July 26, 2008

A modern-day Oñate

More on The Last Conquistador documentary by filmmakers John Valadez and Cristina Ibarra--about John Sherrill Houser's statue of Juan de Oñate.

One culture's Washington, another's Genghis KhanSpeaking by phone, Ibarra, who described herself as a mestiza born in El Paso, said, "When I first started the film, I didn't know what to expect. I was taken with John and his mission as an artist. I was probably looking for someone to point my finger at and blame. ... I thought he was on a really dramatic journey. I saw the work he was involved in and how he created a universe for himself. He didn't live in reality. There were all these huge body parts and carcasses. It was an oversized hangar studio; the horse barely fit in there. I could see how he was really far removed from the community he was representing—my community."

As the film shows, progress was challenged by Houser's fear of glaucoma-induced blindness. For Valadez, it was a turning point in shaping a theme for the film: "His [Houser's] problem was he was so focused on making his own place in history that he was blind to the social implications of his work. His own hubris was his downfall. It's the Greeks all over again."

As it turns out, Houser didn't go blind ("I don't have glaucoma; it was misdiagnosed," he explained), but as the film relates, he lacked the insight to understand the emotional response to his work. The documentary suggests that the artist is a modern-day Oñate in terms of his single-minded determination to do what he felt was right for himself, and maybe El Paso, despite public outcry.
The outcome of the story:In the documentary, the El Paso International Airport appears to ride to Houser's rescue after city leaders decided they didn't want Oñate's statue downtown. Speaking by phone from his office in El Paso, Patrick Abeln, the airport's director of aviation, recalled, "The City Council voted in 2003 to move the project from downtown to the airport. The municipal airport is owned and operated by the city. It was a policy vote, and very few, if any, people on today's council would be represented by that policy vote. It was dedicated in April 2007." That ceremony is captured in the documentary.

As an additional compromise, El Paso decided to change the sculpture's title from The Last Conquistador to The Equestrian. But, Ibarra said, "It's a lie. It's not The Equestrian. It's Juan de Oñate."
Comment:  So Houser completed his statue but suffered for it. Sounds like the typical white man's experience with manifest destiny.

For more on the subject, see Best Indian Monuments to Topple.

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