It isn’t necessary to see allusions to Native history and culture in Seneca artist Marie Watt’s mixed-media piece Canopy: Ledger to appreciate it as a sculptural form, but it adds considerable dimension. The sculpture — a trunk of reclaimed yellow cedar carved into the shape of a stack of old blankets, with a blue satin ribbon running along its length, resting atop a heap of reclaimed wool cut into perfect squares — makes reference to an object with which Native peoples from many tribes have a long, culturally rich history: the blanket.
Watt uses blankets as primary materials in her work, honoring their historic uses among Native peoples. She is an installation artist who often uses textiles created in sewing circles in her projects, which can include narrative imagery. In Canopy: Ledger the blue silk ribbon extends from the top to the bottom of the carved wood as though it were an untied ribbon on a gift. A crack in the wood section runs its length, suggesting that the blankets have stories tucked beneath their folds. Some “gifts” come laden with smallpox, as reportedly was the case at Fort Pitt in 1763, when British military officers contrived to give infected blankets to Cherokee Indians.
Watt is one of several artists whose work is on view in the exhibit Connective Tissue: New Approaches to Fiber in Contemporary Native Art at IAIA Museum of Native Contemporary Arts. The show features works by artists who use fiber-art materials and methods to explore a variety of themes such as gender identity, domesticity, and culture. Connective Tissue is curated by the museum’s chief curator, Manuela Well-Off-Man. This marks her first major exhibition since accepting the position in 2016. In conjunction with the show, the museum has a slew of events planned for Indian Market weekend, including a panel discussion with exhibit artists Merritt Johnson (Mohawk and Blackfoot), Melissa Cody (Navajo), and David Gaussoin (Picuris, Navajo, and French), as well as Cody’s performance piece Re-Move, with contributions from Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit and Unangax). Cody and Gaussoin will also have booths at Indian Market. Other participating artists with booths at the market this year include Melissa Melero (Northern Paiute) and Marlowe Katoney (Navajo).
The first piece you might notice is a large-scale quilted blanket by Wally Dion (Salteaux). Dion’s work resembles a quilt in its appearance but not in terms of the material with which it’s made. It is “woven” from computer circuit boards, copper, and wire, but derives the forms of its starburst imagery from star quilts — a popular form with a history extending back to the late 19th century, when Plains women wove them for ceremonial and other uses. Dion’s work touches on the impact of digital technology on practical, hands-on art forms and subjugates the newer technology to the older, suggesting that even the most advanced tools owe a debt to the past.
Some artists, such as Meghann O’Brien (Haida/Kwakwaka’wakw), a former professional snowboarder, work with traditional forms — in O’Brien’s case, it’s a Haida chilkat blanket. But other artists use older textile techniques to create new forms. Merritt Johnson’s (Mohawk, Blackfoot, and non-indigenous descent) Container (Trade Object) is a woven basket in the form of a human skull, replete with dentalium shell teeth — dentalium being an early international trade item among indigenous peoples of the Americas. The work appears to equate human remains with trade goods, calling to mind the uneasy relationship between tribal people and museums that have put the stolen remains of Native people on display or in storage, often alongside tribal artifacts that were likewise of questionable provenance, a practice that led to the establishment of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Other pieces by Johnson are marked by contradictions between what the objects represent and the material used to represent them — especially her Paradox Is an English Word (watheriyo kahonre/a nice basket gun), a machine gun-shaped basket made from hand-dyed woven fibers. Johnson doesn’t seem to be suggesting there is no paradox in a basketry gun, but rather that a machine gun is a white man’s weapon.
Another artist using basketry to recreate three-dimensional objects is Kelly Church (Match-e-be-nash-she-wish band of Ottawa and Potawatomi Indians), who takes black ash, copper, and sweetgrass and assembles them into an exquisite rendition of a Fabergé egg (she calls her version “Fiberge”). Church has tremendous skill, using basketry techniques in innovative and unexpected ways that delight with their artistry but also pack a punch. Such is the case with Treaty Hat, referencing Native chiefs and representatives invited to Washington in the 19th century for peace negotiations that were later ignored, though the Natives were given gold medals, tops hats, and canes as a show of good faith. These items became symbols of broken promises. The Treaty Hat, in the shape of a top hat, is a fitting addition to the show because it brings back the memory of IAIA alum T.C. Cannon and his Washington Landscape With Peace Medal Indian from 1976, which is in the collection of the New Mexico Museum of Art. Cannon’s portrait of a Native elder with a top hat resting on his lap and a silver medal hanging from his neck strikes a somber tone. Church’s piece also addresses Native peoples and government treaties. It includes a map of the 1836 Treaty with the Ottawa, also called the Treaty of Washington, which gave Indian lands that would soon after become the state of Michigan to the U.S.
Connective Tissue is a smart exhibition, showing works of substance by artists who push their medium in new directions. It highlights contemporary issues while also illuminating the personal and collective histories of Native peoples and exploring dynamic approaches to materials — the perfect complement to Indian Market.