Diego Medina is the education assistant at the Indian Arts Research Center and as part of his work runs an art program for incarcerated youth in Santa Fe. I spoke with him about From Within, a collaboration between SAR and the artists in Santa Fe’s Youth Development Program now showing through February 7, 2020, at the Ray Drew Gallery of New Mexico Highlands University.
Santa Fe’s Youth Development Program houses incarcerated youth from Santa Fe and surrounding areas, many of whom come from Native American communities. As stewards of important cultural works, the School for Advanced Research’s Indian Arts Research Center has developed a program that enables the education staff to facilitate art activities with these youth. Every artist from the YDP in the exhibit remains unnamed, and visitors see some of the artistic expressions that have come out of the ongoing collaboration. Can you tell me about the collaboration between SAR and YDP?
Our goal is to implement programming that not only relates to our collections here but brings in Native arts and histories because a lot of the residents at the program are Native. It’s really important for us to use our resources—educational and art materials, as well as connections we have to other artists—to bring in the best program we can to connect these residents to their home place and to their art, to be empowering and also educating at the same time. A lot of the time we don’t have much more than an hour with the residents and you never know if a resident will be there the next week, so it’s important for us to keep it as potent as possible while also making it really fun and relaxing. They don’t get to do that much art and they really do enjoy it.
The interesting thing about curating this show is that there isn’t any information on the artists available in the exhibit. We’re not allowed to display their names or where they’re from, and sometimes I don’t even get their names, I just go in there and work with them. And so it’s an anonymous approach to curating an exhibit where the work has to speak for itself because that’s all there is—there’s no background information on the makers themselves or their perspective on what they’re doing. It’s a different way of having art displayed and speaks about their experiences being incarcerated youth and what their art truly means. I think letting them know that their artwork’s going to be displayed definitely gives them a sense of pride in their work, and it makes them really feel good about themselves, knowing that their work’s out there in a gallery space.
What do you hope people who see the exhibit will get out of it?
I’m hoping it enlightens people about how marginalized these youth have been because of history in New Mexico. And I think having us bring up these narratives is important because we’re an institution that promotes Native arts and the history of Native culture and people in New Mexico, and a lot of times the artists’ experience is directly tied to that history. Getting to see the effects of things like colonialism through the eyes of these youth is a really important takeaway. Even if the art is something very simple, these are kids in here with all of New Mexico history in tow, expressing themselves through the art we’re able to bring in. Beyond that, I hope that if family members go, they see that this is something that the youth are able to be proud of while they’re in there because it’s not an easy place to be and a lot of them are really talented artists.
What was an interesting project or story that stuck with you?
One time I did a project inspired by Jordan Craig’s work where I basically introduced abstract design painting using a negative space method. I got to work with a female resident who was really, really into art and excited about the project and had a lot to share. She wanted to finish it even though the hour was up, and the guard that day let her take some supplies with her so that she could finish that evening. I went the next morning to see if she had completed her work, not knowing what to expect, and sure enough that night she had worked on her painting: an abstract acrylic painting of Taos Pueblo, where she was from. She put a lot of work into it so it could be in the exhibit. It really impacted me because I saw how much she cared about finishing it. It’s those instances where you see the impact right away, you see how much it gives them a sense of pride and gets them going, gets them creative, and gets them passionate about what they’re doing.