Apocalypse then and now
New exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts
The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day.
— from Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West
No famine, nor pestilence, earthquakes, or floods accompany the main exhibition at the Institute of American Indian Arts’ Museum of Contemporary Native Arts. An Evening Redness in the West is a group show that reimagines the idea of the apocalypse. As when the mythical phoenix dies in flames before rising again from its own ashes, the “end-times” are a lead-in to a fresh beginning, a new life. “The word ‘apocalypse’ implies the end of one world, but it also has the promise of a new one at the same time,” Candice Hopkins, the exhibition curator, told Pasatiempo.
It has been more than a year since Hopkins joined the staff as an interim curator at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, where she now serves as chief curator, and her first two shows for the museum, An Evening Redness in the West and Visions and Visionaries, open on Friday, Aug. 21.The title of An Evening Redness in the West’s comes from Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian. “For me, Blood Meridian really got to the depth of what I imagine was the violence of the settling of the West, as well as opening up the consistent historical amnesia that continues to plague us when we think about how this area was settled,” Hopkins said. Even now, in the 21st century, romanticized depictions of Native peoples and the West — increasingly incongruous when compared to the landscape of contemporary Native artists — suggest an almost mythic vision of white people inheriting, rather than taking by force, the lands of indigenous tribes. The apocalypse, from a Native perspective, could represent a time in our nation’s history when cultural genocide meant the near-destruction of many Native tribes. Today, global warming and rapidly diminishing natural resources suggest that something just as insidious is playing out, also on an apocalyptic scale. Native peoples who still strive to maintain sacred lands in the face of encroaching strip mining and fracking ventures, for example, or who grew up on reservations playing in uranium
tailings and now face the health consequences of that innocent action, have reason to believe that the future — and doomsday is so often described as occurring in the not-too-distant future — is now.
Naomi Bebo’s Beaded Mask speaks to this reality with its reference to toxicity. The mask, made using an Iraqi gas mask, bears elegant floral beadwork, a medium common to many Native tribes. It is an object of contrasting meanings. In the mask, affixed with deer hide and strands of ermine, the organic world of nature collides with an object intended for use in military operations and for protection from poisoned air. “Even though it’s something you may need to survive in a toxic environment, it’s still aestheticized,” Hopkins said. Bebo created a second, child-sized mask specifically for the exhibition.
Other artists represented in the exhibit include Rose B. Simpson, an IAIA alumna, Virgil Ortiz, Joseph Tisiga, Andrea Carlson, Shuvinai Ashoona, Duane Linklater, Jeffrey Gibson, Death Convention Singers, Scott Jones, and Norman Akers.
Simpson and Ortiz collaborated for the first time and, by fortuitous circumstance, Hopkins was considering including each artist separately when they contacted her and asked if they could work together. “I’m really excited about Virgil’s post-apocalyptic style,” Simpson, a Santa Clara Pueblo-based artist whose figurative sculpture and original fashion designs are also post-apocalyptic, told Pasatiempo. The collaboration seems like a natural fit. Ortiz and Simpson’s ceramic installation is a sort of storefront where two figures dole out gas masks, elaborately decorated as objects of high fashion, to the survivors of a post-catastrophic world. “All the stuff I do is based on the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, and I’m retelling it for 2180,” Ortiz said. His goal is to one day create life-size ceramic figures that reflect this theme, but there are challenges to accomplishing this using the materials he is known for. “I never worked with nonnative clay before,” said Ortiz, who normally uses Cochití clay in his pit-fired ceramics but tried his hand with more elastic store-bought clays for his collaboration with Simpson. “Rose is experienced in that. I learned a lot from the technique. I’m used to firing outside with a lot more things blowing up.” The separate components of their installation were kiln-fired. “I think going back to 1680 and the Pueblo Revolt is about what it means to be a Native person but also a warrior, a cultural warrior,” Simpson said. “How do you address our current situation with agency? How do you adorn yourself and create a new identity for Native peoples? How do you proceed in a way that’s empowered?”
