Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Once More, With Feeling |

Painter Alberto Zalma just so happened to come across the Indigenous Peoples Day protest on the Plaza that resulted in the felling of the obelisk in October 2020. He’d just returned from a family trip to the Midwest to visit his wife’s family where they’d also visited the George Floyd Global Memorial in Minneapolis with their young daughters.

“I didn’t really go down to the Plaza because I’d heard about it, I was just driving by,” Zalma tells SFR. “I had my kids with me, and they were freaked out. [At the Floyd memorial], it was still during the early days of the pandemic, and my one daughter just kind of flipped out and was asking me, ‘What’s wrong with the world?’ so coming from that to seeing the Plaza, she…was terrified. She kept asking what was going to happen next.”

By the time Zalma dropped his daughters off and returned to the Plaza, city police commanders had told officers to stand down, and activists were attempting to topple a second section of the obelisk. Zalma knew he’d need to do something with what he was seeing, he just didn’t know what yet.

“It was really intense,” he says. “On one hand, I understand why people wanted to rip it down. I understand the feeling they got from looking at that monument, their frustration in asking for its removal I don’t know how many times—and nothing happened. At the same time, it didn’t feel good. It felt like somebody coming into your backyard and destroying something. I can’t say this is my property or my land, but that’s just what it felt like; I was literally born a block away at what is now the Drury hotel, and that thing has been a part of my life for my entire life. It was a little weird.”

When the dust settled and Zalma left the Plaza, he knew he’d have to channel those feelings into something artful, but his conflicting emotions altered his usual process. Usually, Zalma has some idea of ​​what he’s going to paint and how he’s going to go about it; not so this time.

Even those in Santa Fe who don’t know Zalma by name surely know his work. It’s mostly skeletons in an almost cartoony fashion (think Fleischer meets Posada), and he’s done everything from Guadalupe to Trump in his signature style. For this piece, however, Zalma wanted to go larger and to create something more ethereal than a strict recreation of what he saw.

What resulted is “The New Revolt,” one of Zalma’s larger works at 4 by 4 feet and a reminder that perspective can be everything. Again, Zalma is not against the toppling of the obelisk, but as a creator with a mixed background including Spanish, Native and Mediterranean blood, he wasn’t sure what part of himself would inform his new work. As such, it’s a packed crowd scene populated with his skeletons. Some represent people he knows, others, more loose concepts or puro New Mexico groups like the Matachines or the Penitentes. You’ll find Native folks and conquistadores. Trump makes an appearance in the crowd, as does Zozobra himself. The longer one observes, too, the more seems almost out of place. Take, for example, the Palace of the Governors, on which the famous Hispano family crests hang during Fiestas. That’s not an October event, but Zalma included them anyway, perhaps as a subtle nod to the colonial nature of Santa Fe’s past, or even just as a reminder that we’re a multicultural city. All in all, he says, the piece took him over a year to complete.

“The different emotions that went through me just looking at it, they weren’t because of that day, they were because of that whole feeling of uneasiness that went through me—like there’s been uneasiness in this town since the beginning,” he tells CHF. “It can be hard for me, because where do I fit in? Where’s my voice? With my background, there’s no way for me to be on any one side of the issue, and sometimes I just feel like I agree with everybody.”

“When I hear the Natives talk,” he continues, “about how it made them feel, how it was a monument to oppression and genocide? I understand We all know the history of this whole town, that it was a bloodbath, but this was my interpretation of Santa Fe when it gets together.”

Take that how you wilt, it seems, and the piece still hangs in Zalma’s Alberto Zalma Gallery on Guadalupe Street with a price tag of $10,013 (in honor of its Oct. 13 completion). He’d like to sell the piece, of course, and he’d also like to see it hang in a museum, at least for a little while.

The latter, he thinks, would be the more community-minded. See, “The New Revolt” is the kind of painting that will say many different things to many different kinds of people. At its core, it doesn’t take sides, but it does reflect whatever emotions the viewer wants to put into it—good, bad, ugly. Like Zalma says, it’s easy to have conflicted feelings. Is it good that the obelisk fell? Probably so, and it will hopefully lead to a time of healing. Is it also normal for longtime Santa Feans to feel all sorts of ways about it? No question.

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