SEATTLE — “What does it mean to own the land?” This question is posed early on in Rea Tajiri’s Lordville (2014), an experimental documentary about a tiny hamlet along the Delaware River in rural New York, where the filmmaker bought a house in 2003. The village is named for John Lord, a white man who settled here in 1800 with his Minisink Delaware wife, noted in historical records as simply “Indian Woman Van Dunk.”
The name of John Lord’s wife may be lost to history, but the legacy of her sister, Betia Van Dunk, has been kept alive through matrilineal storytelling. “Indians could not legally own land,” explains Sheila Spencer-Stover, a professional genealogist and descendant of Betia. When her husband died in 1834, Betia left the area, dispossessed from her own ancestral lands. When she was a child, Spencer-Stover’s great-grandmother — Betia’s great-granddaughter — told her stories about their Delaware ancestors, saying, “What we do in here is our secret, and someday you’ll know what to do with it.”
“I’ve always said the ancestors tell us what we need to know when they’re ready for us to know it,” Spencer-Stover tells Tajiri as the two walk the densely wooded trails around Lordville. “And then when something goes right, I always say that it’s their gift to me.”
That the ancestors communicate with the living is a claim that those of us steeped in a settler-colonialist mindset might meet with suspicion or even scorn. But the assumption that such communication is not only possible, but a source of enduring wisdom and power is at the heart of AFTER LIFE (what remains), a group show of indigenous and Asian Pacific American artists curated by Thea Quiray Tagle at The Alice Gallery in Seattle. The exhibition presents Tajiri’s Lordville alongside works by Alejandro T. Acierto, Michael Arcega, Leeroy New, and the Super Futures Haunt Qollective (SFHQ), an art and research group that performatively presents its members as “future ghosts” — stylized, costumed bodies that tend to appear and disappear in culturally loaded places like the Oregon Coast and shops in Los Angeles’s Koreatown.
According to an article co-authored by the collective, “Settler colonial societies are haunted by the ghost of gone peoples — they pulse at the center.” As resistance strategies go, haunting is a long game. Ghosts wield no political influence, but they do have staying power. Haunting is a form of self-possession — an immovable, unyielding refusal to disappear.
In the audio piece “Visitation: From Chiloquin to Seattle Via the Specularity 2118″ (2018), the SFHQ imagines a conversation between Kikisoblu, the daughter of Chief Seattle, and Fanny Ball, a Modoc ancestor of collective member Lady HOW (Haunting or Whatever).
“The dead have power,” says the voice of Fanny Ball, audible through a pair of white headphones attached to a vintage iPod, a ghost of technology past. She is quoting a famous speech often attributed to Chief Seattle. “The white people will never be alone because our ghosts love this land, and our love will haunt every piece of it.”
The theme of haunting continues in Alejandro T. Acierto’s “a suspending” (2018), a large textile printed with an uncropped image of a photo being staged: white Americans hold a white backdrop against which a Filipino child is being documented as an ethnographic specimen. Images like this one were used to justify military occupation of the Philippines by portraying the native people as “savages” incapable of self-governance. In Acierto’s version, the child’s body has been ghosted out of the frame — an erasure that foregrounds the colonialist violence. The resulting image is haunted by the child’s absence, pulsing at the center.
In contemporary urban environments, dispossession often takes the form of gentrification, homelessness, and negligence. To address this, Quiray Tagle has brought in two works by Filipino artists working on both sides of the Pacific. Michael Arcega’s “In Tents: Refuse” (2010) is a tent and trash can hybrid that simultaneously reflects the way we dehumanize the unhoused and extols the resourcefulness of those who meet their needs using things society casts away. Likewise, Leeroy New’s Instagram photo series Aliens of Manila (2014-ongoing) imagines a cast of characters decked out in conceptual fashion created from garbage. Both of these works suggest — rather provocatively — an affinity between human beings who refuse to disappear and the discarded single-use plastic objects that glut our oceans and rivers (and will soon expand to outer space, if certain billionaires have their way).
As journalist Elizabeth Kolbert notes in her Pulitzer-Prize winning book on the environment The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, humanity’s most enduring legacy is destined to be the evolutionary pathways which we manage to close off forever on Planet Earth. Quiray Tagle quotes this passage in a meticulous curatorial essay that frames how these works of art may be read as a contradictory, yet complimentary, multilayered narrative. The impending collapse of the Anthropocene will be devastating to life as we know it, and yet as long the planet remains essentially habitable, something is bound to survive. Radioactive cockroaches? Or, as Quiray Tagle calls the Aliens of Manila, “humanoid-plastic hybrids”? What if the most salient mechanism of survival is the sheer refusal to go away?
What does it mean to own the land? In a nation founded on violence against indigenous peoples, the question invites us to examine our own complicity in perpetuating that violence. Ownership is a powerful designation, and yet it is ultimately fleeting when we consider the possibility of mass extinction. Perhaps the only way to truly inhabit a place forever is to haunt it.
AFTER LIFE (what remains) continues at The Alice Gallery (6007 12th Ave S, Seattle) through July 21.