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It was one of Arizona’s wettest monsoon seasons when Salt Lake City-based artist Horacio Rodriguez visited the Arizona/Mexico border last summer — and even with the green cacti blooming with brightly colored flowers, the desert terrain was unforgiving.
“Those cacti don’t make much shade at all,” Rodriguez said. “The environment out there is so hostile. There’s no water. There’s no shade. There’s no nothing.”
That experience — combined with a chilling memory of a death on the border of someone he knew as a child — helped drive the ideas he explores in a new exhibition at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. The exhibit, “salt 15: Horacio Rodriguez,” is part of UMFA’s regular series of exhibitions by emerging artists.
Rodriguez spent four days in the 100-degree-plus Arizona heat with Battalion Search and Rescue, a humanitarian organization that helps rescue and recover lost migrants.
In that time, he completed two missions, walking along the endless terrain from 6:30 a.m. to lunch. The 6-hour journey — short compared to the three or four days it takes migrants to cross the border — left him covered in cactus needles. He didn’t recover any bodies during either mission, which was a rare occasion for the group.
“What’s happened is people used to cross in more urban areas,” he said. “You saw people crossing in these major metropolitan areas, but since they built the wall up, they’ve kind of funneled people into the most inhospitable areas of the United States.”
Rodriguez also recalled a childhood experience, when he was 10 years old, when the 19-year-old daughter of his grandmother’s Nicaraguan caretaker died while crossing from Mexico into Arizona.
The exhibition, he said, was inspired directly by what is happening all along the border — and, on a larger scale, borders in general.
The “salt” series often showcases “contemporary artists who are interested in our … historic collections, and help us connect our audience with those historic collections,” said Whitney Tassie, UMFA’s curator of modern and contemporary art.
Rodriguez took particular interest in the museum’s Ancient Mesoamerica collection, particularly in a family group of art dating back from 2,000 years ago. The Nayarit family group of sculptures includes a father, mother and child. In Rodriguez’s gallery set-up, the pre-Columbian parent figures are on one side of the room, while the child figure — which Rodriguez scanned and reproduced — is in a cage at the front of the room.
His portfolio for this particular area of art has been crafted much like a conversation through generations, and the impact is particularly intense when the art reflects his own ancestral roots. Nayarit is on Mexico’s Pacific coast, where Rodriguez’s father’s family comes from.
Some of the objects in UMFA’s collection that Rodriguez was allowed to handle had fingerprints from the original makers. “It was incredible, just to begin with, to be able to interact with these objects … and then just that extra little knowledge knowing that they’re from the same area that my family is from,” he said. “It makes it even more meaningful to be able to work with these figures.”
To create the pieces in his exhibition, Rodriguez employed 3-D scanning, photography and ceramics. He digitally scanned the ancient objects, printed 3-D replicas, then created new molds and added his own artistic details. The process is so advanced that the original fingerprints and marks from the object transferred to the replicas.
Luke Kelly, UMFA’s associate curator of collections, said the technique demonstrates the connectivity of art from the past to the future.
“What I love, and what I want to see for the future of the Mesoamerican gallery, is [that it’s] not siloed in the past. That there are ideas, influences, direct [and] indirect, that are still in Mexico today. And to celebrate that, and that’s what I love [about] what Horacio is doing, he’s bringing these objects to the present,” Kelly said.
Rodriguez’s work also sparked a larger conversation about the origins of the museum’s collections — such as the Ancient Mesoamerica collection — and tracking down the acquisition history of certain objects.
“Previously, I think that the ethics that are here today, to guide our collecting practices, were not clearly in place as museums like UMFA were being built,” Tassie said.
There’s a movement in museums worldwide to “decolonize” objects that were acquired when ethical standards were not as strict.
It was UMFA’s founding director, E. Frank Sanguinetti, who started building the Mesoamerican collection from scratch after his arrival in 1967. About 65% of the collection is now on view at UMFA. (Sanguinetti retired in 2001, and died in 2002.)
There are some 20,000 objects in UMFA’s collections, and the origins of some are not known, or their tracking history is incomplete — so it’s difficult to identify where they came from or how they got here. Tassie said contemporary artists, like Rodriguez, are prompting curators to focus more directly on an object’s backstory.
The objects Rodriguez worked with were found in a shaft tomb, and he said he had mixed feelings about working with them.
“These are sacred objects, that were never meant to be in a museum or shown,” he said. “But at the same time, I feel like I approach these objects respectfully, and I want to use them to tell a story of the people where those objects originally came from.”
Rodriguez is also including in the exhibition footage from his first trip with Battalion Search and Rescue — and he will auction his work to pay for future trips. He said he’s made a commitment to himself to go to the border twice a year.
“When I first started making this kind of work, … it was more about discovering myself and my identity. And then from there, it started to branch out and be a little bit more global and talk about my ancestors, my culture, what the people in Mexico are experiencing when they come to this country,” he said. “I feel like this is a good conclusion to this story, although the story’s not over.”
History meets the future
The new art exhibition “salt 15: Horacio Rodriguez.”
Where • Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Campus Center Drive, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City.
When • Jan. 22 to June 26.
Hours • 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays; open until 8 p.m. Wednesdays; closed Mondays. Online ticket reservations are required; go to umfa.utah.edu.
Admission • $15.95 for adults; $12.95 for people 65 and older and youth 6 to 18; free for children 5 and under (accompanied by an adult), UMFA members, University of Utah students, staff and faculty, students at public Utah universities, active-duty military families, and people holding Utah Horizon/EBT/WIC cards.
Free days • The first Wednesday and third Saturday of each month; reservations required through UMFA’s ticketing page.
COVID restrictions • Masks are required indoors. Building capacity is limited. Visitors are asked to practice social distancing while in the museum, and to reschedule one’s visit if feeling sick.
Discussion • Artist Horacio Rodriguez will take part in an “Artist in Conversation” discussion with Whitney Tassie, UMFA’s curator of modern and contemporary art. The event happens Friday, Jan. 21, at 6 p.m.; capacity is limited, and advance registration is encouraged. The event also will be live-streamed.