Creating art is like my heartbeat. I need it to survive.—Harry Fonseca
Harry Fonseca's work is universal; his art engages world issues and in his career, he continually challenged and changed the boundaries of perception as related to Native and non-Native peoples. As a close friend and colleague of Fonseca's, I wanted to capture his thoughts about his career before his death from an inoperable brain tumor in 2006.
Throughout the last six months of his life, I called Harry on Sundays to discuss his life and art, except on those occasions when he was too sick to talk. We called it "Sundays with Harry."1 This essay is intended as a record of those interviews, not a complete history of Fonseca's career or a history of Native arts. My narrative will raise more questions than I will be able to answer about the issues that contemporary Native artists face as historically marginalized figures in American art history and contemporary art.
While Fonseca's iconic Coyote series is widely recognized, as an artist he remains virtually unknown beyond the Native art world and has never exhibited in a major contemporary art museum. Change is [End Page 63] incremental, and in this sense, my efforts here reflect the importance of advocating for the professional and artistic recognition of marginalized and excluded groups, in particular, for Native artists. Fonseca deserves to be reclassified—not categorized only as a Native artist, but also as a contemporary artist.
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Understanding Coyote Is Complicated
"Coyote paintings are complicated to analyze because they are so accessible and many people get stuck on the surface," observed the New [End Page 64] York contemporary artist Michael Pribich.2 Playful and colorful images of Coyote fill Fonseca's canvases, but beneath these familiar and lively surfaces, the artist seeks to challenge popular beliefs about Native identity. Coyote figures can be urban and hip, clad in leather jackets and boots. Coyote women may sing opera, dance sensually, and sport off-the-shoulder flowered blouses.3 Beyond these vibrant surfaces, deeper insights into Native American traditions can be found. Coyote not only entertains; he provides explanations for life and spirit on this earth. In Native American mythology, Coyote represents human contradictions such as truth and deception, joy and sadness, life and death. In life he lives by his wits and instincts, always adapting to changing times. Native peoples, like Coyote, are continuously adjusting to new ways. Living in the present but safeguarding the past, their stories will keep changing and evolving forever.
Fonseca said he "purposely placed that animal [Coyote] in a very contemporary world. I made Coyote my own . . . so naïve but wise."4 The Coyote characters broadened the more traditional depictions of Native peoples, making their complexity and current concerns evident. By making American Indians contemporary, Fonseca expanded the public's understanding of Native peoples, their history, and their culture. In the 1990s, Fonseca's image of Coyote was everywhere in Santa Fe—on salsa jars sold at the most exclusive restaurants, on the Santa Fe Opera poster, and in event advertisements throughout the city. These reminders of Native people in the contemporary scene were accessible—both in their humorous content and in their permeation of public space. On the surface Coyote appears light and fun, but in reality it addresses the weighty issues Native peoples face today. Coyote's accessibility and attraction in turn made Native people more accessible as contemporary figures in public culture.
Fonseca remarked, "Coyote is often up against a brick wall as are so many Native peoples and artists."5 For Fonseca, this brick wall symbolizes human frailty and vulnerability. Coyote is a personification of Fonseca's own struggles, and in an expanded sense, is representative of the challenges contemporary American Indians face: "As soon as you're born, you're up against a wall. But it's what you do when faced with obstacles that matters."6 Native peoples are bound by generations of repression...