Art That Moves

Art That Moves:

Images Courtesy of the Artists

Home and community figure prominently in any work that explores tradition. In his installation Aosamia’jij – Too Much Too Little (2017), Jordan Bennett honors his homeland in Newfoundland through the act of recovering stories and narratives. Inspired by photographs of Joe “Amite” Jeddore, a member of the Mi’kmaq community living on Samiajij Miawpukek Reserve (Conne River) in the 1930s, Bennett’s work combines stories and voices of Jeddore family descendants with atmospheric recordings collected at the rural locations captured in the photographs. A series of speakers enrobed in subtly carved wood housing with grills woven with split black ash echoes Mi’kmaq basketry traditions. The photographs themselves are transformed into living culture, overriding their original purpose as anthropological documentation. Although you can see the original photographs in the installation, Bennett’s speakers, transformed into large sculptural forms, supersede the images; suspended against a brilliant pink wall, they are a commanding presence. Basketry is not often associated with such an artificial hue, but the choice is not incongruous; Mi’kmaq quillwork was dyed bright synthetic colors but the dyes have faded and all but disappeared on historic examples.

Kevin McKenzie’s choice of materials might also seem anomalous for an artist looking at belief and tradition; his work is inherently contradictory. In the Native world, beliefs are not limited to Indigenous world views. The imposition and adoption of Christianity among Native people is longstanding and raises thorny questions about the co-existence of such different belief systems. Father, Son and Holy Ghost (2015) reveals some of these tensions. These three buffalo skulls, cast in acrylic and polyurethane, are illuminated by orange neon lights that create the appearance of a meditative chapel. The reverential treatment of the buffalo, long venerated by tribes on the Great Plains whose existence for centuries depended on the hunting of these herd animals, contrasts with McKenzie’s choice of materials. The fabricated, artificial skulls and the secular associations of neon, identified primarily with advertising and the unsavory elements of urban nightlife, complicate the interpretation of this work as creating a sanctified space. As he states, “this is where the past confronts the present, [through] the enigmatic crystalline buffalo skull.” Let us also not forget how the commercial image of the buffalo skull, often with feathers, has evolved into a cheesy representation of Indian spirituality on innumerous black T-shirts and in Western decor.

The power of Native art that uses technological and experimental media is the power to move and excite our thinking about what Native art can be. The inspiration for this exhibition was my first encounter with Nicholas Galanin’s Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan 1 and 2 (2006) at a gallery in New York City in 2008. Galanin has always pushed the boundaries of expression and tradition through many types of media, but perhaps never as profoundly as with this memorable and powerful work. The grainy videos of two dancers improvising to music surprises and challenges us to rethink our ideas about tradition and cultural responsibility. The work was unexpected and jarring, yet also energizing. That rush of excitement stayed with me. Over the intervening years, Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan has been exhibited and published throughout the United States and internationally. Despite its relative simplicity in concept and execution, it has been foundational in the field of Native art and the possibilities of new electronic technologies.

Kathleen Ash-Milby (Navajo) is an associate curator at the National Museum of the American Indian – New York.