Essays

A Team of Curators Designs a System for Indigenous Artists to Thrive In

The term ‘decolonization’ has been used frequently to describe the exhibition yəhaw̓. But you won’t hear its curators call it a decolonial project. So what is it, if not that?

Timothy White Eagle, durational performance to activate “Songs for the Standing Still People” (2019), mixed media installation (photo by Sunita Martini)

SEATTLE — The word ‘decolonization’ has been bandied about all over national and regional arts outlets lately, but it is often misused or misunderstood. In Seattle, the term was used frequently to describe yəhaw̓, the first exhibition in the newly retrofitted, 7,500-square-foot Seattle Office of Arts & Culture ARTS Gallery, on the second floor of historic and still-operating King Street Station. The exhibition, which ran throughout the summer, was named for a Lushootsheed word that means “to proceed, go forward, and to do it,” and reflected “a nuanced, inclusive narrative that firmly establishes the vital contributions generated by Native thinkers and makers, here and now.” Its three curators — Tracy Rector (Choctaw/Seminole), Asia Tail (Cherokee), and Satpreet Kahlon — have been lauded for decolonizing the exhibition by accepting artworks by all self-identified Indigenous artists submitted through an open call, and for featuring the work of over 200 Indigenous artists residing in Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Montana, and British Columbia, with many more artists represented in two zine publications and multiple satellite exhibitions and public programs throughout King County. But you won’t hear its curators call yəhaw̓ a decolonial exhibition. So what is it, if not that?

Let’s try taking the curators’ basic premise — that this is a show curated by and for Indigenous artists and communities living and working in the Pacific Northwest — as a simple fact, not as an exception. By doing so, it is far more interesting to consider yəhaw̓ as an example of Indigenous creatives having sovereignty over their visual representation and resources, or what artist-scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg) would call “Indigenous resurgence and co-resistance.” As Simpson writes, in projects of Indigenous resurgence, the well-being of individuals is directly linked to the well-being of collectives; resurgent movements try “to center Indigenous practices and thoughts in our lives as everyday acts of resistance, and grow those actions and processes into a mass mobilization.” By creatively gaining and maintaining resources and access, being transparent about budgets and curatorial processes, and working towards creating temporary and permanent spaces to feature Indigenous makers, yəhaw̓’s curatorial team has created new systems that should inspire all art workers.

Coworking sessions were held at Alma Mater Tacoma and brought together seasoned and emerging Indigenous artists from across the region (photo by mel carter)

FaceTiming with yəhaw̓’s three curators in late August, I was reminded of the first step in any world-shifting practice: proactively taking space and shaping the terms of discourse. “Growth comes from recognizing gaps in the existing infrastructure,” said Satpreet Kahlon, and this was most clear when I learned of the exhibition’s genesis. Asia Tail had already assembled a curatorial team with a mission statement, and had identified dream artists for the exhibition longlist, when early rumblings of the King Street Station redevelopment project began to make the rounds. Rather than wait for an open call, the curators made their case directly to Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture, ensuring that yəhaw̓ would be King Street’s inaugural show. With this, curators set into motion a curatorial model centered on Native-to-Native transmissions of knowledge and skills through a mentorship program and artists residencies at locations including Port Townsend’s Centrum. For months, curators, mentors, and mentees actively brought into being the artistic communities that they once longed for. This invisible curatorial labor of supporting emerging artists is the backbone of yəhaw̓, and reflects the trio’s belief that “opportunity breeds opportunity” far beyond the duration of one art exhibition.

Curators Tracy Rector, Asia Tail, and Satpreet Kahlon greet the crowd at the March 23 opening of yəhaw̓ at Seattle Office of Arts & Culture ARTS Gallery (photo by Naomi Ishisaka)

Together the curators aimed to challenge notions about who creates Indigenous art, what that art can or should look like, and how Indigenous art is presented to the world. The exhibiting artists’ affiliations included but also exceeded the Duwamish, Snoqualmie, Skokomish, and other Coast Salish tribes indigenous to the region, as Pacific Islander, First Nations, Indigenous Latinx, Native American, and Aboriginal artists were also supported. Artists worked across media and platforms, producing pieces that ranged from experimental and conceptual to more customary. In the King Street exhibition, Tail placed artworks in groupings she found “visually resonant and conversational,” in defiance of dominant art historical, anthropological, and archaeological curatorial practices, and differently even from identity-centric exhibition strategies undertaken by progressive curators.

