Monument Valley: The Wild West Stripped of Fiction

A new Des Moines Art Center exhibit challenges stereotypes of the Old West.

Above: John Jota Leaños, still from “Destinies Manifest” (2017); digital animation, 7 minutes. Image courtesy of the artist. The video seeks to reimagine the concept of “manifest destiny” from the perspective of indigenous peoples. 


Monument Valley, the vista of ruddy sandstone buttes that sprout from the desert along the Arizona-Utah border, was the backdrop for some of Hollywood’s greatest Western films. Its stark landscape became a symbol of the glorified, romanticized mythology of the Old West.

“Monument Valley” is also the name of an exhibition opening Oct. 4 at the Des Moines Art Center, a showcase of contemporary art “where the artists challenge or deconstruct stereotypes associated with the rugged West and Westerns,” says curator Laura Burkhalter. 

She has spent four years developing the show that will fill the Art Center’s main gallery, more than 3,500 square feet of paintings, photos, videos, textiles and other works by such artists as Wendy Red Star, John Jota Leaños, Gina Adams, Kahlil Joseph and Des Moines-based Jordan Weber. All promise to add fresh perspectives to our image of the West.

As a daughter of baby boomer parents who enjoyed classic Westerns and named her after Laura Ingalls Wilder of “Little House on the Prairie,” Burkhalter says she was surprised to learn “how many voices are left out” of those Western legends. Through her research, she says, “I started noticing a lot of contemporary artists who were playing around with Western imagery. … Most are women, artists of color and others who give a new version,” a supplement to cherished Western lore.

“So this exhibition challenges the image many of us grew up with,” she says. “Some things in the show will potentially make people uncomfortable.” 

But more importantly, she adds, “the art is wonderful, and these artists have a lot to say. It’s about broadening the story, making sure the art was challenging, and not just glamorizing or demonizing what has gone before.”

“Monument Valley” opens one week prior to Indigenous People’s Day. Opening events will include a reception, an opportunity to cut pieces for a Western artist’s quilt and a visit by the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. The exhibition will continue into January 2020. 

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