Survivance and sovereignty on turtle island: Engaging with Contemporary Native American Art
The “Survivance and sovereignty on Turtle Island” is an exhibition show that is on view at the Kupferberg Holocaust Center (KHC). The exhibition aims at addressing the histories and the current realities of the first people of America, using contemporary art. The Anishinabek and the Lenape are some of the indigenous North American tribes, who named the region “Turtle Island.” The name originated from the Lenape creation story, which elaborates on how the world was created on the back of a turtle. The exhibition tells the story of the survival and sovereignty of the indigenous people who lived on Turtle Island. These tribes faced significant challenges, which include genocides and mass atrocities for centuries, and it is only through detailed artwork that contemporary society can understand these challenges.
The organizing principle and thesis of the show are to educate the masses on the issues faced by the indigenous people and how they overcame these challenges and still managed to preserve their culture. Moreover, the show focused on showcasing the rich indigenous culture, which most people have forgotten or do not think that it exists. Through the 16 pieces of art featured in the exhibition, one gets to reflect on the first people’s culture, understand aspects that were of importance to them, and how the cultures have evolved.
The indigenous people suffered from instances of genocide for over a hundred years. This genocide did not only occur physically, but it was also enforced culturally. The first people were brought together by their culture, and they cherished it, even in times when they were forced by their colonizers to abandon them. Through contemporary art in the exhibition, such as a piece of art by Nadema Agard, one understands how influential culture and heritage is to the indigenous people. The artwork, called Wampum Moon of Change includes words in the Munsee dialect, which was mainly spoken by the Lenape people, and original New Yorkers still speak some of its words. Language was an essential element of culture for the indigenous people as it provided a sense of belonging. Other than the inclusion of language in the painting, the purple and white color palettes used in the artwork are based on the wampum. The wampum was made from the shell of a clam (Quahog) and was valued by the people as it was used as a form of currency. It was also used as a form of adornment, and as a form of transportation to the spiritual world, aspects that are still present in Lenape and Algonquin countries. Through this piece of work, the survival of the culture of Turtle Island is showcased, where it was not only present in the previous generations, but it still is practiced by the current generation.
The exhibition further elaborates on the cultural survival and resistance of the indigenous people through the artwork of Mario Martinez. Martinez, through Brooklynscape #3 showcases how the indigenous people came to accept and integrate the western culture in their culture. The painting is a combination of colors and aspects of both the native and western cultures. Martinez combines elements from his pre-Christian Yaqui beliefs, aspects in the natural world, and activities currently ongoing in his life in Brooklyn. Through the painting, the survival of the indigenous people’s culture and the importance of western culture in preserving this native culture is demonstrated. Even though the two cultures differed significantly centuries ago with mass atrocities being committed, modern society has allowed them to bond. The piece of work further addresses the present realities of the first people, where most of them do not currently live in North America but have diversified to other cities. For instance, Martinez is from the Pascua Yaqui tribe that initially resided in Mexico, but he has however lived in the US for the most prolonged period. Through his artwork, one can understand how the culture of the indigenous people has traveled and is being accepted in different regions.
I became aware of variety of aspects of the first people’s culture and experiences from the exhibition. For instance, I learned of how elements such as the moon, clamshells, beans, windmills, and tobacco meant a lot to these people. They symbolized an essential aspect of their culture. Moreover, from the exhibition, I learned that even though there were a variety of tribes, they had a united culture. The exhibition further educated me on the ability to use contemporary art to teach indigenous cultures. These cultures are complex to understand and comprehend, but with the use of modern art, they are easily understandable.
In conclusion, the exhibition show was not only interesting but also informative. I would recommend any individual interested to learn about the indigenous cultures to attend the exhibition before it finally closes on May 2020. The exhibition provides an opportunity to reflect and learn about the first people’s cultures and experiences.
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