Carlson’s Ink Babel, a composite drawing that is nearly 10 feet tall and 15 feet wide, is a massive piece whose graphic imagery, some of which references pop culture, conveys a sense of doom. “Andrea Carlson is based in Minneapolis,” Hopkins said. “She’s never shown in the Southwest. A lot of her earlier series were based on science fiction and what’s called the ‘cannibal cult’ era of films. She also organizes movie nights in Minneapolis so I’m asking her if she’ll curate some outdoor screenings for us.” Ink Babel is made up of separate drawings arranged in a grid. Carlson repeats the images from sheet to sheet but alters each one slightly. The title suggests the language barriers that faced Native peoples and Europeans upon their first encounters with one another. In the composition, where graphic elements are arranged into a massive “V” shape, an abstractly rendered masked figure gazes into a mirror where images of Columbus’ ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María, can be seen.
Tisiga’s Preparation for Utopia, a watercolor, is a haunting image with a felled tree depicted at its center. The hills in the background send up a plume of smoke from an unseen fire into the sky where hot air balloons ascend into darkness, and two figures interact near another dead tree, one of them in the process of cutting it down, too. “Most of his drawings are centered on these two figures which he calls the White Shaman and the Red Chief,” Hopkins said. “Even though it represents this utopia, things are still burning.”
Inuit artist Ashoona fills her landscapes with figures real and imaginary. “Good and evil are always at play in her drawings,” Hopkins sid. “A lot of that is because when organized religion was introduced into the north in the 1950s and ’60s, it was a clash of world views because the Inuit already had their own entrenched belief system and spirituality. You do sometimes see biblical representations in her work, but there’s also Sedna, a very important Inuit god or goddess — sometimes she’s seen as male, sometimes as female — who lives underneath the sea and controls the powers of the sea.”
Gibson’s What We Want What We Need, one of two pieces by the artist in the show, is also large-scale. The title is taken from the lyrics in hip-hop artists Public Enemy’s anthem Fight the Power. The piece is almost 13 feet long and made from a repurposed wool army blanket, glass beads, tin, turquoise, amethyst and quartz crystals, plastic sequins, and skeins of industrial yarn, among other
All the stuff I do is based on the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, and I’m retelling it for 2080.
— artist Virgil Ortiz
materials. “This one by Jeffrey Gibson is, I believe, his largest piece to date,” Hopkins said. “He was inspired by Chilkat robes he saw in museums.”
Linklater, a Cree artist from North Bay, Canada, contributes a neon thunderbird, part of a series of five such works he calls Tautology. The thunderbird is a symbol of great power and strength and is a figure present in the myths and legends of several Native peoples. Linklater’s representation was inspired by the designs of Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau. “Duane took the outline of one of Morrisseau’s thunderbirds and transposed it,” Hopkins said. “Morrisseau is credited as the founder of the Woodlands School of Art, which continues today as an aesthetic practice. Duane is interested in Morrisseau but also in the thunderbird itself as a mediator between worlds and as this godlike force for the Anishinaabe people. Also, I think what the neon does is mobilizes it into the language of public signage; Morrisseau for Canada is iconographic.”
Hopkins, a Tlingit, joined the IAIA museum after serving in curatorial positions at the National Gallery of Canada and the Walter Phillips Gallery at Canada’s Banff Centre, among other institutions. The other group show she curated, Visions and Visionaries ,is the inaugural show of the museum’s Kieve Family Gallery on the second floor. The exhibit space, in development since 2010, is intended for showing selections from the museum’s nearly 8,000 works of art. It was formerly used as collection storage space. “It was so packed they couldn’t collect any more,” said museum director Patsy Phillips. “In 2010 we moved the collection from here to the campus where we have a state-of-the-art facility.” The new collections facility is located in IAIA’s Barbara and Robert Ells Science & Technology Building. Before converting the secondfloor space at the museum to an exhibit hall, staff first had to remove a floor-to-ceiling safe, a remnant from the building’s days as a U.S. post office, remodel the walls and ceiling, and revamp the HVAC system. “What the museum was lacking, in my opinion, was showing its collection,” Phillips said. “Visitors really want to see what’s in your collection. It seemed like the perfect space.” After moving the collection offsite, the gallery was used for exhibition prep until the funding could be found to complete the transition. The funds were donated by Loren Kieve, chair of IAIA’s board of trustees. “That space will only be to show our collections because that’s really what’s been missing,” Phillips said. “When the shows rotate, which is what happens on the first floor, people can’t really get to know your collection and know your history, our connection to IAIA.”
