New exhibition centers regional Native American art, voices
In "Voices from the Rez," a new exhibition at the La Jolla Historical Society, 10 Southern California Native American artists will show painting, sculpture, fashion, performance art, writing and music.
One of the artists featured is Gerald Clarke, a Cahuilla conceptual and installation artist, who said he's grateful that an institution like La Jolla Historical Society is exhibiting the work of Native American artists not as craft or history, but as contemporary art.
"The history of Native American art is fairly recent. It was just 50 years ago or more that the works that we did within our communities was seen, oftentimes, as ethnographic artifact or a craft," he said. "And it's only been within the last few decades that America has actually seen and started to view Native American art as something that we can include within the fine arts world."
Clarke, who teaches in the ethnic studies department at the University of California, Riverside, has exhibited throughout the United States and extensively in the Southwest.
"It's difficult for a Native artist who lives in their community to be able to show their work in a professional setting, where their own community can see it," he said.
The La Jolla Historical Society enlisted longtime staff curator Dana Hicks to develop the show. Hicks said that Native American art adds an essential perspective, particularly in this region.
"In Southern California, especially San Diego County, we have more reservations here than any other county in the United States," she said. "But I find that when I'm around in the city and talking to people, they don't really know about the Native people here, so I felt that the voices from the people on the reservations maybe aren't being heard."
The La Jolla Historical Society's recently appointed executive director Lauren Lockhart said it's important to them to recognize the ancestral territory of the Kumeyaay on which the museum sits.
"I love that this exhibition is a chance to both acknowledge that past but also celebrate the present-day contribution of artists and of the Native communities in Southern California," she said. "I think that's vital for us. We're an organization that has a long tradition through our exhibition program and our archive of not only looking towards the past but finding ways to translate that past and make it relevant and applicable to present-day contemporary audiences."
The artists in the exhibition are Chuck Contreras, Gail Werner, Gerald Clarke, Gordon Johnson, James Luna, Jamie Okuma, Johnny "Bear" Contreras, Robert Freeman, Sandra Okuma and Tracy Lee Nelson.
Luiseño and Kumeyaay artist and blues musician Tracy Lee Nelson has several works in the exhibition, including a twist on a Kumeyaay-style woven basket.
"We're known for making baskets out of deer grass — or Juncus is what we call it, too, in our language. I have been making baskets for years. Of course, it was passed down from my mother," Nelson said. Nelson's mother is from the Mesa Grande Reservation (Kumeyaay), and his father is from the La Jolla Reservation (Luiseño), where Nelson lives now.
After playing in the 1996 Super Bowl with the band Redbone (famous for "Come and Get Your Love"), when he replaced his guitar strings, he felt they were too important to discard. As his musical career continued, he started collecting more of these significant guitar strings. Eventually, he decided to make a basket out of the strings as a way to honor the significance.
"When we're making the baskets, there are elders saying that you always think positive — prayers — for anyone who comes across the basket," Nelson said, adding that as he wove each steel string, he reflected on the honor and energy he felt when he'd played each set of strings.
One of Clarke's works in the exhibition is "The Peon Players," a sculptural painting depicting the traditional game of "peon." He said that people in Native communities are likely to immediately recognize the faces hiding under a blanket.
"If you're not familiar with our culture, the work seems almost fantasy, like surrealism or something," he said. "But if you're within the culture, it might as well be a basket of fruit. It's something that's so common that we do within our communities."
Clarke is also a longtime cattle rancher and has made sculptural branding irons for years. Recently, he began burning words onto paper — words like "immigrant," "native," or "amnesia."
"You can see how the paper is charred, and it's kind of a violent process," he said. "I started doing that around 2016 because I saw in American society more and more violence and anger. I'm not a violent person at all, but I feel like these prints kind of capture what's been going on the last few years. And I talk about immigration, I talk about land. I talk about who belongs and also the identity of being a Native person."
The exhibition will feature monthly programs — an evening with artist Johnny "Bear" Contreras on Jun. 17; a reading from writer Gordon Johnson; and a musical performance with Tracy Lee Nelson. The exhibition will launch with a reception at 6 p.m. on Friday, Jun. 3.
Clarke is proud and grateful for the La Jolla Historical Society — and also acknowledges there's still more work to be done.
"It's important that we show in venues such as the La Jolla Historical Society. But it's also important, it's interesting, right, that we're showing there at the Historical Society and not at the Contemporary Art center down the street. And I think that's evidence of how mainstream America has kind of categorized us and boxed us into certain ideas," He said. "I hope as we go through the 21st century, that America starts opening its mind to beyond what is normally accepted as traditional Native American art."
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