Artist Crystal Florez- Zaka’an (White Earth Ojibwe) at the opening of Soy Yo, a group show featuring femme/female-identified Indigenous Latinx artists. This show was part of a three-month long Indigenous Latinx exhibition and event series curated by Jess Ramirez, which were held at Vermillion Gallery between March and June 2019 in conjunction with yəhaw̓ (photo by Leo Carmona)

Walking into yəhaw̓, viewers were offered multiple ways to enter the space after passing through the glass-partitioned lobby, where Richard Heikkilä-Sawan (Driftpile Cree)’s rainbow-dyed buffalo pelt served as a welcome flag. The huge open-floor plan was broken up by structural beams and movable walls hung at staggered intervals to encourage meandering, but “Songs for the Standing Still People,” a mixed media installation by Timothy White Eagle (White Mountain Apache), was a natural centerpiece. A heavy, circular wooden platform rose majestically from the gallery’s concrete floors, encircled by a ball-chain curtain that jingled as you entered a space “designed to sing to the rocks at its very center.” Suggesting both lightness and weight, this permeable space came alive with durational performances led by White Eagle over the course of the exhibition. On either side of “Songs,” portraits centered Indigenous women’s lives. Kali Spitzer (Kaska Dena/Jewish) had a trio of scanned tintypes celebrating femme sexuality and resilience: “Fern II” features a curly-haired femme wearing a heavy gold chain, her nipples visible through her thin white T-shirt, returning the viewer’s gaze and refusing to be demure or ashamed. Across from these prints, Adam Sings In The Timbers (Apsáalooke) exhibited “Indigenizing Colonized Spaces,” a photo triptych of women in regalia, each standing in the midst of a metropolitan area. Each woman’s surroundings is strangely empty, with the exception of a Black man hailing a cab in one photo, which produces an effect that is visually striking yet discursively challenging — does the artist’s political vision of indigenizing colonized land mean the evacuation of all settlers, or was this simply an aesthetic choice?

Adam Sings In The Timbers, “Indigenizing Colonized Spaces with Starla Thompson, Potawatomi/Chumash” (2019), photo on Kodak Metallic Paper (installation photo by mel carter)

Throughout the exhibition, salon-style presentations challenged viewers to draw their own connections; identifying text was sparse, and if you lost the printed exhibition guide, you were out of luck. One common exhibition strategy was the juxtaposition of styles across related forms, which confounded the binary between contemporary and customary art. An area featuring woven, textile, or fabric-based pieces looked, at first glance, like a typified anthropological display — woven hats hung in a row on a high wall, with vitrines of wooden, woven, and metal objects beneath. On closer inspection, however, all of these objects evinced the physical labor and desire of their creators to innovate craft as art. My favorite piece in the show was in this section: a small, brown paper receptacle lined in supple fur affixed to a metal holder, resembling a laundry basket or trash bin. On two exterior panels, the artist Maureen Gruben (Inuvíaluít) sewed vintage Hudson Bay Company advertisements for furs — a reminder of one of the first settler colonial industries in North America — to complete her “Colonial Shopping Bag” (2018). Nearby this piece was a cedar hat adorned with human hair, buckskin, and beads, and “Kimberly’s Toolbox,” both made by Kimberly Miller (Skokomish) — the modern tools of her practice displayed as art alongside one of its products.

Kimberly Miller, “Kimberly’s Toolbox” (2005), northern red cedar, yellow cedar, rye grass, raffia, modern and traditional tools (photo by mel carter)

Another strong pairing was of an experimental video by fabian romero (Purepécha) with the sound piece “Trial of Birds” (2019)  by Vi Levitt/ KERUB (Métis). “Trial of Birds,” with its deconstructed bird calls and ambient glitches, could serve as an alternative soundtrack to Romero’s film of childhood photographs and memories of Mexico and their subsequent migration to El Norte. The combination of these two pieces performs a sonic and visual border crossing between queer Indigenous experiences from Canada to Mexico, giving new resonance to Romero’s enjoinder that “if you listen you can hear the land asking to know its history.” If these connections were missed by viewers, that was OK too. By actively privileging an Indigenous gaze, yəhaw̓’s curators built incomprehensibility directly into the exhibition structure. Practicing visual and curatorial sovereignty comes at the expense of non-Native understanding — as well it should be.

While political messages referencing sovereignty, genocide, or colonialism were less overt — notable exceptions were Demian DinéYazhi’s “A Nation is a Massacre” (2019), “Red/Act” (2019) by Jessica Mehta (Cherokee), and the poetic “Ancestors” (2016) by Storme Webber (Alutiiq/Black/Choctaw) — yəhaw̓’s years-long unfolding was itself a political act of resurgence and a projection of Indigenous futurity. Discussing decolonization in the arts often centers settler colonialism as the singular structure or event that Indigenous artists must continually respond to, return the gaze back upon, or subvert and critique; in its best iterations, decolonizing the arts necessarily foregrounds the dismantling or structural transformation of institutions, the repatriation of stolen objects, and the creation of access and resources for Indigenous curators and artists working within arts institutions. While these are incredibly important acts, yəhaw̓’s curators have a different goal: to focus on what Asia Tail calls the “active presencing” of Indigenous peoples. By prioritizing community-building and the mentoring of emerging artists, yəhaw̓’s curators see this exhibition as just one part of a larger project of building resurgent systems for Indigenous people to thrive.

yəhaw̓ ran at ARTS at King Street Station (303 South Jackson Street Top floor, Seattle) and at venues throughout the Seattle area from March 23 to August 4, 2019. The exhibition was curated by Tracy Rector, Asia Tail, and Satpreet Kahlon. A comprehensive gallery is available online.  

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