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Spain Arts & Culture’s Show “Moving Forward, Looking Back — Journeys Across the Old Spanish Trail” Was Well Received

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Now closed, this was a charming and spaciously installed exhibition in the former residence of Spanish Ambassadors at 2801 16th Street in Columbia Heights of stunningly beautiful landscape photographs and intriguingly captured portrait photographs reflecting a fascinating road trip between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Los Angeles, California recently taken by the conceptual Spanish photojournalist Janire Najera, with the assistance of visual artist Matt Wright.

Río Chama, Abiquiu, New Mexico. photo--Janire Najera.

Río Chama, Abiquiu, New Mexico. photo–Janire Najera.

In addition to the photographs on display, the exhibition, contained wall text and and audio recordings of Najera’s insightful interviews with descendants of original Spanish settlers, principally in northern New Mexico and southern California.

The “Old Spanish Trail” is actually a meandering set of multiple trails and paths used by early 19th century traders and merchants and transporting their wares from towns, missions, settlements, and pueblos in northern New Mexico across the starkly beautiful and treacherous landscape of Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada to the San Gabriel mission near Los Angeles — and back.

Artist Janire Najera selected the actual route of an early 1829-‘30 pathfinder,  Antonio Armijo who charted a route beginning in the small pueblo of Abiquiu, for her and Matt Wright’s expedition which they took in an RV named Orwell. Armijo’s and Wright’s pioneering used a modification of Armijo’s template, which entailed his leaving Abiquiu in late fall and returning from the San Gabriel Mission in the spring of the following year, thus avoiding the deadly droughts and stifling heat of southwestern United States summers.

Corina Gonzalez. photo--Janire Najera.

Corina Gonzalez. photo–Janire Najera.

Najera and Wright wisely followed the appropriate part of Abiquiu’s calendar for their one-way road trip, departing Abiquiu on March 31, 2014 and arriving the next month in southern California. Before embarking of the trip, Najera explored such northern New Mexico pueblos as Truchas, Cundjyo, Chimayo, Galisteo, Española, Ojo Caliente, and Los Alamos, having been made aware “that the Spanish influence was still a strong aspect defining these communities.” Her selection of Spanish men and women to interview in those places and later in southern California reflects that strength.

David Lopez. photo--Janire Najera.

David Lopez. photo–Janire Najera.

As described in the beautifully illustrated book catalog documenting their journey, Najera and Wright “traveled northwest from Abiquiu, New Mexico and spent a night by the Ute Mountain in Colorado before crossing the state line near what’s known as the Four Corners” — four states coming together at one point. Once in Arizona the two travelers drove by Monument Valley and arrived at Glen Canyon, “where we visited the area known as the Crossing of the Fathers, which today is submerged beneath the waters of Lake Powell.” Then on to Kenab and “eventually St. George in Utah before descending into Nevada, passing by the Valley of Fire and Las Vegas.”

Resting Springs, California. photo--Janire Najera.

Resting Springs, California. photo–Janire Najera.

Upon entering California, the road trippers visited the green and well-watered Resting Springs near Tacopa, “a small desert oasis with a rich heritage as a vital resting place for American Indians, traders, and trappers who passed through this dry and hostile environment.” Najera resumed her multi-talented photo journalism and cultural anthropology by “meeting with some of the Spanish descendants from the first merchants to leave New Mexico and settle in California, looking for land and a less hostile climate.” From there the intrepid pair continued on to Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Mission.

Najera had earlier researched the history of Los Angeles, originally informally known as The Town of Our Lady Queen of the Angels on the Porciuncula River, and was prepared to interview descendants of the original 11 families and four soldiers who founded in 1781 a settlement becoming known as El Pueblo de Los Angeles. “From these men and women,” Najera recounts, “I was able to gain a clearer understanding of how the traditions of the first settlers have merged with local cultures and have influenced the creation and identity of today’s pueblos and modern cities.”

Najera offers an example of of this in her observations of such annual festivals as the yearly Spanish Market held in Santa Fe, New Mexico where the art and craft traditions of “colcha embroidery, painted bultos and retablos, straw applique, and woodcarving” are celebrated. To her surprise, Najera found “Catholicism still playing an important role in these communities and in most cases being the inspiration behind these traditions.”

The RV named Orwell in Tecopa, California. photo--Matt Wright.

The RV named Orwell in Tecopa, California. photo–Matt Wright.

Among the magnificent double spread photographic views taken during the duo’s travels are that of a depiction of the landscape of low mountains topped with pink clouds on pages eight and nine of the catalog — the photograph includes Najera and her RV; that of the bend in the Colorado River view on pages 44 and 45; and the double page view of Resting Springs on pages 100 and 101.

Teodomiro Fuentes Palomo. photo--Janire Najera.

Teodomiro Fuentes Palomo. photo–Janire Najera.

Three of my favorites among the outstanding full page portrait photographs in the exhibition are those of Corina Gonzales, born in Taos and now living in Santa Fe, on page 31; David Lopez, baptized as Ten Crows, of Abiquiu, on page 47; and Teodomino Fuentes Palomo, a retired Spanish priest living in the Mission of San Gabriel who is depicted in front of a tenderly drawn and delicately painted religious mural on page 113.

[Editor’s Note: We reported on this historic former Spanish Ambassadorial  residence where the exhibition was shown and its restoration and re-purposing for showcasing Spanish arts three years ago. See, “16th Street’s Former Spanish Ambassador’s Residence Being Considered for Use as a Center to Showcase Spanish Culture, Arts,” InTowner May 2012 issue pdf page 1.

Center hall at former embassy leading to exhibition galleries. photo--Matt Wright.

Center hall at former embassy leading to exhibition galleries. photo–Matt Wright.