Art for the Community

New exhibit at MAH offers radical gallery experience

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Artists Monica Camilao and Xara Thustra pose at their Museum of Art and History exhibit “Infinite Other.” Photo by Lluvia Moreno

The hood of an old truck painted with neon roses. A woven Maidu basket pulled from the museum’s archives. Visitors drawing, stamping and conversing as they create their own artwork to add to the exhibit. “Infinite Other” presents an immersive installation where visitors are encouraged to share their stories and make the personal, political.

Artist collective MCXT debuted “Infinite Other” at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) on Oct. 5, on its monthly free First Friday. MCXT is a partnership between Bay Area artists Monica Canilao and Xara Thustra, who sourced locally found objects and rebuilt them into sculptures designed specifically in and for MAH’s gallery space.

By creating interactive experiences, Canilao and Thustra hope to break the mold of traditional museumgoing. Instead of enforcing rules — telling visitors not to touch anything or to observe rather than experience — MCXT encourages participants to imbue the work with meaning by interacting with it up close and personally.

“We both very much rely on engagement and wanting people to feel like they can be involved in what we’re making,” Canilao said. “The MAH is specifically an interactive museum, so this [exhibition] required part of something that we were already interested in, but pushed this extra element.”

The installation’s central mural emphasizes social engagement by combining a lighthearted aesthetic with politically charged phrases. Viewed up close, the brightly colored walls consist of a constellation of abstract patterns and stamps reading “stop men.” Viewed from afar, the large scale text reads “NO MORE PRISONS.”

“I felt that it was a great moment to bring in artists who represented a lot of kinds of work and themes and ideas that don’t usually get represented,” said MAH curator Whitney Ford-Terry. “[Women of color], trans women, people who are thinking about what it means to create space for ourselves and work for ourselves, and how do we share that with the world.”

MCXT and Ford-Terry included artifacts from MAH’s archives in the installation because both Canilao and  Thustra want their exhibition to speak directly to the community and display its history using recycled materials.

“[By] teaching art instead of business and consumerism, you engage with your inner self and you engage with play and creating rather than having just a consumerist culture,” Thustra said.

An expansive altar made from MCXT’s collection of found objects is built across the back wall of the gallery and brings together artifacts from the artists’ collection. Brightly colored wooden panels line the gallery wall and support shelves bearing flowers, feathers and photographs. According to MCXT, preserving objects makes them sacred and their altar speaks to this sentiment.

“The altar really captures [the spirit of the show] because folks are able to add and contribute to it and have that interaction,” said MAH community catalyst Victoria Lee. “And the artists and their friends found a lot of the objects — it is a collectively built space.”

The MAH’s free First Fridays allow for a diverse audience to participate in this kind of radical museumgoing — where visitors can appreciate art and cultivate strength and joy.

“We want to put people outside their everyday usual gaze, making money, working, walking down the street looking down all the time,” Canilao said. “We want people to be put out of their one view and the amount of colorfulness and joy and interaction between so many different kinds of elements within a space, have fun and be excited.”