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Curatorial Essay: Moving Forward and Looking Back: Tensions and Contradictions of Indigenous Life


by Bianca Casimes, 2011, Internet Meme

"Moving Forward and Looking Back" addresses the complex and multi-layered experiences of being Indigenous in contemporary society. These artists present cultural and personal moments that include pride and self-deprecation, caution and defiance, and tragedy and vision. Often, to be Indigenous is to have to navigate one's membership in disparate worlds while striving to maintain authenticity and survival in (internally and externally) hostile environments. For instance, a character in Sherman Alexie's book, The Toughest Indian in the World, states that "for every 59 minutes of every hour, I have to be White, but that for 1 minute, I get to be Indian." This show aims to provide a respite for the viewers who feel compelled to split themselves in such ways, while providing insight to those interested in understanding more about this community.

The term “Indigenous” is used in this exhibit to refer to the aboriginal peoples of different lands. As an Indigenous Asian and Pacific Islander woman living in the United States, I am most familiar with artists from the Philippines, the United States, Canada, and Central America. These regions are the starting point of my research into this topic and are represented in the exhibit. Given more time, I would like to collaborate with other curators to identify more Indigenous artists around the world who are grappling with the themes of this show.

"Real Indians" by Larry McNeil (Tlingit-Nisga'a), 1980, Photograph

The work included in the show ranges from Larry McNeil’s 1980 photographic self-portrait "Real Indians" to an Internet meme from 2011 called "FINALLY, A HIPSTER POCAHONTAS" by Bianca Casimes. This broad timeline contextualizes the efforts of artists over the last 30 years. By including artists at their mid-career and emerging career stages, the show reflects the importance of intergenerational dialogue in Indigenous communities. It also acknowledges how some of the issues initially addressed in the 1970s and 1980s still resonate today. These artists will discuss their professional and personal perspectives on art, culture, community, and politics with each other as part of our public programs series.

Various types of media are presented in the show. Drawings, paintings, collages, lithographs, mixed media are included along with photographs, video stills, videos, and an example of an Internet meme. Films comprise the second component of public programming for the exhibit. Since this medium is conducive for communicating in-depth examinations of the themes of the show, there will be screenings and audience discussions with experts on these topics every week. These public programs are part of our efforts to engage the public directly about misperceptions that native cultures are dying out, primitive, solely craft-based, and irrelevant to contemporary society.

Gallery One: The People Shall Continue...Surviving the Colonization Process

"Cyborg Hybrid Cody" by KC Adams (Métis), 2009, Photograph

The first half of the title of this gallery is derived from a children's book written in 1977 by the acclaimed poet Simon Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo). His poem serves as a "teaching story" about Native Americans that is intended to instill in the next generations respect for diversity and a sense of responsibility for all forms of life.

This gallery addresses previous and ongoing experiences of genocide and assimilation. The artists within examine the devastation brought by eugenics, the Native American boarding school experience, religious conversions, institutionalization, deliberate destruction of cultural heritages, homophobia, and transphobia. However, this gallery ends on a hopeful note with KC Adams' piece "Cyborg Hybrid Cody" as a recognition of Indigenous people's spirit of survival.

Gallery Two: Homes: Left and Forgotten, Then Remembered and Re-Imagined: Indigenous Legitimacy and Identity

"Filipino Tatoos: Mark of the Four Waves"

by Tatak Ng Apat Na Alon (Filipino), 2010, Video

One's origins are intrinsic to Indigenous identity. However, as members of colonized groups, Indigenous people's perceptions of their families and communities often become fraught with painful personal and ancestral memories.

Artists in this gallery engage with how their sense of legitimacy is influenced by stories of their origins and their first-hand experiences. Some address how stereotypes, sensationalism, doubt, and family mysteries can affect one's self-concept. Others re-shape their visions of themselves and their people by retrieving elements of the pre-colonial era to meet present-day needs, representing utopian visions influenced by Native American traditions, or by creating spaces where they can be all of who they are at once.

Gallery Three: What If We Really Did Live In Matriarchal Societies? Truths and Fictions of Indigenous Women's Agency

"The Iroquois is a Highly Developed Matriarchal Society"

by Shelley Niro (Mohawk), 1991, Photograph

Artist Shelly Niro inspires the title of this gallery. She asks, "If we are a matriarchal society why does all this violence [against women] happen? Why doesn't anyone put a stop to it?" The solution is complex and depends on efforts on many fronts.

The artists here contribute to a greater understanding of Indigenous women's experiences. They also exemplify ways to creatively speak out. Napachie and Annie Pootoogook are mother and daughter artists who don't shy away from depicting the social realities of their community. Shelly Niro expresses a playful take on perceptions of Iroquois women, while Judith Lowry lampoons the fears around powerful Native women in general. Videos of the musical group Ulali and by Betty M. Park about the Bolivian cholita wrestler revolution demonstrate how artists are creating new content and communities that foster Indigenous women's empowerment.

