Thunderbirds and Underwater Panthers in an Overlooked American Indian Art History

Courtesy of Blake Debassige. Photo by Brian Boyle. © 2011 Royal Ontario Museum Blake Debassige (Ojibwa), b. 1956 One Who Lives under the Water, ca.1978 Acrylic on canvas On loan from the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada
Blake Debassige, “One Who Lives under the Water” (1978), acrylic on canvas (courtesy the artist, photo by Brian Boyle, © 2011 Royal Ontario Museum)

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York is holding the first major survey of art by Anishinaabe artists in the Great Lakes region, with over a hundred works from artists both contemporary and ancient, all linked by the 10,000-year history of human settlement in the area.

Before and after the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes opened last August, but has been mostly under-the-radar in terms of coverage, perhaps due to its distance from its subject. There’s always something a little incongruous with exhibitions in the Museum of the American Indian branch in Lower Manhattan, housed in the early-20th-century Alexander Hamilton US Custom House, that has more to do with the history of North American colonization. After the exhibition closes in New York, it will head to Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario, right in the center of what has traditionally been Anishinaabe territory, where it may have a more emotional resonance in how tribal cultures are expressed in contemporary art.

Yet the history and visual expression contained within Before and after the Horizon is worth exploring. Anishinaabe is a bit deceptive as an umbrella word, being a term for people rather than a single group. It’s often used to unify the Ojibwe (Chippewa), Odawa (Ottawa), and Potawatomi in one localized description, as these nations share a similar language, while remaining separate cultures in the Great Lakes area of North America. In the exhibition, all of these traditions are intertwined in a narrative of long-standing relationships to nature and the spiritual, along with a survival on the land before and after it was claimed by outsiders.

Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Don Hall. Wally Dion (Saulteaux), b. 1976 Thunderbird, 2008 Circuit boards, plywood, acrylic paint Collection of the MacKenzie Art Gallery, purchased with the financial support of the Canada Council for Art Acquisition Assistance Program
Wally Dion, “Thunderbird” (2008), circuit boards, plywood, & acrylic paint (courtesy the artist, photograph by Don Hall)
Credit: © 2013 Philbrook Museum of Art, Inc. Tulsa, Oklahoma Patrick DesJarlait (Ojibwe), 1921–72 Maple Sugar Time, 1946 Watercolor on paper Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Museum Purchase
Patrick DesJarlait, “Maple Sugar Time” (1946), watercolor on paper (courtesy Philbrook Museum of Art)

It’s an incredibly broad objective for such an extensive history (explored more in-depth through an accompanying catalogue), although there are stand outs that give strong statements on how contemporary art can express this powerful past. The late Norval Morrisseau has richly painted large-scale works morphing legendary beings like the thunderbird into new age petroglyphs, often laced with floral designs that emerged in traditional Anishinaabe art not just through a connection with the life force of nature, but through the European embroidery being taught to the Anishinaabe in white-run schools. Wally Dion also evokes the thunderbird — the fierce bringer of thunder and storms with its massive wings — in a 2008 circuit board collage, where new technology is now the herald of electrical power. The thunderbird’s counterpart, the underwater panther, also prowls into contemporary works like Blake Debassige’s “One Who Lives under the Water” from 1978, where a pair of the scaled felines wreck boats full of people in an inky water.

These modern ways of telling old stories are joined by works that use traditional art to make a statement on a culture being controlled. From 1999 to 2002, Nadia Myre collaborated with over 200 volunteers on “Indian Act,” where they beaded over the 56 pages from the Federal Government’s Indian Act, an act of reclamation both powerfully symbolic and ultimately futile against the contract of colonizing words. Frank Shebageget presents a matrix of invading tourist planes in “Beavers” (2003) — substituting the submarines of Chris Burden’s “All the Submarines of the United States of America” (1987) with airplanes — representing the visitors who continue to go deeper into Anishinaabe land for fishing or other recreation. Other artists express their frustration with how “Indian art” often has to be crafted curios for financial success, with Ron Noganosh making a “Shield for a Modern Warrior, or Concession to Beads and Feathers in Indian Art” (1983), using smashed beer cans and some wobbly bits of dangling fur and feathers, also reflecting how alcohol has become its own shield for many in his tribe.

Credit: Ottawa Art Gallery, reproduced with permission of Frank Shebageget. Photo by David Barbour Frank Shebageget (Anishnabe), b. 1972 Beavers, 2003 Basswood and metal Collection of the Ottawa Art Gallery: Purchased with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts Acquisition Assistance Program, Glen Bloom and OAG’s Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2005
Frank Shebageget, “Beavers” (2003), basswood & metal (courtesy Ottawa Art Gallery, photograph by David Barbour)

While Before and after the Horizon does skim over some incredibly influential moments for Anishinaabe history — the arrival of Christianity and its conflicts with tribal spirituality, for example, which is only given a small room with a folk art-style altar set, beautiful as it may be — it also offers much more than the “beads and feathers” that still have much play in American Indian art markets and exhibitions. Even if Manhattan is a long way from the Great Lakes, it’s still an important exhibition for an area of American Indian art that has yet to get much attention outside of its region.

Credit: Courtesy of the Weltmuseum Wien Odawa maker unknown Tabernacle and candlesticks, 1840 Wood, birchbark, porcupine quills, fiber Weltmuseum Wien
Tabernacle & candlesticks by unknown Odawa maker unknown (1840), wood, birchbark, porcupine quills, & fiber (courtesy Weltmuseum Wien)
Photo: Detroit Institute of Arts, USA; © Chippewa maker unknown Drum, ca. 1840 Wood, deer hide, pigment Collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts
Drum by unknown Chippewa maker (1840), wood, deer hide, & pigment (courtesy Detroit Institute of Arts)

Before and after the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes is at the National Museum of the American Indian (1 Bowling Green, Lower Manhattan) through June 15. 

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