TOVAANGAR (LOS ANGELES) — At the entrance of The Iridescence of Knowing, a new exhibition at OxyArts, the art gallery of Occidental College, two baskets hang on platforms suspended from the ceiling. One, “Tongva Style Basket No. 2,” is a traditional design woven by artist Theresa J. Ambo as part of a practice to revitalize traditional basketry. The other, “Lepo Lepo,” is artist Leah Mata Fragua’s exploration of the resources required to sustain traditional practices. Rather than all traditional materials, she used scraps and remnants to create paper.
The words “Lepo Lepo” loop through in concentric circles, coming from the Yak Tityu Tityu Yak Tiłhini Northern Chumash language, which roughly means “to go out and see the world and return home.” It’s a “sentiment I imagine most of our basket makers intended for their pieces,” the artist writes, “Yet today, many of our baskets sit in collections, still waiting to come home.”
The Iridescence of Knowing invites multiple artistic perspectives from Indigenous artists hailing from and doing work connected to Southern California. “Weaving both as a physical technique vital to Indigenous craft and as a symbolic concept lies at the heart of this exhibition,” write organizers Mercedes Dorame and Joel Garcia. “Weaving represents not only tangible embodied skill, but also the intangible essence of transgenerational cultural memory that bridges time and space.”
The area popularly known as Los Angeles is known to the Tongva Peoples as Tovaangar, which means “the whole world,” and a map illustrated by artist Adrienne Kinsella, a Tongva descendent, shows numerous villages layered on top of contemporary LA. Kinsella surrounds the map with Native plants, flowers, birds, and butterflies, reminding us of the land that’s been paved over by so much concrete.
Native plants also show through in works like “Sunbridge,” a bright yellow portrait of actor Tonantzin Carmelo, who plays a Tongva woman on the TV show La Brea. The vibrant color illuminates the image, reminding me of the light that so often permeates Southern California. As artist Katie Dorame notes, “I believe this is the first network television show or film that has prominently represented a Tongva character. Interesting, seeing how Hollywood is built and operates on Tongva land.”
In “The Land Reflects the History,” artist Samantha Morales-Johnson adds non-native species of plants that she observed at Huhuunga, the first land returned to the Tongva people since colonization. In an interview on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife website, Morales-Johnson pointed out that over 90 percent of the plants are not native. Her triptych, which resembles studies or sketches for land surveying, shows native plants in red, visibly surrounded by black and white plants that were brought in by the forces of colonization.
Photographic works by artists like James Luna and Cara Romero engage with images of Indigenous people. Luna’s Petroglyphs in Motion I–IV series takes petroglyphs as a point of departure, and brings them to life in full-color photographs that center Indigenous perspectives. Romero’s haunting underwater portrait depicts illustrator Weshoyot Alvitre wearing a headpiece of shells and a cotton bark skirt by Leah Mata Fragua, who made “Lepo Lepo.”
“I wanted to convey that Los Angeles is Native space; that the Tongva people are here,” writes Romero, “and that it is our responsibility — whether we are Native or not — to educate ourselves about whose land we are on … I hope you felt weightless in the water with me.”
The Iridescence of Knowing continues at OxyArts (4757 York Boulevard, Highland Park, Los Angeles) through November 18. It was organized by Mercedes Dorame and Joel Garcia.