Courtesy Image / Mari Hernandez
Mari Hernandez jabs at Texas history in her staged self portrait Pitted Brother Against Brother.
For many artists, exhibiting work in New York can be a lifelong goal — one that requires not only talent and perseverance but the ever-elusive opportunity. For seven San Antonio artists, that opportunity arrived courtesy of Marian Casey, an independent curator whose work focuses on “social engagement and building experimental approaches to historic narratives and spaces.”
A San Antonio native who earned a master’s degree in curating from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London — and happens to be the daughter of Rick Casey, the veteran San Antonio journalist — Casey devised the exhibition “Mutable Land” as part of a curatorial partnership with the nonprofit New York Art Residency and Studios (NARS) Foundation. In keeping with her interest in storied locales, the venue the NARS Foundation provided was situated on Governors Island. Originally dubbed Paggank (“Nut Island”) by the indigenous Lenape, the island was purchased by the Dutch in 1637 (reportedly for “two ax heads, a string of beads and a handful of nails”), became British territory in 1750, operated one of the nation’s longest continuous military installations (1755-1996) and only opened to the general public in 2003.
“When I had the opportunity to produce the show with NARS Foundation, I was reading about the history of Governors Island and the history of that space immediately started reminding me of the history of Texas,” Casey explained.
Described in the press release as an artistic exploration of Texas land — “how humans change the land beneath our feet and the people living on it, with a focus on shifting borders, colonization, migration, militarization, gender and tradition” — Casey’s “Mutable Land” brings together drawings by Fernando Andrade; woodblock prints by Richard Armendariz; photographic self portraits by Joe Harjo and Mari Hernandez; archival digital prints by Ethel Shipton; mixed-media installations by Jose Villalobos; and sculptural and video works by Anne Wallace.
While it places San Antonio talent on a truly unique New York stage, “Mutable Land” also seeks to spark conversations that extend far beyond the dominant narratives currently surrounding Texas. In hopes of learning more about the exhibition, we arranged a Zoom conversation with Casey, excerpts from which follow.
Is this the first time you’ve curated a San Antonio-specific show?
This is my first Texan group show, which is really exciting. I had a solo show of an artist called Gary Cruz last year. [He’s] Texan but has been based in New York for a really long time. … I’ve been really wanting to do a show of Texan artists for a long time. I’d been thinking about it in London for a while; I split my curatorial practice between New York and London. When I had the opportunity to produce the show on Governors Island with NARS Foundation, I was reading about the history of Governors Island and the history of that space immediately started reminding me of the history of Texas. There’s a lot of this back and forth of different nations sweeping through and deciding, “Okay, now this space is mine.” And a lot of heavy militarization and redrawing of borders and just being a space of contestation. The difference is that Governors Island was this center of military leadership and the center of the American and European perspective for a long time in the 19th and 20th centuries — whereas for a lot of that time period Texas was seen as more of a far-flung frontier. But they both had this interesting history of the push and pull of different national interests pushing through … and the redrawing of borders, migration and colonization.
What was the gallery space originally?
Courtesy Image / Fernando Andrade
Fernando Andrade’s series La Ruta recreates buses his grandmother took between Texas and Mexico.
Military housing — all of the houses on Governors Island were formerly houses for military leadership. This building was probably built in the 1930s. A lot of the main houses on Colonels Row were built for returning union generals in the mid-19th century. That’s part of what made me really think about a lot of those themes.
Had you spent much time on Governors Island before you got this project?
I had never been there until I had the opportunity to do this project. And it’s a really interesting space. The Trust for Governors Island has offered these houses to different arts organizations and nonprofits to create satellite spaces and do pop-ups. It’s created this really interesting vibe on the island. … Every house is populated by a different social justice project, arts project or residency.
Once you made the connection between Texas and Governors Island, how did you go about selecting artists?
Courtesy Image / Joe Harjo
Native artist Joe Harjo addresses forced assimilation with his photograph Mark of the Beast.
I was thinking about artists who were engaging with place — the place of Texas — and the experience of living on that place in really different and interesting ways. I wanted an interesting range in perspectives. Some of the artists were people I’d already been interested in working with and some were people whose work I was introduced to through conversations and research. And I was thinking in three strands. I was thinking about artists who engage a lot with history and research … and how different areas of history impact how we’re living today — [artists] like Mari Hernandez or Anne Wallace. Anne Wallace is so research-oriented, so thorough in her practice. [She] really puts in that work to know so much about who the people were who were living on this land — not just the big names but all the marginalized folks throughout history. And then also artists who are thinking about movement and the experience of moving around Texas and what that looks like. Fernando Andrade’s series is about these busses that his grandmother used to take back and forth [between Texas and Mexico] to visit family. And then artists who were thinking more about the experience of the personal — the lived experience of today on Texan land. For example, Jose Villalobos dealing with what it means to be a queer man unpacking a lot of machismo culture, growing up in El Paso and processing all that you carry as a queer Latino man in that space. [I was] trying to find that breadth.
What is Joe Harjo showing?
Joe Harjo is showing three really beautiful pieces from his series “The Only Certain Way.” Two [are photographic] self portraits, and there’s a video piece from that series as well. It’s that experience of what it is to be living in the current moment, as a Native artist on Texan land, but then also engaging with that history of forced assimilation, relationship to the church and that dynamic between history and present that’s really fascinating.
Did you have specific works in mind that you wanted to include from each artist?
I went to them with general ideas about what works I thought would be really great. But I absolutely went to them open to conversation. And that was really productive and exciting. I love having those kinds of conversations. And it did result in sometimes showing different pieces than I had initially [considered]. … And that brought out this broader conversation. So it was very collaborative.
I’m also curious about Anne Wallace, I’m a big fan of her work.
Courtesy Image / Ruiz-Healy Art
Ethel Shipton references the U.S.-Mexico border’s former confines with her print La Frontera 1845.
Yeah, Anne’s fantastic. I’m really excited to finally get to show her work. She and I had really tried hard to produce a project for the Art in Odd Places festival a few years ago and then our venue fell through, which was really disappointing. So it felt really great to finally [collaborate]. We are showing her El Otro Lado video piece/experimental documentary and some of the Naming Stones she created from her “Destino San Antonio” exhibition at the Briscoe, which are beautiful engravings on antique limestones. … And to accompany the stones, we have a small clip of an interview [Wallace conducted] with Ramon D. Vasquez, who is the executive director of the American Indians of Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions, which is nice because that kind of research and context is very key to her practice. We also showed some digital prints of The Unofficial Story, the sidewalk oral histories she made around the Lavaca [neighborhood]. It’s been nice to have a diversity of different pieces of Texan history in the show, especially in exhibiting for more of a New York audience. I think when people think about Texas, they think about border politics, maybe the Alamo. I’m not sure if they even think about the Alamo. I don’t know if San Antonians want to think about that. Ideas around the border are so dominant. And they are very looming but that’s not the only history and those aren’t the only stories. So to be able to include these stories — like Anne’s oral histories about gentrification and the ways that these urban regions have evolved in San Antonio — is really special. And with her naming stone pieces also, it’s the history of these missions and, and that relates to Joe Harjo’s series as well — the history of indigenous experience and experience of Spanish missionary work in Texas.
How has the reception been so far?
We had really great turnout over the [opening] weekend … and people seemed really engaged. We had a lot of people asking really interesting questions. People are really curious about these artists and I think it’s interesting for audiences in New York to get to see artists who are doing something different from the artists they’re seeing in other parts of the city. You can feel that when people come into the space. You can feel that they’re seeing something new.
Stay on top of San Antonio news and views. Sign up for our Weekly Headlines Newsletter.