When preparing his exhibit Jeffrey Gibson: When Fire Is Applied to a Stone It Cracks for the Brooklyn Museum, artist Jeffrey Gibson encountered a bronze sculpture, languishing behind the museum next to the parking lot, of a man slumped atop a bone-thin horse. The sculpture, Charles Cary Rumsey’s The Dying Indian (circa 1904), is one of several pieces from the turn of the last century meant to represent the decline of Native American tribes.
Through much of his own work, Gibson, who is of Choctaw and Cherokee descent, examines and reimagines historical, and often patronizing, depictions of Indigenous people. For his exhibit, which runs through January 10, the artist brought the sculpture indoors and presented its subject in a more heroic light. The man now rides before a brightly colored mural riffing on Native American motifs and a lively engraving of a bison hunt. On his feet the rider wears a new pair of moccasins, hand-beaded by Pawnee-Cree artist John Murie. Inscribed within the beading are words from a Roberta Flack song: I’m gonna run with every minute I can borrow.
Next door in the museum’s Art in the Americas galleries is another exhibit, one that explores the relationship between nature and Indigenous artists, past and present, and the environmental destruction European colonialism has fueled in North, Central, and South America over centuries. The more contemporary pieces in Climate in Crisis: Environmental Change in the Indigenous Americas, on view until June 20, comment directly on climate change and its devastating impacts on Indigenous communities from the Arctic to the Amazon.
Curator Nancy Rosoff recalls “the constant barrage of news from Brazil about the fires in the Amazonian jungle, along with reports about the increasing temperature in the Arctic and the melting of the Arctic ice,” when she started organizing the exhibit in the summer of 2019. Her team drew upon the Brooklyn Museum’s extensive collection of Indigenous art, which, with more than 35,000 pieces, is one of the largest in the country. The 60-plus artworks chosen for the exhibit span 2,800 years, ranging from a 500–200 BCE Chavin ceramic figurine of a priest in a jaguar headdress holding a San Pedro cactus, from the area that is now Peru, to an engraved 19th-century sperm whale tooth depicting Native Alaskan hunting and fishing scenes, to a 1960s Tembe ceremonial feathered headdress for girls from Brazil that has rarely appeared on exhibit since its acquisition by the museum. Each piece illustrates a profound cultural relationship with the natural world, one that stands in stark contrast to that of colonialism. “We had all these masterpieces, and this gave us an opportunity to let people look at them closely and think about this really important message of climate change and environmental justice.”
Hanging on a wall, a large quilt by contemporary artist Gina Adams, who traces her heritage to both Ojibwe and Colonial Americans, offers a pointed rebuke of how the U.S. government treated the land and its Indigenous inhabitants. From her Broken Treaty Quilts series, the piece calls out the Dawes Act of 1887, which broke up tribal lands into small, private plots, offering American citizenship to tribal members in exchange. On an antique quilt from the time, Adams hand-sewed the words of the declaration in colorful fabric letters. The act resulted in reservations losing staggering amounts of land to homesteaders and helped precipitate the western migration of American colonists. “Before the Dawes Act, Native Americans were stewards of the land,” she says. “There was no over-farming, cattle grazing, barbed wire, or extraction of water, oil, gas, or gold.”
Organized by region, the exhibit presents the artworks alongside the geography of individual tribes. Hopi and Zuni artworks—including the museum’s famed collection of 19th-century Kachina dolls by She-we-na artists—are displayed beside a wall description that references the controversy over Bears Ears, an ancestral homeland to the Pueblo people of what is now southeastern Utah. “We’re trying to show how objects in our permanent collection—and the artists who made them—connect to issues that concern people today,” Rosoff says. In 2016, President Barack Obama created the Bears Ears National Monument to honor its 100,000 archeological sites and its continued importance to the region’s tribes. The following year, however, his successor, Donald Trump, shrank the monument’s size by roughly 85 percent to enable mining and drilling on these sacred lands.
“We’re destroying the things that make life possible and beautiful,” says Onondaga-Micmac artist and poet Gail Tremblay, who applies traditional weaving techniques to nontraditional materials. Her contribution, When Ice Stretched On for Miles, is a basket handwoven with 16-millimeter celluloid film footage of a 1967 ethnographic documentary about the Netsilik Inuit in the Canadian Arctic. Not lost on the artist is the irony that the filmmakers staged scenes in which the Inuit reenacted a way of life their ancestors had experienced decades earlier but one they could no longer fully pursue. “Plants are dying, animals are dying, all kinds of things are out of balance,” Tremblay says. “I try to address these issues in my work because people do need to think about them.”
At the entry to the exhibition, a beaded tipi by Kiowa artist Teri Greeves stands in juxtaposition to a 2016 image of a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline and its path across the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, taken by Salish and Kootenai photographer Tailyr Irvine. Greeves’s tipi depicts lighthearted scenes of contemporary Indigenous life—a drummers’ circle, a woman in traditional dress walking with a toddler in a T-shirt—together with more mythic imagery overhead of a sunburst, a spider, and a snake. Based in Santa Fe, the artist sees the tipi as the perfect symbol of the ability of Native societies to live as one with their environment. “I’ve seen tipis hold their own in 50-mile gusts,” she says. What’s more, she says, tipis were traditionally sewn of buffalo hides, a gift from nature that was never taken for granted. “For Native people, this world is us, and you can’t just use it up,” Greeves says. “You can call it environmentalism, or whatever you want. It is how we have always viewed the world.”
Climate in Crisis: Environmental Change in the Indigenous Americas is on view at the Brooklyn Museum until June 20, 2021. The exhibit Jeffrey Gibson: When Fire Is Applied to a Stone It Cracks, runs until January 10, 2021.
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