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Art as Activism

Digital art of an Aeronaut survivorship, an element of the futurist and revisionist narrative Virgil Ortiz is telling through his art.

Potter, designer, and filmmaker VIRGIL ORTIZ brings revolutionary fervor to his quest for truth and transformation

By Christina Procter

If you Google “the first revolution in America,” you’ll get more than five million results for the American Revolution, the one in which Anglo colonists sought independence from the British Crown. Yet almost 100 years earlier, the real first revolt took place in this country when 46 Pueblos throughout New Mexico organized a rebellion and, in one fell swoop, drove the Spanish conquistadors from their lands. “Most people do not know about the Pueblo Revolt of 1680,” says Virgil Ortiz. “It isn’t taught in our schools; it isn’t in our history books. It has been swept under the carpet for hundreds of years because of the genocide against Indigenous peoples.”

Ortiz, who comes from Cochiti Pueblo and was taught to work with clay by his mother and grandmother almost before he could walk or talk, is an artist of many genres. But the story he’s telling through his art is always the same: the perseverance in the fight for justice and equality. It’s the quintessential American tale, and—as we’ve seen in recent months with the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement and other protests, not to mention New Mexico’s recent removal of colonial statues—it won’t end until the battle is won.

The youngest of six children, Ortiz says he “had the most time to experiment with clay, sitting next to our mother.” After school each day, he’d go home to clay. “I thought every family worked with clay,” he says. “I did not even know that it was art that was being created.” The practice involved going on trips to nearby mountains to harvest the clay and gather wild spinach, which is boiled down for days into a sludge and set into corn husks, where it becomes a deep black paint. The pottery is shaped using the ancient coil-and-scrape method, then painted and fired outdoors in the traditional manner, although Ortiz sometimes uses a kiln when he’s not at the Pueblo, where he has a home and studio.

Around the age of 14, Ortiz started to create new figurative pieces that were totally different from what he’d learned from his family. That’s when he caught the eye of Robert Gallegos, a collector and dealer from Albuquerque who visited the Pueblo several times a year to purchase clay works from Cochiti potters. “He has known me since I was a kid,” says Ortiz. “Robert kept an eye on the children of the potters who would naturally pick up the art, continue with the tradition, and pass it on to the next generation. He knew it was a dying art form.”

When Gallegos saw these figurative works, he invited Ortiz and his parents to his showroom. “We walked in and our mouths dropped in disbelief. My experimental pieces looked identical to historic Cochiti figurative creations,” says Ortiz, who had never seen such pieces. These were monos, large clay figurines made between 1880 and 1920, mainly by women potters, to describe the changes that came with the arrival of railroads and a new wave of settlers in New Mexico. At that moment, Ortiz realized the true value of the age-old Cochiti Pueblo practice of clay art, which prioritizes social commentary through storytelling. Later, Ortiz says, his parents told him: “The clay is talking through you. Just remember what happened today.”

“I knew by the age of 16 that I would dedicate my life to clay. It is in my blood,” says Ortiz. “I knew I had to revive the historic style and social commentary that was lost. I decided that higher education was not in my cards, so I quickly learned how to make a living as an artist. After all, I knew I had studied under two of the best clay masters.”

Less than a decade later, Madonna’s book Sex hit the shelves and inspired Ortiz to explore sexuality and the aesthetics of sex. Elements of sadomasochism and bondage still permeate his work, which is really just a personal continuation of the repetition of graphic, bold shapes in traditional Cochiti Pueblo pottery. “I learned how our ancestors used their clay works to discuss ‘forbidden’ subjects,” says Ortiz. “I’m reviving this method of inspiration. New and unique encounters that I witness and experience often inspire my work. I find that it’s easier to discuss a subject if you have a piece of art that reflects it within reach.” He adds that when he was younger he traveled a lot, and, always a lover of music, he and his friends joined the underground dance club scenes in various cities. “Hence,” he says, “the latex and rubber subjects were born into my art and creations.”

