by Manu SharmaSep 20, 2022
The aesthetic value endowed to the final artwork at the display, more often than not, shadows the creative labour that goes into making it. The 3Cs – conversation, collaboration and creativity – laced to the pieces of art even if held significant, falter to be deemed indispensable to the entirety of making art. Making an exception is the exhibition Each/Other at the Denver Art Museum, the USA, featuring the works of the two leading indigenous contemporary artists: Portland-based Marie Watt and New-Mexico based Cannupa Hanska Luger, celebrating the value of 3Cs. The exhibition curated by John P. Lukavic features mixed-media sculptures, wall hangings and large-scale installation works to rightly encapsulate the act of participation and discussions: crucial to the art practice of both Watt and Luger.
The exhibition Each/Other perpetuates the Denver Art Museum’s commitment to supporting, presenting and collecting contemporary artists from indigenous communities and around the world. In a catalogue published in conjunction with the exhibition, Christoph Heinrich, Frederick and Jan Mayer Director of the DAM mention, “Through their creative, collaborative processes and finished works, both Marie Watt (Seneca, Scottish, and German) and Cannupa Hanska Luger (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota, and European) urge us to reconsider the reasons we prioritise the finished object over its making, to reconsider how museums privilege some stories over others, and they urge us to look into ourselves and question our own place within the systems that subjugate and disenfranchise.”
If Watt’s work is rooted in the details of the history, biography, memory, Iroquois proto-feminism and Indigenous principles, then Luger produces multi-pronged projects that directly speak to real-time and site-specific events. In fact, Watt was a Native Arts Artist-in-Residence participant at DAM, eight years back, when she created the large-scale installation Butterfly. The work, part of the current exhibition, is about collective desires. During the residence, Watt shared a conversation between two young Indigenous girls who told her about their experiences as powwow dancers. One of the two dancers was fond of fancy shawl dancers, and the other a jingle dress dancer. If one dancer felt like a butterfly while dancing, the second dancer expounded how the jingle dress originally had the power to heal. Drawing inspiration from this exchange of thoughts, Watt created the colourful pattern of Butterfly which highlights the movement of the fancy shawl dance with a relatively large area dedicated to the shiny metal cones usually embedded on the contemporary jingle dresses.
Through a video invitation, an open call was made for community participation in an artwork that is now formally named Each/Other. The public, without any limitation on the geographic location, was encouraged to participate. As part of the residency Stelo Arts & Culture Foundation, the artists instructed the viewers to fold the bandana-sized square of fabric into a triangle and have it embroidered with a word, message, or visual expression that could reflect their emotion experienced in the times of COVID-19 pandemic. Once the fabric was ready it was mailed to the artists.
The collected triangles were stitched together by the woman-owned and environmentally conscious fabrication studio Portland Garment Factory to give a form of a giant animal pelt. It was later draped over a steel structure made by Neal Fegan from the artists’ design. To give final life to the she-wolf body, Watt and Luger welded the head to the hand-stitched bandana submissions. The work is a fine reflection of the collaboration between communities in an effort to persuade the audience to have a discussion on critical issues on shelter, sustenance, security, to name a few. The installation is a means for the artist to ask the viewers if and how the acts of collaborations can rebuild the bonds between humans and the environment.
Watt expounds in the catalogue, “In our community, there is no Indigenous word for ‘art’, but works that we would now refer to as ‘artworks’ have been made for a very long time, I am interested in how we can have more cross-disciplinary conversations and conversations where art isn’t institutionalised or segregated from our experience in the world. I think of art as being something that intersects with science, nature, poetry and literature. It is integrated in our lives.” For the installation Skywalker/Skyscraper Watt brought together a series of colourful blankets to draw a relationship between histories and memories. Her work is also a commentary on the urban landscape populated by skyscrapers. For Watt, the sky carries both mythical and magic spaces. In a way, the installation is a way to reinforce the idea that the skyscrapers having their unique stories are a connection between the sky and the earth.
Luger offers his idea of art and the importance attached to the act of creation, “If art doesn’t have a name within the language, it’s not an object, it is something else. So, what is that other thing? I started thinking about it within my own practice, and what I realised is an older, more honest interpretation of what art is to human beings in general." Luger initially collected the data on the numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and transgender people in Canada to initiate the process of making the installation Every One. He wanted to make close to 4,000 clay beads to reinterpret the photographic portrait Sister taken by Kali Spitzer, who was the first artist of the First Nations. It was his way of extending solidarity towards families who lost their loved ones. Sooner he realised a parallel between the missing and murdered people and the labourers of the mining industry such as lumber, oil, and gas companies. Furthermore, it made him gauge his position as an implicated self within the structures of exploitation and violence. In order to include the people – the life force behind the creation of the clay beads – he created a short video to show what he says, “These engagement techniques combine technology and handwork to mobilise and even heal the communities who are facing immeasurable trauma from colonisation.”
To talk about the exploitation of the natural world order, Luger has ash black (ceramic) bones emerge from the floor like those exposed in an eroded riverbank in the installation Emergent. In the early 19th century when the non-Native settlers and military forces slaughtered the bison herds it had put an end to the economic and food survival of the Plains Tribes. The survival of the natural ecosystem is dependent on the balance, and once that is disturbed it opens the way for unprecedented destruction. The historical event to which this installation refers is an eye-opener for the people who continue to perform these ill-thought activities.
The exhibition Each/Other indeed opens a window to the works which raise questions on the lost harmony between humans and nature, but it is the participatory nature of the works that gain the spotlight. The artist Watt and Luger have once again underlined the idea that indigenous wisdom is a rich repository of values that remain significant all the time.
Each/Other the exhibition runs at the Denver Art Museum until August 22, 2021.