The art stands alone, but together: Individual stories, rooted in personal perspectives, that are part of a collective narrative.
Yo Nuweekun. “We Dwell Here,” says the work, all created by native and indigenous artists from the region.
The exhibit is a collaboration between the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter and The University of Rhode Island and is on display in the Department of Art & Art History Main Gallery in the Fine Arts Building, 105 Upper College Road, through March 1.
It opened Feb. 5 with an afternoon reception that featured storytelling by Thawn Harris. A reception featuring a panel of some of the artists, including Sherentè Harris, Nayana LaFond and Dawn Spears was scheduled for Feb. 12; the event was postponed to Feb. 19 because of snow.
As a description of the exhibit explains, “‘Yo Nuweekun, We Dwell Here’ represents Indigenous history, culture and present day lifeways through artistic representations, both traditional and contemporary. We share those stories to those of today and to continue for our future generations. Our stories are here, Our ancestors have always been here, We are the land.”
“We’re really thrilled with the way we are able to represent the native community,” said Lorèn Spears during remarks at the opening reception. Spears is the executive director of the Tomaquag Museum, and an organizer of the event.
There are roughly 10,000 indigenous people in Rhode Island, she noted, a state with an overall population of about 1 million. As a result, “we are invisible in our own homeland,” Spears explained.
“We Dwell Here” is an attempt to elevate indigenous visibility, and also to convey that “native people do all kinds of art,” Spears said.
“We’re not from the Northern Plains,” she added, explaining that much of the stereotypical native art reflects people from that region. The Northeast, with its coastlines, wetlands and woodlands is a much different landscape, and one that has distinctly shaped the tribes indigenous to this area, including the artwork its members create.
“We’re reflecting who we are as native people today,” Spears continued, noting some of the work is rooted in tradition, and some in the culture of the 21st century. In some cases, the work explores the intersection of the traditional and the contemporary.
The exhibit came about after Spears met Bob Dilworth at an event in 2016. Dilworth is a professor of painting, drawing, design, and African American art history at the university, where Spears was receiving an honorary degree. The two began discussing how to “keep elevating the ways indigenous art is perceived,” Spears recalled, a smile on her face as she motioned to the gallery around her, filled with a variety of work and a few dozen people milling about, taking it all in.
Among those attending the opening were many of the artists, including Nayana LaFond. She described the show as a collection of modern indigenous artists, with emphasis on the modern.
“We’re modern and diverse,” she said. “We don’t fit into a box.”
Many of LaFond’s pieces are in black and white, and a few incorporate metallic silver tones, which she said are applied sporadically but deliberately. Her subject matter is often women, reflecting herself and her ancestors, often in moments of sadness, silence, solitude and strength. Her work also reflects her battle with cancer, and recent state of remission.
One piece is a portrait of her grandmother made on fabric, which is woven to the frame where it hangs suspended in the center. The fabric was given to her by her grandmother, and her knowledge of sewing passed on to her from all of the women in her family.
Her work, she explained, is influenced by her life and also enables her to “survive this life.”
“My names means ‘she who walks in beauty and bearer of inner light’,” which she said is taken from a Navajo song.
LaFond, who lives in Massachusetts, is Anishinabe and of the Wikwemikong First Nation, an indigenous community on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron, Ontario. First Nation is the term used by the Canadian government to identify its indigenous populations.
While some of the artists are from other areas, many belong to the Narragansett tribe and live locally.
“We’ve been dwelling here forever,” remarked Thawn Harris, who earlier had shared stories with those gathered, including some song and dance that had everyone moving through the gallery space. As the opening was coming to a close, he was attempting to round up his children, Sherentè Mishitashin Harris and Nkèke Waupianoohoun Harris, both of whom have work in the show.
The exhibit is “a big showing of indigenous resilience,” said Sherentè.
Nkèke agreed, adding that some of the work reflects “having genocide put upon you.”
Sherentè’s work is titled “Conception (When Death brought the beginnings of creation)” and is an ink piece on birch jute told in three parts. It represents the celestial tree, a symbol of the universe, and explores the “above,” “below” and “in-between.” This cycle is represented through the use of circles, which are sacred, Sherentè said.
All together, the work is a “modern take on our conception as a people,” Sherentè explained, a “real, flawed, changing, continuous people.”
Nkèke’s work showcases finger woven twine leg gaiters and is entitled “Monakenehteauiheweaves.” It is one of several works incorporating weaving, and in this way is illustrative of how some traditions are carried on, generation to generation, over hundreds of years.
Another artist with work in the show is Hebe Lee, who has several pieces on display, in a variety of mediums. Lee is also a graduate student at the university studying library science and digital engineering.
Included in his work are a pair of Eastern moccasins made of buckskin, glass beads and copper cones. The beadwork reflects the Woodland people, and features a periwinkle or cornflower shade of blue, a “color I am keen to,” Lee said. The leather of the shoes is cream-colored, and the beadwork and embroidery delicate and detailed.
Across the room from these moccasins hangs Lee’s “Stock Market,” an acrylic painting that incorporates wampum shells and layered prints. This piece stemmed from an assignment in Dilworth’s class and explores the stories behind trade and money.
In the center are images connected to the stock exchange, five dollar bills with a native man in place of Abraham Lincoln, and a row of wampum buttons. Wampum has been long been incorporated into the culture of Eastern Woodland tribes, worn as decoration and also used as a form of currency in trading. Many of the artists at the opening were wearing wampum jewelry.
Bordering these images are newspaper clippings that Lee found, featuring headlines like “Indian land for sale.” Outside of this border are four eyes, which Lee said represent the seeing eye in all four directions: Spirit, rising sun, earth, and the void or unknown.
Among those attending the opening reception was Nicholas Costa, a senior studying for a bachelor’s of fine arts at the university. Costa described the exhibit as a “contemporary look at Native American art,” and said he holds guilt for the actions of his ancestors that likely added to the trauma experienced by generations of indigenous people.
Costa was making his way around the gallery space, taking in the work and doing his part to learn more about the artists and their creations.