It wasn’t long before Ortiz started showing his work at the Santa Fe Indian Market each summer, and sales there provided his primary income. By the early 2000s, he had taken part in exhibitions in Paris, the Netherlands, Phoenix, Scottsdale, and New York, including one at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. He was shocked that in Europe people were eager to ask him about the Pueblo Revolt. “They know our history better than US citizens do,” he says.

By then, he’d started working on an epic master narrative that’s still unfolding like a serial graphic novel through his ceramics, film, and other media. His story, Revolt 1680/2180, which was also the title of his Denver Art Museum exhibition in 2015, re-imagines the Pueblo Revolt through a science-fiction narrative with a punk vibe that takes place simultaneously in 1680 and 2180—except that in his story, the Castilians, representing the Spanish invaders, don’t violently reconquer the Pueblo lands 12 years later. Rather, the resistance continues to unfold through time and space.

Ortiz has created 19 groups of characters and story-lines representing the Pueblos remaining in New Mexico today. His Aeronaut characters, for example, are Indigenous people living in the year 2180 who
travel back in time to the present day, collecting artifacts, designs, and materials to protect them from extinction. Meanwhile, Venusian Soldiers are eight-foot-tall nomads from a future Pueblo destroyed by nuclear weapons, donning gas masks as they search for a new, uncontaminated land. These soldiers typically do battle after nightfall, much like their creator, who says, “I’m nocturnal. Typically, I work in my clay or fashion cave until 5 a.m. When I hear the morning birds, it’s time to crash out.”

He’s also invented the Blind Archers, a group of women warriors led by the character Tahu, who was blinded by a conquistador after she defeated him in an archery contest. In response, she recruits an army of women who relentlessly battle the invaders and drive them out. “My mother would often say, if it wasn’t for the women, a lot of our traditions and ceremonies would be forgotten,” says Ortiz. Meanwhile, an androgynous female character, Translator, Commander of the Spirit World Army, is able to travel through dimensions, where she meets with an avatar of Po’pay, who led the actual 1680 Revolt.

The story is told with pottery and also shows up in functional items—costumes, clothing, and accessories he designs himself. He’s also working on a screenplay to tell the stories, which has caught the attention of a couple of major production companies. Several of his exhibitions have included film components over the years, and they’re generally interactive, with larger-than-life clay characters, audio, and costumed actors. Yet clay will always be this artist’s primary medium. “When I create characters for movies, they speak through the clay. Everything revolves around the traditional pottery,” he says.

As for the sci-fi bent, Ortiz explains, “As a young kid, I watched the first Star Wars film in awe. I learned every character, where they were from, the costuming, the ships, the weaponry they owned. I figured that if it could capture and keep my attention, it would help me do the same for others. My characters have to be capable of standing alongside The Avengers and Black Panther.” He was also interested in making the Pueblo Revolt compelling to younger audiences. Watching his nieces and nephews glued to video games and blockbuster movies, he knew he had to find a way to compete.

Meanwhile, Charles King, the gallery director who has represented Ortiz for 20 years now, points out that the artist has reached a technical apex. “He’s really pushed himself as a ceramicist. As he’s developed this story, his pieces have grown larger, with more angles and sharp edges, which can easily crack, but he’s mastered it.” Citing the stark blacks, beiges, and pops of red that make up Ortiz’ repertoire and provide dynamic contrasts that play with the viewer’s eye, he adds: “It’s taken the optical illusions he creates on each piece to a new level.”

King also points out that Ortiz came in at the start of a movement that in the last couple of decades has celebrated works in clay as fine art rather than mere craft. “It’s an art form that has immediacy,” he says. “Ceramics has become, maybe by default, an art of the moment that speaks to things of the world around us, providing social commentary. At the same time, working with clay connects you to someone working with clay 1,000 years ago.”

