In keeping my eyes open for altars and altar-like memorials around LA, I often encounter installations that I'm not sure qualify as altars. One time, I stopped to check out a telephone pole that was wrapped with yarn and flowers. In your mind, what makes something an altar as opposed to a pile or accumulation of objects?
These particular sacred sites are called descansos (from descansar - to rest) and signify a place where an actual death occurred, usually from an automobile accident. These spaces are devotional and are often kept up for years by family. These descansos or resting places are different from an ofrenda or offering that is situated in a home or cemetery, or an altar, which is a permanent ongoing record of the family’s history and spiritual beliefs. Also in some places, mainly rural, you will see yard shrines or capillas (little chapels), which constitute a sacred space in public view and function as a blessing of the outdoor space.
In New World Wunderkammer, you seem to collapse the altar and the wunderkammer into a single unit. An altar is associated with the highly personal and the spiritual, often within narratives of colonial violence and racial marginalization, while a wunderkammer is rooted in a European type of collecting that in many ways was meant to establish control over both the natural world and colonized peoples. Can you talk about your vision with New World Wunderkammer, and your understanding of the similarities and differences in the two forms?
In actuality, when Marla Berns of the Fowler first approached me to help them celebrate their 50th anniversary, she asked me to do an altar and I let her know that I had moved away from public altars to more situated spaces such as libraries, laboratories, and gardens with some spiritual components. These forms have allowed me to be more active around my social justice concerns and to develop a method of inquiry. The Wunderkammer is based on a Cabinet of Curiosities form I started when the US Quincentennial was occurring and when so many of the Latino cultural community were enraged at the celebration of ‘Discovery” that disguised a colonial genocide in the Americas.
The New World Wunderkammer was part of this inquiry and allowed me to reflect upon the Mestizaje or mixing of races in the New World when the Spanish decimation of native peoples required the importing of slaves to the Americas. The mixing of Spanish/European, Indigenous and African peoples brought with it collision of cultures and religions and new spiritual practices. The cabinets in the Wunderkammer are arranged with each having a witness or guardian figure in the central niche and objects/artifacts of war, religion and culture. In the lower portions were many of my family histories and practices so that I could insert my own life in the Americas within the narrative. I tried to reintegrate these collected pieces into their own cultural life prior to the colonial enterprise, and the prints I created functioned to heal the loss and displacement of the missing object. The cabinet of the Americas is in the center with the African and Colonial on either side and the vitrines as a sense of the flora and fauna reimagined in the new world. This wunderkammer is not an altar but is a space of spiritual healing for a disrupted world in the aftermath of the Colonial era and also comments on the role of collecting institutions and their objects.
Details from NWW, via the Fowler Museum: