The Haudenosaunee territory is comprised of almost two million acres of central and western New York, established with the signing of the Canandaigua Treaty of 1794. From this area, the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy emerge to include Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca, Mohawk, Cayuga and the Tuscarora.
Among their number are many skilled craftspeople, and gifted fine artists. Now long overdue, an effort is being made to introduce the contemporary visual arts of the Haudenosaunee people in a gallery setting.
With a few exceptions, these artists of central and western New York have been overshadowed by more popular arts from tribal regions in the southwestern U.S. Think of the distinctive pottery of Nampeyo or Maria Martinez. Perhaps, because there is a history of trade goods made for sale in the southwest (that was lacking in the east) there was a public perception that not much was going on in the eastern part of the country. From the west, traditional crafts, primarily weaving and ceramics were elevated in the minds of collectors. Then one must factor in the past relationship of “ethnographic” arts from Native American peoples and the place they were usually given (if at all) in museums and galleries. Here in 2011, there is a growing awareness and acknowledgement of the contributions, both past and present, of indigenous peoples – and what better place to start looking at this issue than here and now.
A good primer on the state of these affairs was found in Victor, New York last week in the Town Hall when G. Peter Jemison gave an illustrated lecture for the Friends of Ganondagan. Jemison is not only a preserver of traditions, but also an active contemporary artist who has long been instrumental as a curator of exhibitions featuring Native Americans. Jemison is a member of the Heron Clan of the Seneca Nation, and he is a manger of the Ganondagan Historic Site near Victor, NY.
When you appreciate art, you bring your experience and culture along with other baggage. So, it is refreshing to see things from a different angle, and it can also be challenging (art does that directly and sometimes obliquely). Jemison highlighted the artwork of living artists and guided the listener with stories and anecdotes that helped profile the present state of Native American art in this region.
Last year, at Nazareth College, and more recently at The Everson Museum in Syracuse, NY, G. Peter Jemison helped organize exhibitions with many of the same artists that he featured with his Power Point demonstration in Victor. Coming from outside the Native american culture however, this viewer needs to have a guide to better understand the creation stories, and layers of cultural tradition that is part of the fabric of the Haudenosaunee arts. There is a history to deal with and a current situation that presents itself.
A history lesson is summoned forth through the power of the “documentary” video by Shelley Niro. Titled “The Shirt”, this short video runs about six minutes but captures your attention with acerbic humor, and truth telling – spelling out a position as clear as day. Intercut with scenes from the Niagara River and Falls, an Indian woman stands her ground, wearing her white shirt and an American flag bandana.
She hardly moves and the camera slowly pans, the only things that change are the slogans you see on her shirt. The shirt then narrates a history of deceit and murder, and after all these calamities have happened, all she is left with is her shirt, and in the last frames of the video – even that is taken away. The pain and humiliation is compounded with injustice; the feelings are palpable.
The Native North Americans who invented the game of Lacrosse might never have imagined how popular their sport has become. Recently, in July 2010, an Iroquois team of athletes were invited but were unable to compete in an international tournament because they were denied an opportunity to travel on their own nation’s passports. This is commemorated in two works at The Everson Museum, in the exhibition “Haudenosaunee: Elements”. There, the artists Tracy Thomas, and Frank Buffalo Hyde fashion graphic statements that dramatize this incident.
Co-curators Deborah Ryan of The Everson, and artist Tom Huff received some assistance from Aweeneyoh Powless, an intern and student currently getting her master’s degree in studio art at R.I.T.
Aweeneyoh is also an award winning dancer, and her performance paintings are documented in another video, as well as on the walls of this compact exhibition. Ms. Powless’s art bridges the realms of culture crossing over boundaries between European painting traditions and North American rituals and celebratory dance modes. Like the painter, Yves Klein, Aweenyoh Powless makes expressive use of her body; her footprints make a mark for each movement as she carries herself across the canvas.
There are some powerful statements in the exhibition, some that are three dimensional, some two dimensional paintings, and other hybrids created for the show using video and casts of figures in encaustic (a pigmented wax), or a work like Jolene Rickard’s corn pounder with music, printmaking and wood sculpture.
Tom Huff has a suite of carvings on the ground floor, and other sculptures placed amongst his fellow artists above on the second floor. These are more traditional carvings which embody a mythology that reaches back in history, but projects a vision forward of strength, protection, and unity. Haudenosaunee:
Elements, an exhibition featuring 21 artists, representing Six Nations continues at The Everson Museum in Syracuse for the month of January.