needed for cottonwood germination in the bosque (which has becoming increasingly rare due to damaging human actions) and they invite viewers to contemplate the loss of cottonwood as their paper installation decays and grows over the course of the exhibition. Two prints depict rats floating alongside native flowers in The Creation (2017) and In clusters; they among fresh dews and flowers (2019) by Jessica Gross, who connects humans to rats as the valley’s most destructive and invasive species. As both a visual artist and anthropologist, Gross’ prints consider imagined scenes that bridge the natural world and humanity’s continued effect on the environment and its native populations.
Upstairs, hundreds of black and white photos comprise Michael P. Berman’s Binary Codex - The Habitat (2019), which presents images of the Rio Grande and its surrounding geography. Berman captured infrastructure, such as bridges, dams, and fences, as well as ranches, farmlands, and abandoned trash—all evidence of human presence along the river. According to Berman, there is no section of the Rio Grande that has gone untouched by human beings.
El Paso Cartoonist and illustrator Zeke Peña has created a historical timeline in the form of a narrative illustration of the Rio Grande titled The River (2017), depicting assorted species, the changing environmental and political climate of the region over decades, and those who have survived on and along the river, from pre-Columbian tribespeople to modern-day Mestizos. This image on display is one in a series of comics about the river based on oral and written histories from the riverside community of El Paso del Norte. Beside The River is All Against the Wall (2018), an illustration created by Peña for the Southwest Environmental Center in Las Cruces, to bring attention to the border wall’s detrimental effect on wildlife and local communities.
Seemingly at the center of the exhibit is a life-sized, ceramic and steel buffalo skeleton by artist Cannupa Hanska Luger, titled (Be)longing (2019). A 3-minute video captured by drone plays alongside the sculpture, where the skeleton is encountered in the shallow headwaters of a river, apparently mingling with the water source and affecting all that comes downstream. “Carried out by settlers in order to subjugate Plains Tribes, [a] war of attrition decimated the North American buffalo population,” Luger, who was born in Standing Rock Reservation, writes in an artist statement. “Many indigenous grasses are dependent on the buffalo to thrive and have there degenerated. In fact, there can be no true restoration without roaming herds of buffalo.” (Be)longing explores the cascading effects of a nearly exterminated species over a century’s time. This piece, like the rest of “Species in Peril Along the Rio Grande” at 516 ARTS, begs a singular question: will humanity have to wait another hundred years or longer before learning to protect that which is in peril? WM
James Charisma is an arts and entertainment writer based in Honolulu. He is the editor-in-chief of Abstract Magazine, an award-winning collectible print publication; associate editor of Summit, a nationally distributed 180-page quarterly journal of arts, business, civics, and literature in the Pacific; and contributing editor of HONOLULU Magazine, the oldest American publication west of the Mississippi. He is also a contributing writer for Playboy, Paste, Hi-Fructose, Inverse, Thrillist, and others.
view all articles from this author