For centuries, the Akimel O'odham—the River People—lived on the banks of the Gila River.
The bountiful river attracted birds of all kinds, and its waters irrigated the Akimel's crops—corn, beans and squash and, eventually, white winter wheat. The river provided them with food to eat and wares to sell; by the 19th century they were the most dominant venders of white wheat in Territorial Arizona, as anthropologist Tom Sheridan writes in the book Paths of Light.
But by the 1860s, white settlers arrived in droves and began cultivating their own crops along the Gila, diverting the water to their fields east of the Akimels' land. The laws of the day failed to protect the Akimel, and by 1887 a major canal dug outside Florence permanently displaced the waters of the River People. Without water, they could no longer grow their own food and they were left parched and in dire poverty.
Tucson artist Rachel Espinoza descended from these Akimel O'odham (she's also part Chicana). Her work in Raices Taller's lively Mujeres, Mujeres, Mujeres show is mostly about the murders of Native women in today's America. But it also honors her river ancestors.
A doll representing Native women is at the center of her "River Magic Matryoshka," an acrylic painting on fiberboard. Espinoza has painted the O'Odham traditional water pattern—a chain of white waves—in a circle around the woman. A snake inside the waves honors desert nature; floating red roses represent the women who are dead or missing or both.
Statistics on the murders and disappearances are scarce, but the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center says that Native women suffer from the highest rates of violent crime in the country. Non-Indians commit the majority of these felonies, NIWRC points out, yet federal law limits the ability of tribal police to stop and question possible perpetrators on the reservation if they are non-Indians.
The water laws threatened the lives and livelihoods of the Akimel; more than a century later, under the crime laws of today, the murderers of Native women can too easily flee.
In Espinoza's art, the ancestors watch over the women who have suffered. Her fierce doll figure is "acting as a guardian," she writes, "...though some sisters have been stolen from us here, they are comforted by our ancestors, and no longer confined to the pain of this world."
Espinoza's rich and layered piece is just one of 51 artworks by women in Raices Taller's annual Mujeres, Mujeres, Mujeres exhibition. ("Mujeres" is Spanish for "women.") For the first time, the show has gone totally virtual.
"We have hosted the show for 16 years," says John Salgado, who runs the cooperative gallery with Ceci Garcia. "This year would have been the 17th year, but last year's was canceled due to COVID 19."
The gallery has been closed since March 2020 but as the pandemic summer wore on, Salgado began making online exhibitions. Since then, he's developed first-rate virtual shows that have attracted artists from around the world.
"The Mujeres exhibition includes artists not only from United States and Puerto Rico," he says, "We also have artists from India, the Netherlands, Mexico, Canada, and Croatia."
Artist Ana Sneeringer, for example, is a Slovenian who now lives and works in India, after trying out Jordan, France, Russia, the Dominican Republic and the Netherlands. The bold colors of India have found their way into her paintings of women. Her three arresting portraits in the show are painted in brilliant blues, oranges, greens and violets. Interestingly, though Sneeringer has not yet added Arizona to her itinerary, the painted women are surrounded by cacti.
Her artwork did not travel to the U.S. either. In a digital show, a high-res photo is all the gallery needs. But a fan has now purchased "Red Bow"—a work that features a saguaro cradling a woman's head—so Sneeringer is sending it sending it winging to a new land.
Cristina Cardenas, a talented local painter who has lived in the U.S. for years, looks back to her native Mexico in a series of deft ceramic pieces. Colored images of people cover each of the plates: one has two young adult sisters; another is a woman wearing an agave crown; and still another is a man in a classic Mexican outfit, including a big sombrero. The affectionate works, she says, arise from her dual life along the borderlands.
Painter Jennifer Smith of Minnesota made a delightful painting of a St. Paul landmark. The "Keg & Case Beer Trailer" sits out front of the old Schmidt Brewery, once the largest brewery in the state. Smith's painting has a crystal blue northern sky, a deep green pine tree and the glistening trailer reflecting all the colors and shapes around it.
At a time when masks have been saving lives, Tucsonan Lauren Raine has been making striking ceramic mosaics of women's heads. Part painting, part sculpture, her timeless figures honor midwives, a goddess and a figure she calls "The Memory Keeper." Beautifully colored in gold, rust and green, the majestic mask-like faces push out from the ceramic and into the air.
Glory Tacheenie-Compoy, a Tucson artist of Navajo heritage, brings the circle back to Native women. Her lovely piece, Botánica, is a collage of plant materials, flowers, corn husks and handmade paper. It honors the work of the Navajo women who make extraordinary blankets, artworks they create from the gifts of their own land.
EXTRA: Mujeres que Escriben, a Latina writers' group, follows the annual tradition of giving poetry readings during the Mujeres exhibition. This time, the readings will be videotaped and placed on the website beginning June 5. This year's poets are poet Mariel Masque, Valerina Quintana, Maria Elena Wakamatsu and Silviana Wood.
Mujeres, Mujeres, Mujeres exhibit Raices Taller’s annual exhibition of art by women
Through June 12
Staged virtually this year; to access go to raicestaller222.com
Also see Facebook.com/RaicesTaller for artist statements and images
Gallery is temporarily closed