- By Jenna Kunze
NEW YORK — Last week, a half dozen Indigenous artists from across the United States and Canada captured the art world’s attention at two separate exhibition openings in New York City.
The first, Caroline Monnet, an Anishinaabe/French artist, had her first solo exhibition open on September 7 at contemporary art gallery Arsenal Contemporary. The show was curated by Greg Hill (Mohawk).
Titled WORKSITE, the exhibit includes 17 original works from the multidisciplinary, Montreal-based artist. Many of the pieces are made from raw construction materials —such as asphalt shingles, plexiglas, and polyethylene foam—that have been repurposed and Indigenized.
The show is meant to be a commentary on humans’ relationships to our environments, Monnet said. She was particularly inspired by the history of logging in New York City: how an old-growth forest has since been clear-cut to build the economic empire and how a lot of timber has since ended up building foundations of buildings rather than staying in the ground.
“It’s really about our relationship with our environment,” Monnet told Native News Online. “The entire show is about how economic development is made on the back of trees and how natural resources and economy are completely linked.”
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For one piece, the artist grew toxic black mold on gypsum plasterboard often used in homebuilding instead of drywall. Then, she overlaid computer-generated Anishinabe designs to create intricate symbols and patterns—” almost like a QR code—over the mold.
“I do think that we should treat homes and buildings as living bodies,” Monnet said. “If there’s lingering mold in your home, it’s going to affect your physical, mental, emotional health, even spiritual health. So it speaks about the housing crisis [among First Nations in Canada], and maybe the lack of vision that we’re not necessarily using the proper materials or putting enough care in the building.”
In her largest work at the exhibit, Monnet built wooden scaffolding with Anishinaabe designs around two colonial pillars that existed in the gallery space. She said the piece represented her identity as an Indigenous and French woman.
“I visited the space and saw the columns, which I thought were very colonial. I wanted to find a way that they’re not so present in the show, and how to be in relationship with them. That’s why I did the scaffolding, because New York is full of scaffolding. I’m also part French. My father is from France, and my mother is Anishinaabe, so it’s kind of interesting how the Anishinaabe is surrounding the more colonial.”
WORKSITE is open to the public at Arsenal Contemporary through October 21.
YOUNG ELDER, James Fuentes Art Gallery, 55 Delancey Street, New York, New York
On September 8, further east in Manhattan’s downtown, another exhibit opened at the James Fuentes art gallery, titled Young Elder.
The one-room show features work by artists Andrea Carlson (Ojibwe), Sonya Kelliher-Combs (Inupiaq), Tyrrell Tapaha (Diné), and Nico Williams (Anishinaabe). The exhibit was curated by Natalie Ball (Klamath/Modoc) and Zach Feuer, and named after a Reservation Dogs episode in Season 2, when a character self-righteously refers to himself as a young elder.
Each artists’ work uses Indigenous materials and traditions to create contemporary commentary. “They all hold this tradition and this future at the same time,” Feuer said at a walk-through with the artists on Friday morning. “And that was an inspiring connection.”
Tapaha (they/them) is a 6th generation Diné weaver in their family who herds Navajo-Churro sheep throughout the year, then shears, skirts, washes, and spins the wool for their artwork. “Not only do I know the sheep, I know the dye, I know the plant,” Tapaha said.
Navajo weaving is always paired with pop culture, Tapaha said, which explains the personal text paired on their woven pieces. One work contains messages from Tapha’s personal life: “All that for a boy?” Another weaving showcases a photo of a family sheep wearing a hat that was on a family reunion t-shirt in 2005.
Carlson presented a twenty-four-panel art piece of ink, oil, acrylic, gouache, graphite, watercolor, and pen on paper, titled The Indifference of Fire. The piece is about how Indigenous communities continue to heal and grow and strategies of survival despite environmental conditions, such as fire. One depiction in Carlson’s work l is the white-throated sparrow, a bird with four chromosomal genders that ensures the continuation of its species.
“We have to find some strategies for survival,” she said.
Last, Nico Williams presented his beadwork of four found objects: a flier for a supermarket memorializing food prices impacted by inflation, a red strip of danger tape, an Amazon delivery box, and a wallet containing his Indigenous status card.
“I’m always walking around the city and I’m always looking at objects and the kinds of things and how they’re communicating,” Williams said.
In his Montreal-based studio, Williams creates a digital rendering of found objects he then uses as a pattern for stringing together glass beads. Those works symbolize trade and commerce, Indigenous identity, and lesser-known histories in everyday objects, such as his recreation of a Canadian ten-dollar bill from the 1970s—a period in which the currency boasted an illustration of the nuclear power refinery that was built in Williams’ home, the Aamjiwnaang Nation in Sarnia, Ontario.
Finally, though she wasn’t present for the walk-through, Alaska Native artist Sonya Kelliher-Combs presented a sculpture series called Pink Slips. In it, several synthetic animal skins are “scarred” by imprints, in reference to the emotional scarring of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Crisis.
“My attraction to her work is the idea of using skins from home—she’s from Alaska—but also [including] gender roles in her work, and the repetition and scale,” said curator Natalie Ball of Kelliher-Combs’ work.
She added that, as the exhibitions co-curator, the works of the four artists are in conversation with one another.
“I think that they’re rooted in community, and they’re rooted in ancestral knowledge,” she said. “And that was my preface for wanting them to be in this show. It’s a lot of work to stay rooted in your community and to, maintain that connection to community and to maintain ancestral knowledge. I really respect those artists who maintain that sort of connection. I wanted to respect just that.”
Young Elder will remain on display through October 14.
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