University Park, PA : The Pennsylvania State University Press , 2006 . 376 pp.
Claire Farago and Donna Pierce's edited volume is a beautifully illustrated case study of one folk art genre, the New Mexican religious images known as “santos.” It is also more; through their application of postcolonial theory and multiple disciplinary methods, the authors of Transforming Images offer a model for the reconsideration of objects already elaborated by a century of previous scholarship.
For those that do not know, santos are figural art painted on wood panels (retablos) or carved and painted in the round (bultos), long produced in New Mexico and contiguous parts of southern Colorado. Historically, these artworks were objects of religious devotion by the region's Hispanic and Indigenous populations.
Today, santos are most often bought as art objects by art connoisseurs. Since at least the mid–20th-century writings of Elizabeth Boyd, this genre's style has evoked a sense of continuity with the artistic traditions of New Mexico's Spanish colonial era and iconic descent to the present-day from those European Spanish and Catholic roots.
In distinction from these common narratives, Transforming Images asks, “What would the history of art look like if cultured interaction and exchange and the conditions of reception became our primary concerns?”
On the heels of this question, the authors of Transforming Images argue three key points. First, the essays collectively make the case for bringing postcolonial theoretical perspectives and research strategies to bear on New Mexican material culture and other colonial contexts. Second, they demonstrate that New Mexican material culture provides an excellent case study for rethinking many of the most fundamental questions in art-historical and anthropological research, including questions about ethnicity, meaning, cultural appropriation, and the ethics of scholarship. Third, the authors collectively argue that the New Mexican images had and still have importance to diverse audiences and makers.
Transforming Images is an oversize volume that combines the aesthetic values of a coffee table book with deeply theoretical and well-researched academic articles. It is subdivided into four sections, dealing respectively with questions of methodology, the archival evidence, the religious art itself, and the history of the scholarship. The book's contents include an introduction, epilogue, 14 chapters, and four short “interleaf” essays treating related subjects. Each chapter is a scholarly study, written in essay form, of a particular issue concerned with this art genre's aesthetics, production, history, and/or politics. Especially notable are the 91 color and 114 black and white images that beautifully supplement and illustrate the textual arguments.
Art historian and co-editor Claire Farago's deeply theoretical contributions frame the text and set its agenda. While others put a postcolonial theoretical perspective into practice, it is Farago's introduction, epilogue, and four chapters that provide Transforming Images' postcolonial and semiotic theoretical apparatus. Among the most powerful postcolonial avenues of her exploration is her question, “What was the role of indigenous aesthetic systems in both the production and reception of these objects?” Where earlier scholars simply saw icons of European origin, she finds complex objects that reflect and exemplify the complex, hybrid society that surrounds them. For example, she well demonstrates the obvious (in retrospect) similarities between santos and Native wood carvings called katsinas (pp. 181–184). Perhaps even more persuasively, in a detailed and illustrated description of one artwork, Farago shows that a colonial-era retablo by Pedro Antonio Fresquís incorporates both Pueblo and European artistic conventions without resolving them with a single definitive or “correct” meaning (pp. 165–167).
As a collective, the authors push beyond the common disciplinary methods of history and cultural anthropology and in their place offer a powerful multidisciplinary perspective. For example, the book's “Part Two” juxtaposes essays by art historian Pierce and archaeologist Cordelia Thomas Snow (Chapter 6), genealogical researcher Jose Antonio Esquibel (Chapter 4), and microbiologist Paul Kraemer (Chapter 5). These diverse scholars draw on multiple sources of data including the census records, archival documents, museum collections, and archaeological evidence for clues to the ethnic/racial identities of New Mexico's colonial populations. These chapters supplement and complement one another and collectively demonstrate that colonial New Mexico was a complex society that was simultaneously segregated and thoroughly mixed in terms of culture and ancestry.
Less persuasive are Transforming Images' two essays about our current era. Dinah Zeiger's “Saints Alive” serves as the book's final chapter and is an ethnographic description of the buying and selling of santos at an upscale Denver art gallery/shop. Zeiger describes Anglo-American artists and Hispana/o santeras and santeros individually creating, interpreting, and negotiating the religious images' multiple meanings. Largely absent from her ethnographic description are issues of power and contestation. Meanwhile, the weakness of Farago's epilogue is revealed in the first sentence of its introductory paragraph: “The following essay does not deal with New Mexican santos …” (p. 259). If, as Farago tells us, the present-day political standoff among different cultural factions in New Mexico reproduces a set of oppositions originating in the same neocolonial setting as santos (p. 264), a chapter or epilogue focusing on the contested meanings of Catholic imagery in New Mexico's religious institutions, art markets, and museums is an ethnographic necessity. A plethora of potential topics come to mind. For example, the 2001 ethnically charged controversy in Santa Fe over the exhibition of a digital image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in a so-called “rose bikini” would have been a most appropriate topic.
Transforming Images will be of interest to art historians, folklorists, and anthropologists interested in the semiotics of colonial and postcolonial locations and multidisciplinary models for research and writing. Scholars and advanced students with a specialization in the cultural study of the Southwest may find this text even more rewarding. In New Mexico, as in all places, works of art carry multiple meanings and often lack a simple resolution. It is in the specifics of simultaneous, multiple, and unresolved meanings that this text is most provocative and it is in this way it serves as a model for other works. Its weakness resides in its limited ethnographic representation of religious images in the current era.