 King believes that Ortiz’ versatility is key. “Virgil opens that door even more for other artists,” he says. “When he started doing fashion, people said, ‘Oh, wow, we could be more than a potter or jeweler or painter.’” Ortiz concurs. “I will say that I hope that artists who happen to be Indigenous would create all kinds of art and not be pigeon-holed into creating art that comes from their heritage,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong: learn that first, but expand to whatever you want to create. Get your work into all kinds of venues—not just places that cater to Indigenous aesthetics.”

 A couple of years ago, Ortiz ended up in the venue of higher education after all, with teaching posts at Colorado College, University of Nebraska, and most recently Arizona State University. “I love communicating and teaching students that they can achieve any goals they desire,” he says. “I remind them to face any hurdles that are in the way. Remove self-doubt, and you remove any obstacle.” Often, he’ll work with professors across departments, from ceramics and fashion to music and Southwest studies, helping to integrate learning about the Pueblo Revolt into his multimedia projects.

This past spring, he invited two of his ASU students to assist him on a high-profile project: he’d teamed up with legendary vocalist Nona Hendryx (a distant cousin of Jimi Hendrix) to design costuming and sets for her performance at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Hendryx and her band, clad in elaborate costumes and masks, entered The Met’s Temple of Dendur, murmuring incantations by the late jazz master and pioneer of Afrofuturism, Sun Ra. “It was surreal,” reflects Ortiz. “Watching her perform on stage was electrifying. I still get goose bumps reminiscing about that night.”

Hendryx had discovered Ortiz while in Santa Fe to visit a friend and attend Indian Market. She passed by King Galleries downtown and saw one of Ortiz’s clay figures through the window. “I stopped in my tracks,” she says. “I was like, oh my god, what is that, who created it, and where is this person?” She hunted him down at an event the next day, and the two swiftly connected. “We were of the same mind when it comes to regalia, art, and costuming. I’m deeply steeped in Afrofuturism and was fascinated by his Native futurist characters. We’re moving in the same direction in terms of looking at the past to go forward,” says Hendryx.

Last summer, Ortiz helped Hendryx design a float and costuming for her appearance in a parade organized by the Kennedy Center. It included floats for different periods in American history, starting with the era of slavery and ending with the Hendryx float, which represented the future. Ortiz recalls, “I asked her, ‘Can you wear five-inch stilettos?’ and she said, ‘Who do you think you’re talking to?’” The 75-year-old singer ended up sporting thigh-high chrome boots.

By the time The Met performance came around, the two had developed a powerful collaborative relationship. Ortiz and his students showed up with sewing machines and foam fabrication materials. For them and for Hendryx, dressing in costume is an enactment of a rite, and in Ortiz’ case his clay figurines are clearly costumed, defining characters with graphic-heavy elements and symbols. “Costume is ritual,” says Hendryx, citing her African heritage and the cultural importance of dress. “Look at the military, or the pope. Your energy and consciousness are concentrated as you dress yourself. You’re saying, ‘This is what I’m part of. This is how I want you to see me.’”

Hendryx says that before meeting Ortiz, she’d never heard of the Pueblo Revolt. “I have to go along with Lauryn Hill and admit to the miseducation of Nona Hendryx,” she laughs. Ortiz also gave workshops and talks at The Met, sharing his art and its story with youth and museum administrators alike. Ortiz, too, reflects that he learned about the Afrofuturism movement in a way that has informed his perspective on Indigenous futurism. Hendryx says, “When you’re born, you don’t know you’re African or Asian or Caucasian or Indigenous. You’re just this being. This is one race on this planet, so maybe we need to be thinking about human futurism.” Ortiz adds, “We have a unique opportunity to heal by inspiring dialogue concerning the difficulties and challenges faced by communities around the world, but we must do the work. Together.”

As Ortiz’ epic retelling of the Pueblo Revolt unfolds bit by bit, it helps the world become more aware of its past in order to achieve a better future. He’s also determined to ensure that the knowledge he received from his mother and grandmother does not die. “I must make this connection to the next generation,” says Ortiz. “Art is as influential as language and our ways of life. Art saves lives.” Today, his 38 nieces, nephews, great-nieces, and great-nephews join him for picnics and excursions. They know where to find the clay.