In the twilight hours of Thursday, September 14, a line of people anxiously waited outside a straw-filled lot on Jackson Avenue in Queens for the opening night of The World’s UnFair, an immersive art exhibition by the self-proclaimed “public secret society” New Red Order (NRO). Focusing on land rematriation, the forced displacement of Native peoples, and colonialism embedded within the capitalistic real estate industry, the project is a satirical carnival centered around the call to give land back.
Specifically spotlighting New York City’s own history of Indigenous displacement, the exhibition contextualizes the story of Lenapehoking (meaning “Lenape homeland”) within a global history of settler colonialism and the modern-day effort to reverse it through the Indigenous-led Landback movement. The show will remain open to the public through October 15.
Commissioned by arts organization Creative Time, The World’s UnFair is anchored in the research-based work of NRO’s core members: Jackson Polys, who is Tlingit, and brothers Zack and Adam Khalil, who are both Ojibway and members of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.
Shortly after the exhibition opened to the public at 6pm, the electric generator powering the video displays and animatronic sculptures needed to be swapped because of a diesel exhaust issue. However, as the event’s organizers scrambled to install a backup generator, the crowd of about 200 attendees, who were already inside, did not seem to mind. They continued to mingle and study the posters on display that highlighted modern-day cases of land repatriation. In the line outside, waiting attendees chatted with their friends in front of NRO posters lining the sidewalk that featured mock advertisements for “Easy, Fast, and Reliable Rematriation Services.” By 6:40pm, the videos and mechanical puppets flickered back to life, and The World’s UnFair was back up and running.
Visitors walking into the exhibition passed underneath “Welcome as Warning” (2023), a colorful arched entrance dedicated to Indigenous sovereignty and punctuated with two massive eagle eyes. Inside the exhibition, the crowd was greeted with a display of tribal flags and the “New Red Right to Return” (2023) signpost that points to the present-day locations of Lenape-descendant communities alongside the distance from their original homelands, which are now occupied by New York City.
In another corner, a film projected on a massive fabric screen explained the significance of land repatriation and gave present-day examples, including California’s city of Eureka, which repatriated the stolen Tuluwat Island back to the Wiyot tribe in 2019, and Oakland, which returned the five-acre Sequoia Point to the Indigenous nonprofit Sogorea Te’ Land Trust and the Confederated Villages of Lisjan Nation. Throughout the lot, real-life stories of settlements and individual private landowners who gave back their land are interspersed with animatronic sculptures, educational videos, and multi-channel displays with glitchy graphics that read messages like “Never Settle” and “Give It Back.”
“Part of the idea is to kind of normalize this gesture because it is possible,” Adam Khalil told Hyperallergic. He added that the point of the exhibition is “not about displacing more people,” a nod to rising evictions in New York City, but “about changing relationships to place, and also respecting and engaging with tribal sovereignty.”
Diya Vij, who curated the exhibition, explained that she was drawn to NRO’s balance of playful humor and political precision in their work.
“They call it the ‘serious joke,’” Vij said, adding that “they say exactly what they mean.”
“They really are interested in bringing people along in these conversations, and I’ve always found that to be really unique,” she added.
At the heart of The World’s Unfair is a very clear call to action, which is not only communicated through the artworks’ message displays, philosophical discussions between an animatronic beaver and talking tree in “Dexter and Sinister” (2023), or the large-scale video sculpture “Fort Freedumb” (2023), but also directly encouraged through QR codes linking to fundraisers and organizations supporting land repatriation.
“I just wish more people knew about it as a possibility,” said Marina Berio, a visual artist who attended the opening. “People give things to each other. People gift real estate to other people all the time. People pass their property on to their children. So if you think about it in those terms, it’s actually a very natural, simple thing to contemplate.”
Multimedia artist and musician Justin Sterling, who also visited the exhibition’s opening, talked to Hyperallergic about the importance of land acknowledgments. He explained how he used to only see them in academic spaces or in countries like Australia, where Welcome to Country rituals, originating from Aboriginal ceremonies to welcome visitors, have been commonplace for decades.
“It really raises a lot of questions about our relationship to the land itself,” Hala Abdel Malak, assistant professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons School of Design, said at the opening. “We can see examples in places around the world where land is still not fully owned, not privately owned, but just shared, and I think those are concepts that can be thought of as we navigate within the neoliberal capitalist system.”
John Bruce, associate professor of Design Strategies at Parsons, also explained at the opening that because “late capitalism and the neoliberal project is predicated on private property and ownership,” returning anything is “automatically going to be complicated” because of the way land globally has been reconfigured by imperialist borders. He pointed out that the exhibition’s present-day stories of land repatriation function “like a prefigurative gesture of people doing it” that spurs important conversations and critical reflection.
“It can be done. Do more of it,” Bruce concluded. “And all of that, I think, is productive.”