‘Paumanok’ means ‘land of tribute,’ and was a Native American name referring to Long Island. It is ideal then, to have this as the first exhibit of the fall semester at the University Art Gallery, located in the Staller Center. The art being presented is the work of six Native American artists from New York City: Lorenzo Clayton, Jeffrey Gibson, Jason Lujan, Alan Michelson, Lloyd E. Oxendine and Sarah Sense. The exhibit runs from September 12, 2006 through October 18, 2006. The curators are Associate Professor at Stony Brook, Stephanie Dinkins and M.F.A. student Athena LaTocha.
With ‘Paumanok,’ the artists, who have used a wide range of materials and media, hope to re-introduce Native American culture and tradition and encourage its study and examination. The exhibit has, for example, paintings, digital prints, and mixed media installations. The artists have provided a unique blend of contemporary and traditional art. In other words, traditional art has been created through the use of contemporary materials.
Alan Michelson’s (Grand River Mohawk) piece, called ‘Permanent Title’ is from 1993. He started as a painter, and was later influenced by European landscape art, as well as American landscape art. He says, ‘I perceive a temporal dimension to landscape that is inseparable from the spatial dimension, and I have experimented with different ways of rendering it. Mostly, I look not only at a site or landscape, but into it, for traces of its experience. European or Euro-American landscape artists painted views. A view is an act not only of perception but of interpretation.’ His piece consists of eleven waxed cloth sacks on which rubbings, of headstones for example, were made. These waxed cloth bags were once used as body bags. As clearly put by the curators of the exhibit, the piece ‘memorializes the past.’ All the rubbings were taken from locations along Broadway, which was an old Native trail used to cross Manhattan. The piece discusses the transition of the economy over the past 500 years.
Michelson’s other work, titled ‘Mespat,’ consists of digital video and sound, provided by Michael J. Schummacher. The video is of a waterway and trade route that has been transformed in 500 years, like the trail across Manhattan in Michelson’s other piece. The video is interestingly projected onto a screen made of white turkey feathers. These feathers evoke a sort of memory or stereotype of Indians, who are usually associated with headdresses, feathers and beads. The music played as part of the piece is trance-like, with sounds like running water and fog horns. Michelson focuses on the industrialization, but doesn’t present it as a commentary, but rather suggests it. And as the curators have pointed out, the projected images urge you to look beyond the landscape, and through it rather than at it.
Jeffrey Gibson’s (Mississippi Band of Choctaw) piece consists of two paintings: ‘All That Matters,’ where a mother and her child are depicted, and ‘State of Emergency,’ where two men are about to kiss. ‘I wanted the people in this land to be uninhibited and enjoying the pleasures of the land and each other, nothing more. This may sound simple and escapist, but I felt it was important for me to visualize what this kind of environment looked like and imagine what happens there in order for me to begin to push further into less idyllic visions of developing society. As a native person, the idea of utopia was important for me to explore because of the perception that pre-contact tribal life was idyllic and harmonious with the land. This is a simplified version of history that I have learned since I was a child. With this series of paintings I wanted to imagine this utopia for myself.’
Gibson’s paintings were the most striking to me amongst all the other pieces in this exhibit, not simply for their vibrancy, but because of the emotional effect you get from viewing it. Made with oil and pigmented silicone, texture plays a large role in these paintings, as they do in all the pieces in ‘Paumanok.’ Gibson presents two relationships, one between a mother and child, and another between two men. One is ‘expected’ and the other is not. ‘All That Matters’ uses blues, greens and violets as the primary colors, which are natural to life. The image evokes a sense of tranquility. ‘State of Emergency,’ on the other hand, has red and orange as the primary colors. For long, the color red has signified passion as well as danger, warning, volatility, and instability. By presenting the artwork in this way, I believe that Gibson too was examining stereotypes within society, but my interpretation may be skewed as a result of the very stereotypes that are under scrutiny here.
