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Representation matters at ‘Revisions: Contemporary Native Art’

| Monday, February 18, 2019

Diane Park | The Observer

You may have seen the posters on campus — they’re hard to miss. In the black and white photographs reproduced on the posters, images of Native American men have been annotated, edited and — quite literally — revised in red ink.

These images depict a series of works by the artist Wendy Red Star (Apsáalooke/Crow), and have been put up to advertise the Snite Museum’s latest installation, “Revisions: Contemporary Native Art.”

The exhibit features over 20 regionally and nationally celebrated artists, a diversity visiting curator Frances Jacobus-Parker was intentional about when putting together the display.

At the installation’s opening reception, Jacobus-Parker said to everyone gathered, “It is important to note that, while many of these artists are connected through thematic and cultural relations or lines of influence, they are from different nations, different generations, different parts of the country. They do not reflect a cohesive movement or scene. Moreover, each would be equally at home in an exhibition of contemporary art, Native or not.”

Yet, the display didn’t start out with such a diverse focus. Jacobus-Parker said the way the display came about was “partly determined by what [the Snite has] in [its] permanent collection.”

Jacobus-Parker set the Snite’s permanent Native American pieces as a starting point from which she “looked for patterns and thought about what kind of conceptual framework it would be productive to put those works into beyond just that they were made by Native artists.”

Jacobus-Parker said she noticed “many of [the artists] were drawing on aspects of their own culture — individual tribal iconographies, personal histories, patterns, or landscapes — and then, in one way or another, changing them and reconfiguring them.” From there came the idea of “Revisions: Contemporary Native Art.”

Larissa Nez (Diné/Navajo), a current senior studying art history and sociology, said she helped Jacobus-Parker along the journey of curation and connection.

Nez joined the project early as a research assistant, contributing by writing labels, researching and suggesting artists like Paul Seesequasis (Willow Cree).

The Seesequasis piece featured in the collection consists of an interactive social media display located in the third gallery. The piece’s unique form came together after Jacobus-Parker realized what seemed “most interesting about his project was that it existed on social media and that it became something interactive. […] People will write in and say ‘Oh, I know where this photo was taken’ or ‘That’s my grandmother.’… Seesequasis is doing this very practical thing to produce a new set of archives, a new way for people to engage.”

Red Star, one of the other featured artists, also very deliberately asks her audience to engage and to intervene directly in historical representations of Native people.

The entire second room of the three-room exhibition is devoted to Red Star’s works. It functions as an exhibition within an exhibition and anchors a show that, as Jacobus-Parker said, “includes all of these different artists doing all of these different things.” All the works in the room explore one historical event — the 1880 Crow Peace Delegation, where a group of Crow tribal leaders traveled to from Montana to Washington, D.C. to negotiate over land and the construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad — through the lens of art. 

Jacobus-Parker was particularly excited to include a piece by Red Star’s daughter, Beatrice.

“There’s a playfulness to [it],” Jacobus-Parker said. “But also this is a piece that looks back and looks forward and invites us to think about the ways meaning is made and history is remade by each generation.”

The piece consists of print-outs of black and white photographs of Crow tribal leaders, which Beatrice colored on while her mother worked in her studio.

Jacobus-Parker and Nez, through this installation, do their part to make and remake Notre Dame’s history in relation to the area’s Native population.

Together, Jacobus-Parker and Nez have consciously invited the local Pokagon Band of Potawatomi to join the process of putting the exhibition together.

Jason Wesaw, one of the Pokagon artists, created a textile piece that features elements of traditional Native dress made from transfer prints of Potawatomi treaties. Jacobus-Parker calls these pieces “invitations to learn more.” About Wesaw’s, Red Star’s and the other featured artists’ work, Jacobus-Parker said “there’s a reference to something that you can’t quite access and then it makes you want to understand it better.”

This emphasis on learning and understanding lies at the heart of “Revisions.” The exhibition is an invitation not only to look, but also to listen. It offers an opportunity to see representations of Native culture created by Native artists — something that has been missing on campus up until this point.

Nez sees both irony and beauty in opening “Revisions” shortly after University President Fr. John Jenkins’ decision to cover the Columbus murals.

Nez said she hopes that the timing of the installation “elevates the conversation even more and makes the community think about how Native people are represented.” She and other members of the Native American Student Association of Notre Dame (NASA-ND) “feel that [their] erasure and tokenization is an important issue to highlight regarding the murals.”

NASA-ND is challenging a growing trend of “anti-Native and anti-Indigenous sentiments on campus” as a result of the decision to cover the murals, Nez said.

“The Young Americans for Freedom student group invited a conservative speaker on for an event [on Feb. 21] called, ‘Columbus: Hero not Heathen’ where the group directly identified NASA-ND and anyone else who supports the decision to cover the murals as being against American values and supporting the censorship of history,” Nez said.

Nez said as a result of the decision to cover the murals, Native students have been put under extra pressure.

“Native students have been put directly under a spotlight,” she said. “On one hand, we are working to heal from the wounds and trauma these murals represent and inflict, and on the other hand, we’re facing backlash from groups who choose to remain ignorant to these perspectives. It’s very difficult to navigate.”

Because “Revisions” opened when it did, the installation has the potential to push back against anti-Native sentiment and invite people to learn more about what it means to respect a culture on its own terms. By letting Native artists express their identities as they see them, the exhibition showcases the importance of, as Nez puts it, “different voices [being represented] for what they are versus what people perceive them to be outside of their cultures. Representation matters.”

“Revisions: Contemporary Native Art” is on view at the Snite Museum of Art on the University of Notre Dame’s campus through May 18. Admission to the Snite Museum of Art is free. 

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