Interview: Joseph Sanchez

Date July 31, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Publication THE magazine

Categories Performing Arts


Joseph Sanchez has been working at the IAIA Museum for the last seven years as a curator, and for the past six months as the acting director. His blood is Taos Pueblo. Raised with the Apaches, he was named by the Ojibway, and his ceremonies are Lakota. THE magazine met with Sanchez to discuss various Native American issues and the current exhibition, Fritz Scholder: An Intimate Look.

THE magazine: Fifteen years ago, one of the major issues of Native American artists was the marginalization of Native American artists and identity. What are the main issues today?

Joseph Sanchez: Identity is still a big issue, but more with the outside world, being that Native Americans are the only Americans that have to prove who they are.

GC: And how does a person prove that they are Indian? By their lineage?

JS: It's about percentage. For some tribes you can be just a little bit Indian, other tribes, you have to be a lot of Indian. It's a tribal issue.

GC: Compare the state of contemporary Native American art today against ten years ago.

JS: The thing about Native American art today is that it's some of the most inventive work coming out of America.

GC: Is there any tribe in particular that you see forging forward, doing great contemporary art?

JS: I think the Canadian tribes are more experimental and visionary because they don't have the big Indian markets to tie into, and so they don't have to make things for the market.

GC: I may be wrong, but wasn't one of the original missions of the IAIA to prepare Native artists for the market. Has this changed? And has the mission of the IAIA changed in the last fifteen or twenty years?

JS: The mission has changed, especially now. Our mission now is "To empower creativity and leadership in Native arts and cultures through higher education, lifelong learning and outreach,"€ as opposed to training students how to survive in a market economy and how to make things that will sell in the market. So from the early days of the IAIA, the mission has definitely changed.

GC: What happened that made the IAIA change their mission?

JS: It has to do with the fact that we are living in the twenty-first century. And all the fantasies that are held about Native Americans, whether it's"€¦

GC: The Pocahontas and the Noble Savage fantasies-that type of stuff?

JS: There's that and there's still the fact that people still think of Natives with feathers in their hair, bows and arrows, and long braids. Well, long braids haven't gone away, but the fact that we all have cars, color televisions, computers, and live in this century hasn't negated our traditional ways. We still have that as a foundation, but we work in a contemporary mode, with contemporary ideas.

GC: Since John Grimes, the previous director of the IAIA, left last year, you've been wearing two hats-acting director, and curator. What's the most difficult aspect of doing two jobs, and the most gratifying aspect of both of those jobs?

JS: What was most gratifying was being able to come up with ideas and actually realize them. The difficulty comes in being in two places at once. Time is a real factor.

GC: The IAIA has a new director, Patsy Phillips. Were you involved in the selection process?

JS: I was on the selection committee.

GC: What do you know about Patsy Phillips that made you support her being the director? What is it that she brings to the table?

JS: The IAIA is the only Native contemporary museum in the country, and we're moving towards being even more contemporary. We will have more exhibitions that are challenging and will add scholarship to the whole genre of Native American contemporary art. Patsy Phillips comes from the National Museum of the American Indian, and is the person who developed the strategic plan for Contemporary Art at the NMAI.

GC: The IAIA has had a hard time keeping directors over the years. Do you think she'll stick?

JS: Yes, because we have a new president, and a new administration. I have worked with Patsy before, and she is an advocate for the idea of a national museum of contemporary Native art.

GC: As a curator, are you responsible for deciding what the exhibits are going to be?

JS: For the last few years it has been a team effort to maintain a strong exhibition schedule, but ultimately it's been my decision. Moving forward, I will be working with Patsy and other curators.

GC: How would you categorize Bob Haozous? As a contemporary Native artist, or as a maverick contemporary artist? Bob seems to be always slightly outside of the conventional envelope with his thinking-he's always pushing it.

JS: I think that Bob feels it's his responsibility to say something about what's really happening. And that pushes him outside of the mainstream, because the mainstream has very specific ideas about Native artwork.

GC: Are they afraid of it?

JS: I think they are afraid of the politics, and that's kept Native artists out of places like the Whitney.

GC: Who are some of the most promising young contemporary artists to come out of the IAIA school?

JS: Certainly the most promising of all is Rose Bean Simpson. She's talented in many areas, and she's very eloquent. That's why I selected her and her family for the SITE Biennial.

GC: In her work-is she pushing herself? I talked to one of the teachers at IAIA and they said Rose Bean Simpson is great, but she's not stretching herself and that she should be careful to not to fall in the trap of being too close to the art of her family and her extended family. Do you see that at all?

JS: The trap is there, but I think Rose sees it, and that's why she's doing so well. Rose knows who she is as a human being, and she's not afraid to talk about that. And that goes for many of the young artists coming out of the IAIA right now. They understand that to really be creative, and to be able to move beyond their original point of view, they have to push the envelope. They have to say real things, and make real work about themselves.

GC: Are they starting to do that?

JS: Yes. Just look at the group at Humble Space, an alternative gallery, where they're experimenting constantly in all media-from the visual arts to music to performance art. I'm encouraged by that.

GC: Why is this Fritz Scholder show important?

JS: Fritz was an artist's artist-he worked all the time. If you want to model yourself after an artist who can create things, then Fritz is a good one. HIs art was his focus throughout his entire life. And he wasn't afraid to take on subjects that might not have been popular.

GC: Such as?

JS: Vampires, possessions, and demons.

GC: Black magic stuff. He was into it.

JS: Well, he talked about it. In this show we'll have Portrait of Satan, The Devil, and Possession in Venice. I like his quote, "Death is a vampire of life."€

GC: And so the importance of this show is?

JS: The exhibition will feature many of the first paintings of his many series and will show several of his print series in their entirety, showing that Fritz Scholder's life was full. He painted what he wanted, ate what he wanted, lived how he wanted, and he explored a lot of different things, as well as encouraging young artists about finding ways to interpret who you are.

GC: Where did the work you're showing in this show come from?

JS: I only selected work from his two studios, the one in Galisteo and from his final studio in Scottsdale.

GC: I know that you have made art. Painting? Drawing?

JS: My paintings are a mixture of drawing and painting together, kind of like giant watercolor. My subject matter is mostly women-and my work is about the power of the female, or the feminine. I feel since men can't give birth, they've been kind of the problem. Women have a closeness to the earth.

GC: There's that saying, "If momma ain't happy, nobody's happy."€

JS: Exactly. And Momma Earth is not very happy these days.

GC: What do you think Momma wants?

JS: I think that Momma wants us to start dealing with each other in ways that are not combative. It's been a man's world way too long. The point of view of women needs to be strengthened because the children they're raising need to come into this world as evolved human beings.

GC: Time for a change, huh?

JS: I think we are changing. The whole world is changing, and we're in a good spot.

GC: Do you mean a good spot in Santa Fe or in the world?

JS: The world in general. People say it would have been great to live in the Renaissance. I think it's great to live today. I want to see the world change. If you're an artist in this time, you are living and working in a hotbed of creativity and information.