Gallery Four: Ka-ching! The Perils and Pleasures of Economic Success

"Ka-ching" by Shania Twain (Cree), 2003, Pop Song Video

Cree pop star Shania Twain contributes this gallery's title. She warns of the dangers of greed and consumerism in the music video for the pop song "Ka-ching!" Furthermore, David Bradley addresses how greed impacts the honoring of Indian laws and treaties. In addition, Judith Lowry provides commentary on how lust for riches corrupted Indian gaming in her community.

While poverty is rampant in many parts of the Indigenous world, that is not the case for everyone. Bobby C. Martin and Fritz Schoulder grapple with the topic of pursuing cultural assimilation into the mainstream as a pathway to economic success. Kevin Van Wanseele's documentary, on having a casino resort on his reservation, examines the challenges brought by financial privilege --including how it is further complicated by the concurrent marginalization members of his tribe face as Indigenous people.


The themes of these galleries identify four areas that are the subject of much thought and activity in Indigenous communities: legacies of genocide, the meaning of one’s identity, violence against women and girls, and the economic challenges arising from poverty and wealth. However, these themes can also be viewed as universal concerns that will resonate with many people. By delving into how aboriginal communities grapple with these concerns, viewers will increase their understanding of their own perspectives on these complex topics.

***Image Check List***

Exhibit Introduction

"FINALLY, A HIPSTER POCAHONTAS" by Bianca Casimes, 2011, Internet Meme

Gallery One

"My First Baby Belt" by Erica Lord (Athabascan / Iñupiaq), 2007, Mooseskin, beads, wool, metal measuring spoons and cups. 72"x12"x1"

"Indoctrination #3" by Steven Deo (Euchee / Muscoge), 2000, Mixed Media, 12 x 12 inches.

"Crucifixion" by Dorothy Grandbois (Turtle Mountain Chippewa), 1994, Digital Photo Print on Canvas, Size unavailable.

"The Grace of White Culture, Technology, and Religion" by Arthur Amiotte (Oglala Lakota), 1989, Collage, Size unavailable

"Cyborg Hybrid Cody" by KC Adams (Métis), 2009, Digital Print, 50.8 x 35.6 cm.

"Thorn Grass" by D. Robin Hammer, 2002, Short Film

"Conversion" by Nanobah Becker (Navaho), 2007, Short Film

"Older Than America" by Georgina Lightening (Mushwatchees Cree), 2008, Feature Length Film

Gallery Two

"May I Serve You? Cultural Artifacts" by Joanna Osburn Bigfeather (Cherokee / Mescalero Apache), 1994, Mixed Media, 8" x 20" x 16"

"Real Indians" by Larry McNeil (Tlingit-Nisga'a), 1980, Hand Colored Black & White Photograph, 40" x 28"

"Modern Times" by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Flathead), 1993, Lithograph, 30" x 22"

"Natura Non Facit Saltum" by Jeffrey Gibson (Choctaw / Cherokee), 2005, Oil and Pigmented Silicone on Wood, 150 x 122 cm.

"Binary Selves" by Erica Lord (Athabascan / Iñupiaq), 2006, Video Stills, Size unavailable .

"Filipino Tatoos: Mark of the Four Waves" by Tatak Ng Apat Na Alon (Filipino), 2010, Short Video.

"Bontoc Eulugy" by Marlon Fuentes (Filipino), 1989, Feature Length Film.

Gallery Three

"A Man Abuses His Wife" by Annie Pootoogook (Inuit), 2003/04, Pencil Crayon and Ink Drawing, 13.75 x 20"

"Travelling By Foot" by Napachie Pootoogook (Inuit), 1997/98, Ink Drawing, 20 x 26"

"The Iroquois is a Highly Developed Matriarchal Society" by Shelley Niro (Mohawk), 1991, Photograph, Size unavailable.

"Mohawks in Beehives" by Shelley Niro (Mohawk), 1991, Black- and-white hand-tinted photograph, 20 x 25 cm.

"SQUAWS II: JUST WHEN YOU THOUGHT IT WAS SAFE... " by Judith Lowry (Maidu / Hamowi Pit River), 1994, Mixed Media, 40" x 28"

"Mother" by Ulali, 1997, Short Concert Video

"Mamachas del Ring" by Betty M. Park (Korean), 2009, Feature Length Film

Gallery Four

"Monopoly" by David Bradley (Ojibwa), 1984, Stone Lithography, 11" x 14"

"Jingle, Jingle" by Judith Lowry (Maidu / Hamowi Pit River), 1997, Size unavailable.

"The Pursuit of Civilization #4" by Bobby C. Martin (Muscogee), 2000, Digital Print, Size unavailable.

"Purgatory" by Fritz Schoulder (Luiseño), 1996, Acrylic, oil, and collage on canvas, 80 x 68 in.

"Ka-ching" by Shania Twain (Cree), 2003, Pop Song Video.

"Reserved Wealth" by Kevin Van Wanseele (Kumeyaay), 2006, Feature Length Documentary.

#curatorialstudies #Indigenous

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