FORWARD: Issue #5: Housing
Public Art Now
Leading Voices Sharing Public Art of the Moment
Too often, in contemporary, postcolonial life across Turtle Island1, Native people are thought of in the past tense, as if we somehow no longer exist in our authenticity. If we are acknowledged as contemporaries, it’s often in terms of monolithic stereotypes:
- You don’t look Native American.
- You, whom I perceive to be a Native woman, don’t have long hair. Why?
We hear these kinds of comments from people who expect all of us to fulfill their visual expectations of “Indianness.” They advise us to alter our appearance:
- Why did you tattoo your chin? That's unprofessional—you'll never get a good job.
- Men shouldn't have long hair.
Or they self-confidently interpret our culture for us:
- Two-Spirit is the same as gay/trans/fill-in-the-blank.
These ideas pervade what is now our shared land and society. They’re the result of 500-plus years of forced assimilation and attempts at physical and cultural genocide. Yet we are still here—everywhere, including in the world of public art. I selected these five Native artists and their works because they represent a broad spectrum of the exciting, Indigenized, decolonized art happenings taking place in public spheres across these lands. These artists are tackling issues and truths pertinent not only to Natives and to NDN country, but to everyone. The issues addressed span movements from MMIWG2 to LANDBACK, the ever-changing concept of “queerness” while remaining steeped in traditionalism, and allyship. There are correlations between the sexualization, fetishization, and assault of Native women and LANDBACK ties between Indigenous queerness and allyship.
These artists demonstrate that the public component of their work is a critical part of dismantling centuries-old systemic colonization, which is still prevalent today. Just as Indigenous people are very much part of the modern world, colonization is not a thing of the past—it is still happening. Public art plays an essential role in confronting and crushing it. I believe the works of these artists and their recent contributions will spark necessary discourse, provide a framework for information exchange and culture bearing that breeds real change, and, overall, make big strides toward re-Indigenizing Turtle Island.
—Jessica Mehta, PhD, guest curator
1 Turtle Island is an Indigenous name for North America.
2 Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
The third Public Art Now event in our FORWARD series features a conversation between artist Gregg Deal and guest curator Jessica (Tyner) Mehta, PhD. In her introduction to the Public Art Now collection in FORWARD Issue #5, Jessica writes: "I believe the works of these artists and their recent contributions will spark necessary discourse, provide a framework for information exchange and culture bearing that breeds real change, and, overall, make big strides toward re-Indigenizing Turtle Island." Watch the recording and enjoy their captivating discussion about how Native artists are critically engaging the public realm.
Watch this conversation, which was held via Zoom on Wednesday, March 22, 2023.
Please consider a donation to make events like this possible.
01: Transcending the Trace
Photos courtesy Luzene Hill.
by Luzene Hill (Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians/EBCI)
London (British Film Institute)
Hill’s work demands to be seen, to be heard, as she tackles subjects and problems that are (unfortunately) familiar to all of us—but are sources of desperation in NDN country and for Natives (particularly Native women). Transcending the Trace is a good example, boldly unearthing and declaring the realities of sexual assault, which is among the many natural results of conditions in a postcolonial world. The carpet’s crimson color has myriad meanings cross-culturally, but for Natives it hints at something more on a pan-Indigenous level. Red is the color of war and warriors. It has been linked to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two Spirit (MMIWG2S) and “REDress” movements. It has become, or reclaimed its place as, the color of resistance and feminine power. It says, We are still here, and we will not be silenced.
02: Because Once You Enter My House It Becomes Our House
Photo by Brian Barlow.
By Jeffrey Gibson (Choctaw and Cherokee)
It would be a challenge for anyone to select just one of Jeffrey Gibson’s works to highlight, which is why I’m so thankful Because Once You Enter My House It Becomes Our House also features a housed exhibition. That exhibition, Infinite Indigenous Queer Love, at deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, subtly yet proudly celebrates the fluidity of queerness, which flows through so many Native nations, tribes, and cultures. I share some ancestry with Gibson, who is Choctaw and Cherokee, and I am delighted to see our heritage woven into the recognizable imagery of queerness today, such as the fringe in rainbow hues, which celebrates a more holistic sense of who we are as Natives. It takes us out of the past and places us in the moment, where we live and where we belong. So-called queerness has been a prevalent, sacred part of many, if not all, Indigenous cultures since time immemorial, and Gibson is at the forefront of celebrating that fact through immersive experiences like this.
03: Crazy Horse Memorial
2020 photo by Pedrik / flickr / CC by 2.0.
Governed by the family of Korczak Ziolkowski
Crazy Horse, South Dakota
What other public art project has been in creation for 72 years, celebrates a Lakota leader, and is designed by a (late) Polish-American? In 1939, Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear commissioned Korczak Ziolkowski to begin the project right before the Mount Rushmore sacrilege was completed. It was an effort to counteract the colonization represented by carving the images of four white presidents into a mountain whose original name, “Six Grandfathers,” comes from a vision of Lakota elder Nicolas Black Elk. Ziolkowski died in 1982 and, per his request, was buried at the memorial-in-progress. Today, the sculpture continues under the guidance of his family, and visitors can see the process for themselves. Natives with proof of tribal citizenship can enter at no charge. For me, the mother of children adopted from the Oglala Lakota Nation, this ongoing memorial—the largest carved structure in the world—is a testament to our resilience and how true allyship can occur and persist, even beyond death.
