Published January 26, 2018
SANTA FE — “Buffalo are masters of survival,” says Armond Lara. “They’re still around today, even though we tried our best to kill them all off.”
The Mexican-Diné artist has depicted buffalo in his drawings, paintings and sculptures for decades. In recent years, they’ve turned blue and sprouted wings. The winged blue buffalo reference a dark chapter of Lara’s family history: his grandmother, who was Diné, was kidnapped as a child and forced into servitude by a Mexican family. This was a common story in the American West. Across three centuries of Spanish, Mexican and American rule, millions of Native children were enslaved as household servants or fieldhands. The Pueblo people called these abducted youths “lost bluebirds,” a symbol that Lara combined with the buffalo into a new icon of Indigenous survival. This August, he’ll collaborate with form & concept to fulfill his long-held dream of creating a monumental installation of flying blue buffalo sculptures that explores this little-told history. A Kickstarter campaign, running January 26 through February 28 and anchored by a special event on February 17, will raise funds to support the production of over seventy 3D printed buffalo, based on a series of wood carvings by Lara.
“My grandmother didn’t talk much, but if she did talk, you listened,” says Lara. He’s known the story of his grandmother’s abduction for as long as he can remember, but it wasn’t until recently that he learned how common the practice was. “My sister was doing genealogy research on the family, and she found a list of all the Native American kids who had been ‘adopted’ by Mexican families in the Four Corners area,” says Lara. “It dawned on me, whoa, this is really widespread. That’s when I started asking other people about it.” He learned about the kidnapping and enslavement of an enormous number of Native American children over several centuries—from the 1600s when the Spanish arrived, through the period of Mexican Independence, until the late 1800s under the government of the United States. A number of Lara’s close friends revealed that they too had ancestors who were taken.
For Lara, this growing web of stories reminded him of his grandmother’s resilience, which has been an enduring source of inspiration. “I looked to my grandparents for guidance. The strongest voice was my grandmother’s voice,” Lara says. “She didn’t talk about it, she just did it. If she needed something, she’d make it. If she needed a robe, she’d weave one. I really admired that quality.” He dreamed up an art installation and storytelling project that might communicate this ethos, and inspire people to learn more about their heritage. A series of five winged blue buffalo marionettes that Lara carved from wood over a number of years became central conceptual elements. With the help of his frequent collaborator Joseph Riggs, an artist and retired attorney who lives in Santa Fe, Lara pitched the idea to form & concept. The gallery commissioned a digital model and several mock-ups of the buffalo from Albuquerque startup 3D Proven Systems, while Lara and Riggs started gathering stories for the project.
“I’ve lived in the Southwest my whole life, and I was unfamiliar with the story,” says Riggs. “You can’t find it in history books in New Mexico, but as I learned, there were slave markets all across this region. It became a deep part of the culture of the Southwest.” Riggs says the scale of the installation is vital to the project, because it communicates the staggering number of children, families and communities affected by the issue. Each of the 70 buffalo sculptures will represent the story of one “lost bluebird,” with oral and written accounts of their fight for survival. “People in New Mexico have been searching for a way to explore this part of their family history,” Riggs says. “They can take pride in the fact that they’re Hispanic, and they’re Native American, and they’re American. There’s so much division in our country. We need to find ways to show our unity, to show how much we’re alike rather than how we’re different. And I think we can do it through this story.”
form & concept launches a Kickstarter campaign on January 26 to raise funds for the project. The campaign is anchored by an in-gallery event on February 17 featuring mock-ups of the buffalo and a panel discussion with Lara, Riggs and to-be-announced local historians. “We’ve represented Armond’s work for years, and are so excited to help bring his long-held dream to fruition,” says Sandy Zane, Owner of Zane Bennett Contemporary Art and form & concept. “Contributors to this Kickstarter will help us produce dozens of reproductions which will fill the atrium in form & concept. They’ll also receive some great perks at different levels of support, including buffalo sculptures from the installation.”