THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
February 13, 2020
"Stolen Sisters," on view from January 30 to February 29, 2020 at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Crossman Gallery in Whitewater, WI, features artworks by 30 regional, national and international indigenous artists and allies to address—and protest—the continuing violence against, and loss of, indigenous women and girls. Curated by Teresa Faris and Nieves Galvan, the exhibition presents an opportunity to see work created for many reasons: to raise awareness, to celebrate individuals, to cope with loss, and to express rage.
This diverse group of artists employs a variety of strategies to powerfully convey love, resilience, connection, and grief. Some of the work is born of direct personal experience, while other pieces grapple with larger social contexts. Although this issue of the New Art Examiner focuses on figuration, conceptual and abstract modes are as potent here as representational efforts. Figuration is but one strategy within a larger set of art practices, and it does not function simplistically in this exhibition. The artists have selected their strategies for specific reasons, usually choosing the mode that hits the hardest.
The human figure is referenced throughout the gallery, including in artworks that are not directly representational. For example, in Unheard, Drew Askenette Lacefield displays a grid of earrings on the wall. Beaded pairs hang together, but some hooks are unadorned. The empty spaces are immediately noticeable, the missing jewelry shocking with the blankness that remains in its place. In a simple arrangement of personal items of adornment, the artist makes the presence and painful absence of women clearly comprehensible. Nearby, Valaria Tatera creates a line of ribbons cascading along a wall. Long, glossy, and red, the strands are all subtly imprinted with one small word, barely noticeable, quietly repeating the work’s title again and again: Justice. The ribbons glisten and shine; they reflect in the polished floor and flow down the wall, appearing like fabric or blood—another stand-in for all those who have been lost.
In the hands of Courtney Leonard, three Constellation/Sailor Valentine studies spell out statistics of assault and violence towards Native women on Disney “Pocahontas” paper plates, to jarring effect. Effortlessly melding commodification and violence, the mass-produced, cartoon versions of John Smith and the most famous Native woman in Eurocentric history are physically punctured by factual statements about domestic assault affecting Native populations, such as “39% of American Indian and Native Alaska women will be subjected to violence by an intimate partner in their lifetimes.” The punched-out letters decorate the surrounding velvet like stars in the night sky. The brightly colored children’s party plates can no longer serve a cleaned-up, easy-to-swallow historical fiction, but instead illustrate a grim reality. The animated decorative figures become a disturbing metaphor for the widespread public ignorance of ongoing violence and a bitter proxy for the bodies of the missing.
In Protectors, Avis Charley turns to ledger drawing, a 19th century art practice born of the forced relocation of Great Plains indigenous peoples. With long-established ways of working ripped away, artists from those communities utilized any tools they had available, including discarded administrative documents. Here, a contemporary artist chooses this vintage format to represent three women in traditional clothing. Neither recognizable as individuals nor rooted in any particular time period, the figures can still be understood to be specific. Represented in a known style of dress using this historic medium, the figures communicate a powerful sense of identity and place. By utilizing a long, expressive tradition that was born out of scarcity and neglect, the artist creates a hopeful vision, rooted in tradition and pride, that celebrates those who fight for desperately needed reforms.
The work on the title wall is a drawing by Tom Jones, an artist better known for his photography. Julia is represented in profile, with head high, shoulders back, eyes closed, and hair blowing over her shoulders. This is not a generic figure, but a carefully drawn, individualized portrait of a person of obvious strength. In colored pencil on a handkerchief with an embroidered border, the handwork, visible in the stitching on the cloth and the delicate pencil strokes that make up the figure, conveys a sense of intimacy and care. This is close, time-consuming work requiring a patient attentiveness that suggests a direct personal connection. This is also a stunning drawing, shocking in its gentleness and beauty, heartbreaking in its implied loss.
“Stolen Sisters” is a coming together of artists, the creation of a community to promote awareness and to educate, to acknowledge ongoing efforts, to celebrate, remember, grieve, and heal. Sharing resources and stories, the artists build bridges and make the strong connections that are necessary for survival and moving forward.
Although figuration can be considered a simple choice to clearly identify oneself or memorialize a loved one, choosing it in this context is not a straightforward act. In an exhibition that considers ongoing violence affecting a community, stating one’s connection to that community is an essential political statement—aggressive, but necessarily so. These artists are asserting their existence in a world that ignores people like them. They are saying—softly, loudly, through pain, with anger and joy—“We matter.”
by Ann Sinfield
Ann Sinfield is an independent curator and writer. She is also Exhibits Lead at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The featured artists included Antoinette Thompson (ATA), Alfonso Cervera, Avis Charley, Chrystal Tourtillott Lepscier, Craig George, Courtney Leonard, Dakota Mace, Diane Hill, Drew Askenette Lacefield, Elias Jade NotAfraid, Gregg Deal, Harmony Hill, Jennifer Connors, Jennifer Curtis, John Hitchcock, Kaluhyak^le Stephenie Muscavitch VanEvery, Laritza Garcia, Lorena Lazard, Lyndon Tsosie, Nieves Galvan, Ray Scott, Rebecca Burns, Sébastian Carré, Scott Hill, Shawn Stevens, Teresa Faris, Tim Hererra, Tom Jones, Tonya June Rafael, and Valaria Tatera.
Courtney M. Leonard, CONSTELLATION | SAILOR VALENTINE STUDY #1, 2015-2020. Paper on Velvet, 13x13x1.5". Image courtesy of the artist.
Tom Jones, Julia, 2019. Colored pencil. Image courtesy of the artist.
Avis Charley, Protectors, 2019. Colored pencil on antique paper. Image courtesy of the artist.
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