1981 photo of statue and memorial. Photo by Don Graham / flickr / CC by SA 2.0.
2018 photo of statue and memorial. Photo by Sumner Caughey / flickr / CC by 2.0.
2022 mountain with model. Photo ©CHM.
2010 close detail. Photo by Jim Bowen / flickr / CC by 2.0.
2008. Photo by rachaelvoorhees / flickr / CC by SA 2.0.
Future Ancestral Technologies: We Survive You, Mandan, ND, 2021. For LANDBACK.Art, in collaboration with NDN Collective, INDÍGENA, and For Freedoms. Photo by Justin Deegan, courtesy Cannupa Hanska Luger.
By various artists, organized by Demetrius Johnson (Diné)
Across North America
Public art can take many different forms and approaches. This work fuses new technology with a very old-school means of communication. LANDBACK.Art is a Kickstarter project that has surpassed its initial goal of $40,000 and is now aiming for $60,000 by November, which is Native American Heritage month. Campaign organizer Demetrius Johnson undertook the campaign in order to flood Turtle Island with LANDBACK messages from, in the organizers’ words, “Indigenous artists, community members, and their allies”—20 of them. This exemplifies community effort—and success—while utilizing one of the most common media we see across NDN land in this post-contact world: billboards. LANDBACK, a war cry that has garnered mass media attention in recent years, is now claiming its rightful place at the center of decolonization (which is a process, not a destination). LANDBACK.Art is a true public art project, combining Native messages about Native realities with familiar technologies for maximum results.
"The power of our work, message, and resistance knows no boundaries," says artist Votan Henriquez on Instagram. Photo courtesy Votan Henriquez, billboard by For Freedoms.
Votan Henriquez says about this project on Instagram, "Growing up, it was impossible to see conscious, rebellious, and revolutionary billboards up across occupied 'America.' Now it's a tangible reality." Photo courtesy Votan Henriquez, billboard by For Freedoms.
According to the artist, Inés Ixierda, their design "is based on Sogorea Te’ Land Trust founders and lifelong urban Indigenous grassroots organizers, Corrina Gould (Lisjan Ohlone) and Johnella LaRose (Shoshone Bannock). It shows the ghost of a city behind the new growth of plants overtaking it as two Indigenous women with long braids down their backs look onwards, envisioning another future against the bright ombre of sunrise." Photo by Inés Ixierda.
05: Take Back the Power
Photo by Gregg Deal.
By Gregg Deal (Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe)
Colorado Springs, Colorado
In this mural, Gregg Deal creates conversation starters about one of the most prevalent and media-grabbing issues in Indian country: violence against women, girls, and Two-Spirit (2S) people. First shown in the 2020 Colorado Springs “Art on the Streets” program, the 60-foot piece is the largest Deal has ever created and features his then-14-year-old daughter in an Interrupters T-shirt with the (by now) well-known image of a red handprint over her lower face—a reclaimed pan-Indigenous sign of strength in the MMIWG2S movement. Today MMIWG2S awareness and activism routinely include not only women (W) and girls (G) but also Two-Spirit (2S) people and, increasingly, boys. Violence against Native people of all genders is endemic, a natural product of colonialism. According to the National Institute of Justice, more than four out of five Native women will experience domestic and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives, and it has been estimated that the vast majority of perpetrators, 96 percent, are non-Native. Deal’s massive yet intimate mural is an attention-grabber and, hopefully, a transmitter of truth and a starting point for serious conversations.
Just as Indigenous people are very much part of the modern world, colonization is not a thing of the past—it is still happening. Public art plays an essential role in confronting and crushing it.
Jessica (Tyner) Mehta, PhD
Jessica (Tyner) Mehta, PhD, is an Aniyunwiya (citizen of the Cherokee Nation), Two-Spirit, full-time working artist, writer, and researcher. Jessica has sustained themself as a writer and artist for over a decade thanks to her founding of the writing services company MehtaFor in 2012 and the support of countless fellowships, residencies, grants, and awards for her creative works over the years. Most recently, Jessica was a 2021 GLEAN: Portland artist and created a series of works titled Strong FoundNations that brings attention to the history of the “Indian boarding schools” (of which her father was a survivor). As a Native artist, she knows first-hand the depths and intricacies of systemic racism within the world of “western art,” particularly in settler-based spaces like major art galleries and museums. Jessica is a Fulbright Nehru Senior Scholar in Bengaluru, where she is teaching poetry workshops at Christ University and curating an anthology of contemporary Indian poetry written in the colonizer’s tongue. Jessica is also Forecast’s Change Lab Research Fellow focusing on Indigenous visibility in public art, where she is examining the language used in open calls for Native American public artists.
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FORWARD: Issue #5
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