Visions and Visionaries isn’t precisely an exhibit of visionary art, although that is a component, but it is the expression of the venture that began with the vision of Lloyd Kiva New and IAIA’s founders back in the 1960s. “Originally, IAIA was collecting student work and then teachers,” Hopkins said. “Many notable people were coming through the institution in the 1960s: T.C. Cannon, Fritz Scholder, Alfred Young Man. For us to have a place where we can show all these works on long-term display is huge, because I think a lot of the public might not know what is housed in the collection. We’ve got a pretty encyclopedic collection of T.C. Cannon’s work.”
Rather than arrange a chronological display, Hopkins organized the exhibit in “chapters” that reflect themes that presented themselves to her through the art: Abstraction; Ways of Seeing; Politics and Perception; Realism and the Documentary Image. “At the entrance to this gallery, what I was interested in putting forward were the ways in which abstraction has always been an indigenous aesthetic and tradition. I wanted to show that long trajectory and the way that it’s been in dialogue with other art discourses and to also make the case that things that might appear to be purely abstract to certain viewers are, in fact, embedded with meaning.” To that end, she included abstract works by George Morrison, Scholder’s Shaman Portrait #1, whose central, abstract figure contains nothing overtly “Indian,” and Diné artist Steven Yazzie’s abstracted landscape Under the Arch. “What I like [about Yazzie’s painting] is this relationship between representation and abstraction, but that it reads as landscape nevertheless,” Hopkins said. “This one is of a natural land bridge. It’s from the campus art collection.”
In the section Ways of Seeing, Hopkins was interested in showing the relationship between ceremony and perception. “Ceremony can shape how we see the world, not purely as a realistic representation but as something perhaps more metaphysical.” Underscoring this theme are works by Scholder and Cannon that are more experimental and, consequently, contrasted with the traditional subject matter of early to
mid-20th century studio painting, several examples of which are also on view. Photography is prominent in other chapters of the show. “In the realism section I’m showing more intimate portraits, often done by students when they were at IAIA. It’s so common for photographs, especially older photographs, of Native people to be shot by non-Native people.” Museum staff plan to rotate the artworks out in about a year and bring in other works from the collection.
Visions and Visionaries also includes pieces by alumni Marcus Amerman and David Bradley, as well as works by former faculty members including Jonathan Bayer, and artists not affiliated with the school but important in their own right nevertheless: R.C. Gorman and James Luna among them. Luna, an installation and performance artist, participates in IAIA’s artistin-residence program in late autumn and in “Acting OUT: A Symposium on Indigenous Performance Art” at the Lensic in December. Two other exhibitions open on Aug. 21: Eve-Lauryn LaFountain: Waabanishimo (She Dances Till Daylight) and Meryl McMaster: Wanderings. The latter exhibit is a photo-based show, guest curated by Jon Lockyer, director of Artspace in Ontario. Wanderings deals with McMaster’s journey as a person of Native and European heritage. In addition, the museum holds ongoing screenings of Native filmmaker Julianna Brannum’s documentary LaDonna Harris: Indian 101, on the life of the Comanche activist and proponent of civil rights.
Opposite page, Jeffrey Gibson: What We Want What We Need, 2015, mixed media
Left, Virgil Ortiz: DRYVR, from Wanderlust installation, 2015, ceramic; right, Naomi Bebo: Apocalyptic Woodland Child, 2015, mixed media
Opposite page, Fritz Scholder: Shaman Portrait #1, 1986, oil on canvas; all photos Jason S. Ordaz
Andrea Carlson: Ink Babel (detail), 2014, ink and oil on paper, photos courtesy Bockley Gallery, Minneapolis; left, Virgil Ortiz, Wanderlust (detail), 2015, mixed media