SANTA FE — Unlike any other medium, jewelry becomes a part of its audience, worn and carried throughout life by its wearer. “I do believe jewelry is the most fundamental human art form,” said Brian Fleetwood (Mvskoke Creek) in an interview with Hyperallergic. Fleetwood is the curator of The Stories We Carry and assistant professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts. “There is something in us that compels us to adorn ourselves. Jewelry is related to this idea of identity as performance. We put things on our bodies that either project how we want to be seen, or remind us who we are or who we would like to be.”
Featuring works by over 100 named artists, The Stories We Carry displays the breadth and scope of the medium, and its inherent storytelling capacity. The examples in the collection preserve and highlight tradition and legacy, communicate social and political issues, and celebrate Native culture and practice.
For example, “Tooth & Twine Necklace” (2016), a work by Carly Feddersen (Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation), started as an actual basket that Feddersen wove and then cast to create the silver pendant, the focal point of the necklace along with bits of twine and cast silver pieces that look like twine. “There are also fake teeth, referencing the traditional way you process the fibers by biting them with your front teeth,” Fleetwood said. “It’s a piece that addresses making pretty directly.”
The Stories We Carry showcases jewelry that speaks to big issues the Indigenous community faces, like in “Decimation by Decimal” by Jodi Webster (Ho-Chunk/Prarie Band Potawatomi). “This piece is about the complicated relationship Native people have with blood,” Fleetwood explained. “There are very few nations on Earth where citizenship is determined by your blood purity, and what that means to Native people is complicated based on individual histories.”
The piece is a brown, furry necklace featuring carved beads and translucent, quill-like pendants that hold droplets of fake blood. Gazing at the piece, I think about how wild it is that something so small, like a bead of blood, can have such massive consequences for the people whose veins it flows through. “It’s a really powerful exploration of something that is uniquely North American Native,” says Fleetwood.
Unknown stories are given voice through works in the exhibition, like in the aluminum helmet by Richard Glazer Danay (Mohawk). It looks like a hardhat made from silver and features little buffalo nickels and a Bureau of Indian Affairs badge. “Mohawk ironworkers are considered by many to be the best in the world,” Fleetwood said. “Most of the major cityscapes and skylines in the United States, especially on the east coast, have been built by those Indigenous iron workers. This piece is talking about the relationship between Native people and that trade which is a little-known story.” Not many who look out at the skyline of New York see Indigenous craftsmanship, but they should.
These pieces are created with the intention to be worn, an act which completes their existence. Not until a bracelet is put on a wrist is it finished. Fleetwood says he often thinks about jewelry in juxtaposition with Land art. With the former, the art is put on a body and therefore moves through the world. In the latter, art is placed on the land, and bodies walk through it. Both mediums are completed by the participation of the audience, becoming an experience, a phenomenon. “It’s a privilege to be an artist or a maker,” Fleetwood says. “We are engaging intentionally in that act of creation.”
The Stories We Carry continues at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (108 Cathedral Place, Santa Fe, New Mexico) through September 30. The exhibition was curated by Brian Fleetwood.