Jason Lujan’s (Chiricahua Apache) work consists of selected pages from ‘The American Indian Activist Handbook.’ He has compiled his own survival guide for Native American activists. Lujan says, ‘This project re-contextualizes U.S. military training manuals such as the U.S. Army Ranger Handbook, and other U.S. government publications, and transforms it into a training manual for Native American political activists (acting under the guise of Homeland Security.) The publication and doctrinal terms are changed so that the chapters may imply that the ‘good guys’ are American Indians, and the ‘enemy’ or ‘terrorist invader’ is the United States government.’ Combat is shown on two levels: first, as the tool for murderous removal of culture and second, as a tool used to fight for that very same sense of culture. Lujan’s video presentation titled ‘I Look at Indians I Look at Myself’ raises thought provoking questions such as ‘How do I fit into the global scale and am I interchangeable?’ He examines identity, and one’s place in society, both his own and that of his people.
Lloyd E. Oxendine’s (Lumbee) piece has fifty chief-heads, lined ten across and five down. His piece is titled ‘Indios-Adios,’ or ‘Goodbye Indians.’ He states, ‘The heads themselves are hand-made kitsch representing the commercialization and stereotyping of Indians, Indian Art, and Indian Culture. Many contemporary Indian artists are rebelling against this in an attempt to define and articulate their ‘New Indian Art.’ I however, have chosen to use this and create a piece, a configuration which speaks of the many dead Indians and the genocide of our various Indian cultures in the U.S. The piece addresses the simultaneous rejection and co-optation of Indian culture that has occurred after the Holocaust. It also explores the on-going Indian dilemma: ‘What is Indian craft? Vs. What is Indian Art? ‘And, more importantly, does it have a place in American culture?’ Oxendine’s work brings to mind the childhood Indian song that goes, ‘One little, two little, three little Indians . . .’ The Indian chief heads resemble trophies, and this is among the symbolism which is at play in this piece. The fifty chief heads may also represent the 500 years of colonization or the 500 nations at the time of discovery.
Sarah Sense’s artwork consists of digital prints woven together. Like the other artists, she explores stereotypes of Indians. She says, ‘These works are an exploration of the conflicts between tradition and assimilation affecting contemporary American Indians within the broader American culture. I am part German, part French, part English, part Choctaw, part Chitimacha and was raised in California with an influence of Hollywood idealism. I digitally manipulate photographs of my reservation, Hollywood imagery, mass produced Indian posters, and of myself acting out cultural stereotypes of my heritage.’ From these, Sense creates Chitimacha basket patterns. The layering in the artwork complements that in the other artists’ works, and is definitely worth a see. The odd use of materials to create traditional works is also interesting. The presentation of industrialization is also evident, although subtle.
Lorenzo Clayton (Din’eacute;- Navajo) examines identity through his artwork, which use silkscreen images and lithography. The piece is in collaboration with George
Sidebotham, a professor of Chemical Engineering. ‘This print [Accrued Gravity] is a partial study of a broader concept that investigates articulating human emotions through mathematical equations. The inception of this idea occurred several years ago after I became interested in the writings of the philosopher Rudolf Steiner,’ says Clayton. The three images comment on culture and issues surrounding identity. The images show a gradual progression in emotional volatility. Clayton blends mathematics to comment on identity. The first impression one gets is that of utter chaos and instability. There is layering in these pieces as well, with mathematics as the background and thoughts and other expressions of human behavior, almost spiritual, in the foreground.
The mix of tradition and modernity does not always result in a pleasant outcome, but ‘Paumanok’ is certainly inspiring. The art is thought provoking, and addresses issues that are relevant to the Native American community, but also to everyone else. Questions of stereotypes, identity, both of the individual and of the community as a whole, are worth pondering. Art that evokes emotion and confusion has accomplished what its creators had originally intended.
Special thanks are owed to the curators, Stephanie Dinkins and Athena LaTocha, and to the director of the University Art Gallery, Rhonda Cooper, for their time and help.