Two different exhibits bring Native American art to the fore
Deeper of meaning than just being pretty, the best art has a political edge to it. Two current exhibits display this truism to varied effect. Unfortunately, a related, third show has already closed. And the unifying thread? Local artist Tom Huff.
Huff’s soapstone sculpture “Sage” greets visitors to the upstairs gallery at the Everson Museum of Art, showing Haudenosaunee: Elements. And his window installation at the entrance to the Warehouse Gallery’s Tate Wikikuwa Museum: North America 2024 sets the tone for the unusual exhibit inside.
The third show, which featured items Huff has collected over the year to show the continuing stereotyping of Native Americans and the culture, closed Dec. 18 at ArtRage Gallery. That’s unfortunate for viewers of the open exhibits because it would have both put those shows into better context and provided an understanding of who Huff is. All three ran concurrently for only four weeks.
As important an artist as Huff is, however, there is plenty more to see at the still-open exhibits. The Everson’s is more broad-based, with art in all sorts of media and from an impressive variety of artists representing the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy in New York. Some of the work presented here is quite literal, including “Ista” by Mohawk artist Natasha Smoke Santiago, which features the native three sisters staples of corn, beans and squash, painted on casts of pregnant bellies. They sure are colorful.
Also full of color and incredible detail is Tammy Tarbell-Boehning’s “Nine Clan Mothers,” made of stoneware, clay slip and beads.
Embellished with different color paints in varying designs, the nine stand shoulder to shoulder in a circle, facing outward. You can’t help but smile when you see it.
Want a political statement? Try perusing “BP for British Profit$,” Seneca artist G. Peter Jemison’s indictment of British Petroleum and Haliburton for causing the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. A fish breathes polluted water, a snake skin flows in oil-brown waves. It’s not a pretty picture, and we don’t mean that literally.
Or check out the film called The Shirt. Dialogue isn’t necessary but the viewer needs to pay attention to the changing messages written on the white star of the show. If you miss a few, no worries; the five-minute loop comes around again really quickly. Tracy Thomas’ “Reflections of Injustice” displays a player for the Iroquois National Lacrosse team, gazing toward the Statue of Liberty far in the distance. The commentary on the passport situation the team faced last summer—Iroquois Confederacy papers weren’t good enough for them to travel to England—remains a point of controversy.
As a survey of Iroquois art, Haudenosaunee: Elements provides an educational overview of the amazing variety of talent out there. Co-curator Huff expressed his disappointment at how limited this show is and his hope for future exhibits, in his introduction to the show’s program:
“The next show and others to follow must continue to present contemporary Haudenosaunee artists to showcase the rich talents of those working today.”
Across downtown at Syracuse University’s Warehouse Gallery, a small but resonant show calls to viewers’ attention the ongoing plight of Leonard Peltier, incarcerated, some would say unjustly, since 1976 for the murder of two FBI agents. Tate Wikikuwa is Peltier’s Lakota name. The San Franciscobased artist goes by the name Rigo 23.
Rigo spent 10 days creating a museum within a museum, installing the walls while at the same time carving out corridors, onto which he laid down a label for each year Peltier has been in prison in Lewisburg, Pa. Along the journey from 1976 to 2011 are newspaper clippings, posters and quotes from Oren Lyons about Peltier, himself an artist, as well as a gallery of his paintings. Look up every so often and you’ll see prison-bar-like windows to remind you of his plight.
A testimonial wall provides space for visitors to leave their impressions, an interactive feature not found in many art exhibits. After traversing the corridor, the visitor enters a large room with a large sculpture, striking a pensive pose, against a wall. Quilts adorn the walls and mini-drums hang from the ceiling. You’re left scratching your head about these seemingly disparate items until you step into the adjacent gallery space and look behind you. There it all comes together.
A large, sliding prison-type door stands to the right of the entryway, and once you see that you realize the large sculpture is Peltier himself, sitting in a cell. The mini-drums, by Leonard Martinez, bear the dates of the two massacres of Native Americans at Wounded Knee, S.D.—1890 and 1973.
It’s in the final gallery space for this exhibit where the story finally weaves together, with photographs by Michelle Vignes donated by Oren Lyons. With the hand-painted words “Independent Oglala Nation Wounded Knee 1973” framing the photo and giving them needed context, you can then peruse the remarkable work.
Wikikuwa Museum: North America 2024 (2024 is the year of Peltier’s next parole hearing) offers much to look at but without a lot of context. Whether you study Peltier’s plight before or after a visit, it’s vital that you do so to better understand the elements on display.
Haudenosaunee: Elements closes this Sunday, Jan. 30, at the Everson Museum of Art, 401 Harrison St. The museum is open Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Suggested donation is $5. For more information, call 474-6064 or visit www.everson.org. Wikikuwa Museum: North America 2024 continues through Feb. 6 at the Warehouse Gallery, 350 W. Fayette St. Hours are Tuesdays to Saturdays, noon to 6 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, call 443-6450 or visit http://thewarehousegallery.syr.edu.
A cell and a circle: Leonard Peltier’s prison plight receives much-needed attention at a Warehouse Gallery exhibit, while Tammy Tarbell-Boehning’s “Nine Clan Mothers” presents the more traditional side of Native American artwork, at a Haudenosaunee exhibit at the Everson Museum of Art.