Marie Watt and Cannupa Hanska Luger are recognized nationally as community-oriented, social activist artists. But even before this recognition, they were overturning the stereotypes into which Native artists are often forced.
At the Michael C. Carlos Museum through December 12, Each/Other comprises work by these two distinguished Indigenous artists. Their striking show resolves several problems often inherent in exhibits of work by contemporary artists who identify as what we could loosely call Native American.
Cultural nomenclature has shifted considerably — and appropriately so — since semi-traditional “arts of the American Indian” were marketed to 19th century tourists, reflecting the cultural changes within which these two artists exist. Watt was born in Seattle, received an Master’s in Fine Arts from Yale, and lived in New York before moving to Portland, Oregon. She describes herself as Seneca and German-Scots. Luger is Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota and European. He was born on the Standing Rock Reservation and lived there until moving to New Mexico, where he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in studio arts from the Institute of American Indian Arts.
None of this tangle of ethnic terminology is apparent when viewers enter the show. What does appear, spectacularly, is “Every One,” Luger’s 4,000-bead, freestanding hanging that pays homage to the missing and/or murdered First Nations women whose status the Canadian government has thus far acknowledged; the real number could be far higher.
It is a magnificent, collaborative, community work. Central to the hanging is a rendering of “Sister” from a photograph by First Nations artist Kali Spitzer. Luger provided a template for the tennis ball-sized beads, and thousands of collaborators from around the world created them in a palette of whites and greys. Combined, they create the face of “Sister.” Each bead is identified with its maker and with a missing and/or murdered individual. Beads broken in the process of travel or installation are part of the piece.
This form of mostly long-distance collaboration, and of process in which the work is never a definitively finished object, is paralleled by Watt’s intensively community-oriented practice. For two decades, she has created sewing circles in which participants converse while working on text-oriented pieces. The potent words or phrases therein are not necessarily associated with Indigenous cultural expressions, but reflect the concerns of the community members creating the artwork.
“Butterfly,” however, was informed by two young Indigenous dancers. Their stories led Watt to create imagery with the metal jingle cones used on powwow dresses. Circle participants from the Denver Art Museum’s annual powwow were invited to write a wish on the flattened metal from which the cones were then fashioned. (Each/Other was exhibited at the Denver museum before traveling to Atlanta.)
Watt gives each circle participant a print as a gift. Luger has wrestled with the question of appropriate compensation for collaborators when only the artist is paid by the institution exhibiting the end product. This is, of course, a longstanding difficulty with most community-based art.
Luger sums it up with his emphatic assertion that art is process, not object; for him the very notion of producing objects for exhibition by an institution causes discomfort. (Luger, after all, created the “Mirror Shields,” functional devices for the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline Water Protectors as they walked through the treaty land of the Standing Rock Reservation during their protests. These too are on display at the Carlos.)
Nevertheless, there are some fine objects here, including costumes from the Sweet Land Opera. This 2020 opera reinterprets the historical events in which would-be colonizer Arrivals interact with the Indigenous Hosts. The audience is guided through alternate scenarios by the Hosts’ spirit figures Coyote, Bone and Wiindigo.
In the adjacent gallery, two monumental defenders of an even more monumental figure of “Nature” appear to struggle to subdue a giant snake made from used tires and other objects associated with the fossil fuel industry.
Both works reveal a striking blend of the traditional and the contemporary. Both feed into Luger’s concern with the “Future Ancestral Technologies” project, a vision of an alternative future to which Indigenous perspectives will contribute significantly.
Watt, too, has long blended traditional and contemporary perspectives, creating “Skywalker/Skyscraper (Babel).” This work is related to her “Blanket Stories” project: Community participants donate blankets along with stories of their personal significance.
The blankets are then stacked around an I-beam, a reference to the Iroquois men known as skywalkers because of their unusual aptitude to work without safety harnesses on sky-high I-beams during the construction of skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building and the rebuilt World Trade Center.
Watt also created an “Antipodes” diptych that makes us think about how language connects time and culture: the Iroquois “Skywalkers” and Luke Skywalker from Star Wars.
The most recent (and ongoing) work in the show is a large she-wolf sculpture titled “Each/Other.” It comprises a frame covered with bandannas, each one decorated and donated by participants near and far during the 2020 Covid quarantine and the months following. Watt and Luger created the earliest iteration of the piece while in isolation with their families during the shutdown. The work then debuted at the Denver Art Museum before traveling to the Carlos. Next stop is the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.
Dr. Jerry Cullum’s reviews and essays have appeared in Art Papers magazine, Raw Vision, Art in America, ARTnews, International Journal of African-American Art and many other popular and scholarly journals. In 2020 he was awarded the Rabkin Prize for his outstanding contribution to arts journalism.