Barbed wire was invented in the 1860‘s, the same time that the United States was fortifying its western conquest via Manifest Destiny. It is a fierce thing to look at and to come in contact with. Steel fencing with sharp edges around it, causing serious injury to animals and humans unfortunate enough to come in contact with it. Cheap to buy and easy to make, it was a key invention that helped solidify the settlement of the West.
In the book The Devils Rope: A Cultural History of Barbed Wire, written by Alan Krell, he documents the history of the invention of barbed wire and the effect on the culture of the time in the mid to late 19th century. This new invention coming about at the same time as these major land grabs happening symbolized this new status quo of “private property” (all of it stolen of course). The barbed wire gave a menacing look to new American settler encroachment of the time.
In New Mexico around this time the land grant struggles coincided with the introduction of this new invention, barbed wire. Land grants before the invasion were communally owned by the Hispano peoples, and fencing was rare. With the Anglo encroachment and capitalist ideas of private property put in place, fencing and barbed wire became more ominous in the state at the time. Los Gorras Blancas, a resistance group active in New Mexico in the late 19th century, made these fences put up by Anglos and Hispano ricos a main target in their actions. In one instance they left a fence in pieces no larger than a matchstick. The Lincoln County War, famous for Billy the Kid, was about land encroachment also, with barbed wire being put up and fought over.
Barbed wire has been used all over the world. Its association has been of things like guarded borders, fenced off building sites, prisons and concentration camps. To keep people in and others out.
With the history of barbed wire in New Mexico it was no surprise that it came up in a minor controversy in the 1990’s. This controversy in 1996 was over a public art piece set up at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
During this time the UNM Board of Regents commissioned artist Bob Haozous to create a public art piece to place on the campus grounds. They wanted a theme of meeting and interaction of cultures, safe multicultural shtick that bureaucrats are fiends of. Haozous, a renowned artist of Chiracahua Apache heritage, submitted a design that they approved, and he began working on the project. The art piece is in two parts, half of it showing art and symbols of an indigenous culture, the other half showing that of modern Western culture, of skyscrapers, the McDonald’s sign, jet aircraft and pollution. Likely different from what the administrators wanted for it gave an actual critique of colonialism and imperialism. Nevertheless it was approved. The controversy began when Haozous made a change from the design he submitted: a piece of concertina wire that was placed on top of the sculpture.
Haozous explained what he was conveying in Cultural Crossroads in an interview:
“The piece, Cultural Crossroads of the Americas at UNM, is concerned with the loss of the Mother Earth consciousness—it’s about the child of nature coming to the North and losing something important. The premise of the artwork concerns the migration of indigenous people to the North—to America—where you don’t need a mother.”
Haozous explained that he was an artist, not an illustrator or decorator, and that he uses his art to explore issues of cultural identity and purpose.
The administration did not share Haozous’ views, and saw the wire on the sculpture as a breach of contract. The president of UNM at the time, Richard Peck (you remember him?) gave the artist an ultimatum: remove the wire or take the piece down and give back the $47,500 advance payment for the artwork. Haozous refused to budge.
The actions of the administration created a backlash among the campus community and art supporters in the Albuquerque area. Many spoke out in support of Haozous’ work.
In the beginning of 1997 a forum was held by the Albuquerque Arts Alliance to discuss the controversy. Haozous was on the panel. Many spoke on the issue.
One of the panelists, Edwin Wade, a museum curator from Arizona, said that it was UNM and not Haozous who breached its contract and was judging the art for its content rather than any legal violations. He said:
“Are we treating this artist as we treat other University people? Are you going to ask that a professor’s entire lecture series be subject to approval to an arbitration board and, if found to digress, be accused of a breach of contract? Is this not a double standard? Is an artist less of an intellectual contribution and property than a professor?”
At a public forum, Peter Walch, chair of UNM’s Public Art in Open Spaces Committee, represented UNM’s position, said it was strictly a legal matter. He stated:
“We wanted the piece to represent the corridor of the Americas, the Camino Real for the Central Avenue area, the image of Route 66, the meeting of diverse cultures and values. Any substantial change must be approved in writing. This is a necessary protection to protect the rights of not only the University but the public as well.”
He further stated that the barbed wire on the piece changed “the tone and basic statement of the piece, turning it into something ‘divisive’ and ‘alienating.'”
In the audience Dr Eduardo Hernandez-Chavez (the Lobo misrepresents his first name as “James”), director of Chicano Studies, was blunt about what UNM was doing:
“I think it is ingenuous of the University to talk about this issue as if it were contractual. This piece threatens UNM’s rose-colored, Pollyanna vision of cultural contact. How could the leaders of this University be so hypocritical as to attempt to deny freedom to this artist?”
In a letter to the Daily Lobo a short while after, graduate student and Green Party activist John McCall came up with a simple solution:
“when the need to use armed force to stop campesinos from crossing the border ends, we can take the razor wire off the top of the sculpture. Put that in the contact and agree to it. “
The legal battle ended in 2000, three years later, when the 1st District Court ruled that Haozous broke the contract with the addition of the wire, and ordered the barbed wire taken down, and he subsequently got the rest of his payment for the sculpture.
In this incident it brings up the symbolism of what barbed wire represents in our contemporary culture. The administration of UNM had a problem with barbed wire only in a piece of art that represented what barbed wire was in the real world: sealed off borders. The one on the U.S.- Mexico border where thousands of migrants risk their lives to cross, and where many do lose their lives crossing. The insecurity of a settler nation. Like it was used for in the past, barbed wire is used to seal off and keep out. When an art piece brought this reality to people, many became uncomfortable with it.
So in the end Haozous succeeded in his art piece. The sculpture still stands at UNM today without the barbed wire on top. We still see it with it on.
-Lenderman, Andy. “Down to the Wire.” Daily Lobo (UNM). January 23, 1997. pp. 5-6.
-Shank, Zachary. “Haozous’ Barbed Wire Comes Down.” Daily Lobo (UNM). June 8-14, 2000. pp. 1, 5.