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Past and present collide in CFAC screening of 'The Last Conquistador' Nov. 20

November 07, 2008

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The documentary "The Last Conquistador" by directors John Valadez and Cristina Ibarra will be shown Thursday, Nov. 20, at 7 p.m. in Gallery 805 at the Community Folk Art Center, as part of Th3: A City Wide Art Open. Presented in recognition of Native American Heritage Month, this compelling film documents the creation of sculptor John Houser's monumental bronze of Juan de Oñate and exposes the raw feelings and sharp divisions in the Southwest-and the perils of public art in a multicultural society.

Last ConquistadorHouser is a man with monumental sculpture in his blood. He can remember his father working as an assistant carver on Mount Rushmore. Enthralled with the power of art, he has dedicated himself to making history come alive in large-scale public sculptures. So, when the city council of El Paso, Texas, commissioned a larger-than- life statue of the Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate, Houser conceived his grandest project yet: the largest bronze equestrian statue in the world. He envisioned a magnificent and long-overdue tribute to the contributions of Hispanic culture and history to the United States.

But as recounted in "The Last Conquistador," all was not well as the statue's dedication approached. The area's Native Americans had their own very personal passed-down memories concerning Oñate, including massacres, slavery and terror. They remembered that Oñate's foray into New Mexico in 1598 led to the deaths of two out of every three Indians there and nearly caused the extermination of native culture across the region.

As the film shows, the prospect that a murderer's image would be looming over El Paso drew increasing anger and protest. One artist proposed a companion sculpture of a giant severed foot, commemorating Oñate's method of cutting off feet to terrorize the native inhabitants. Houser saw his grand conception transformed in a way he had not intended, caught up in a whirlwind of unresolved conflicts between races, classes and historical memories.

Neither Houser nor El Paso's city councilors had intended any offense or controversy. The statue of Oñate was intended as part of a sculpture walk through history that would memorialize the region's dramatic but often unrecognized history. When the storm of protest arose, they were taken by surprise. But should they have been? Had they too easily accepted a conqueror's version of history in which the daring exploits of pioneers and colonists are celebrated and the sins of violence are avoided or excused?

Native Americans are deeply offended by the sculpture, but many wealthy whites and Hispanics throughout the region-who trace their ancestry back to the Oñate expedition-welcome the monument and defend the bloodshed, saying that the Indians were the aggressors and that Oñate brought peace and stability to the region. Caught in between are the Mestizos, Mexican Americans like El Paso City Councilman Anthony Cobos, who make up about 75 percent of El Paso's population. The sons and daughters of both the Spaniards and the Indians they subjugated, Mestizos must struggle with a conflicted heritage that is both prideful and humiliating. Councilman Cobos eventually withdraws his support for the statue and pays a heavy political price.

Th3 takes place on the third Thursday of each month from 5-8 p.m. This ambitious project, initiated by the Everson Museum of Art and the Delavan Art Gallery, is joined by 24 of the most distinctive venues in the city in a grand event to bring the artistic experience to the public.

The Community Folk Art Center is sponsored, in part, by the New York State Council on the Arts, the Cultural Resources Council, the Coalition of Museums and Art Centers at Syracuse University, SU's College of Visual and Performing Arts and The Office of the Chancellor at Syracuse University. Media sponsors are CNY Latino, Urban CNY and WAER 88.3. The Genesee Grande and Park View Hotels are the official accommodations for guests of The Community Folk Art Center.

The Community Folk Art Center is a unit of the Department of African American Studies in SU's College of Arts and Sciences. CFAC is a vibrant cultural and artistic hub committed to the promotion and development of artists of the African Diaspora. The mission of the center is to exalt cultural and artistic pluralism by collecting, exhibiting, teaching and interpreting the visual and expressive arts.

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