Wyoming does not see enough contemporary artwork by native American artists.
As I reread my notes and think about Ucross’ “Intricate Design” exhibition, what strikes me forcibly is that the label of Native American is in some sense meaningless, although in different ways, when applied to Brenda Mallory and Sydney Pursel’s work.
Mallory grew up in Oklahoma, the daughter of Cherokee farmers, but with, in her own words, “few cultural connections.” By this, she means Native culture connections, referring to herself as the “poster child” for the Dawes Allotment Act, which sought to promote assimilation by giving families their own block of land and separating them from the traditional ways land had been held by tribes, and thus, their culture. Yet, her work is full of connections to her childhood growing up on a farm. Farm materials and supplies show up. The concepts of reusing, repairing and making-do are strong in her work.
“Soft Focus” was the first piece in the exhibit that drew me in. I wanted to touch the soft edges and experience the piece through my fingers, diving into the folds and pockets. Made of waxed cloth and hog rings on a welded steel armature, it is reminiscent of the nooks and crannies one sees in images of the human brain. All these openings are roughly the same size, each suggests another door — possibly into consciousness, or into the unconscious world of our minds.
An earlier piece also appears to have openings, although not as obviously as “Soft Focus.” “Firehose Experiment #6,” made of reclaimed linen firehose, hog rings and paint, offers soft, frayed openings at fairly regular intervals, and a glimpse of the fiber the hose was made from. In her artist talk, Mallory mentioned a residency at a dump site, where artists could recover materials and use them in their work. Perhaps this is one of those pieces? Hard to say, since the hose is made of linen, and how long has it been since we used something so tactile to create firehoses? The piece brings up questions about the past, and how materials were used, preserved and discarded.
“Partitioning” uses sewn paper to create a map, or terrain, of various sized squares made from collagraph prints. Perhaps a reference to how the Dawes Act partitioned land? This piece also had a soft, touchable quality to it, reinforced by the Japanese paper and the use of serge sewing to hold the pieces together. The piece’s coloration reminds me of smoke or fire damage.
Sydney Jane Brooke Campbell Maybrier Pursel, to give her full chosen artist name, grew up surrounded by connections to the Ioway culture and speaking the language of her ancestors. Her work speaks clearly about the struggle against a dominant culture, and while it is filtered through Native symbols, is universal in its meanings. The work is, of course, social and political commentary, but that is almost too glib a label for it. Every component of every piece is carefully planned and thought out, from the material chosen, to the color, the meaning behind the material and how it is constructed. All of it is precisely selected to speak directly to the issues facing Native peoples stemming from colonialism.
“Dress Made of Treaties” is a performance piece. On display is video and the dress itself, made from cut-up papers on which are printed treaties with the Ioway people and maps of original homelands. The dress — made in the style of a Victorian garment from 1872 — and the video speak to the broken agreements and the long-term results of people losing land, home and culture: illness, dislocation and disorientation. Even without the video, the dress is powerful. Looking at it, I felt shame on behalf of the people who negotiated the treaties and were responsible for enforcing them — and the realization of how many must have acted in bad faith.
During Pursel’s artist talk, “Bad Medicine” shivered in the background. Viewers were encouraged to interact with this artwork by brushing against it or moving through it. The artist invites you to engage not only sight, but also touch and sound. Made of rolled beer bottle caps arranged in a rainbow color pattern, the dress mimics traditional jingle dresses, which were made using rolled up tobacco cans. Tobacco in the Native community is considered a strong healing medicine, and, when worn for powwow dances, the jingle is bright and cheery. This sound, as befits the travesty alcohol has created in the Native community, is duller. The rainbow, and the sense of passing through, invites healing.
Mallory and Pursel are the first participants in the Ucross Foundation’s new Fellowship for Native American Visual Artists project, which recognizes and supports Native American artists by awarding two fellowships per year to Native artists at any point in their career. This exciting initiative will hopefully result in more exhibitions of art by Native artists in Wyoming. “Intricate Form” will be on display again in Laramie next summer at the University of Wyoming Visual Arts Building Gallery, so if you didn’t have a chance to see it at Ucross, plan to go.
Intricate Form is on display at the Ucross Foundation Art Gallery through Sept. 28.
Studio Wyoming Review is supported in part by generous grants from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund, a program of the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources and the Wyoming Arts Council with funding from the Wyoming State Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts.