Saturday, June 11, saw the return of Atlanta Contemporary’s formerly annual and much-celebrated ART PARTY, and with it the premiere of its summer 2022 exhibitions, two thought-provoking and first-of-a-kind related shows that occupy the Contemporary’s six spaces: Returns: Cherokee Diaspora and Art and You Are Heleswv (Medicine). Both are on view through September 4.
In its formal land acknowledgment statement, Atlanta Contemporary declares that it “occupies the land of the Mvskoke (Muscogee/Creek) Nation. These individuals were forcibly removed against their will and we reap the benefits of their turmoil. Our occupation of this land is an act of privilege. We acknowledge this land and their legacy.”
Why first-of-a-kind? While many institutions, both private and public, have made some form of land acknowledgment, the Contemporary wanted to turn its statement into action.
Considering how best to proceed, director Veronica Kessenich reached out to Miranda Kyle, arts and culture program manager of the Atlanta BeltLine, more than 18 months ago and began discussing ways that the Contemporary could manifest its intention.
Together with John Haworth, director of public programs for the National Museum of the American Indian (Smithsonian Institute), who serves with Kyle here in the role of curatorial consultant, they identified a list of possible curators. Kessenich ultimately selected two Indigenous women — Ashley Holland, curator of Returns, who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation residing in Rogers, Arkansas; and Elisa Harkins, curator of You Are Heleswv (Medicine), a Muscogee/Cherokee artist and composer who lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
First, a brief history: As the Contemporary notes, it stands on land occupied for centuries by the Mvskoke or the Muscogee/Creek. In 1836 and 1837, the United States Army forced the removal of the 20,000 people who remained on their native land to what was then called Indian Territory in Oklahoma.
The same fate befell the Cherokee several years later. Between May of 1838 and March of 1839, 16,000 Cherokee were rounded up from their lands, much of which was in Georgia just north of present-day Atlanta. They were marched to Oklahoma in what became known as the infamous Trail of Tears.
The exhibition’s accompanying, must-read literature informs viewers that the Atlanta we now call home, and its environs, is ancestral land to both Cherokee and Muscogee/Creek. It reminds readers that “you delete an entire society of people . . . by taking away their relationship to the land.” For curators Holland and Harkins, place, ancestral home, matters. The exhibition raises necessary questions. What is indigeneity? Who is Indigenous? And what does that even mean if you are from here, but have never physically been here? What should it mean to those of us who live here now?
The artists included in these two exhibits address these questions — or don’t — in unique and unexpected ways. One who does so literally is Nathaniel Cummings-Lambert (Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians). His My heart in thy mountain land still has its home, included in Harkins’ curation, expresses a powerful vision of ancestral home with the land itself. Cummings-Lambert, in the center’s aptly named and narrow Sliver Space, encloses soil from his ancestral home of Cherokee, North Carolina, in a clear, human-scaled triangular sculpture upon which is printed text from the Marshall Trilogy, the early 19th century Supreme Court decisions affirming the legal and political standing of the Indian nations. We now know all too well that Supreme Court decisions can be reversed.
Holland’s Returns in the two main galleries features the work of three contemporary artists: Luzene Hill (Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians), Brenda Mallory (Cherokee Nation) and Kade Twist (Cherokee Nation), each of whom purportedly interrogates their indigeneity. “Cherokee understanding of self and culture,” she writes in the wall text and gallery guide, “has changed over time either by choice or . . . necessity. And with that, so has our relationship to land.”
She also writes what could be the curatorial thesis of the show itself: “[R]emoval from our land does not make us any less Indigenous.” But with the artists in Returns, there are fewer allusions to the land itself, and more to other contemporary concerns of an Indigenous experience. According to these artists, much of that experience is not pretty.
Hill is represented by work that addresses violence toward women, Indigenous or otherwise. Now that the gates of Hell are closed . . . (2019-22) occupies the first gallery. According to her statement, the work “challenges phallogocentrism and celebrates female sexuality and eroticism,” but the 11 drawings (in what looks like oil, ink and/or watercolor or gouache on paper) of legs, mostly disembodied, crossed or uncrossed, seemed to emanate more from rightful anger at injustice than from more specific Indigenous concerns. And for good reason; she explains that her college professor began the first day of class by telling the female students on the front row to “please cross your legs,” so that he could proceed “now that the gates of Hell are closed.”
A site-specific live performance involving women and chairs was staged at the June 11 opening and will be reprised at a later date.
Hill’s second installation, Traces and Wounds, 2021, in the large gallery, employs knotted crimson silk on suspended white canvas to offer a more abstract, and, to my eye, more satisfying take on a difficult subject — sexual assault on Native American women.
Brenda Mallory, born in Oklahoma but residing in Oregon, creates mixed-media works made from found and natural materials that explore “disruption of systems in nature and human culture” and biological forms that mix “the hard with the soft” through the marriage of the same found materials. Best of these is Soft Focus #4, 2018, comprising hog rings and waxed cloth in an aggregate of boat or vulvar forms.
Mallory shares this larger second gallery with Hill’s hangings and with Kade Twist. His two short videos, adjacent to one another on a corner wall, are inspired by place and community. His third and more impactful installation, a multichannel video sculpture on the floor of the gallery, shows silent images of fire consuming a building. Instead of a sense of place, though, it delivers an ominous message of climate change or other desecration of community. Propane tanks reinforce the human element in such a demise.
Totsu (Redbird), 2020, a 10-minute video in the Lecture Room from Cherokee filmmaker Jeremy Charles, reminds viewers in wall text that “Native American women are more than twice as likely to experience violence than any other demographic.” Two women, separated by time, one distant, one contemporary, are prey simply by moving through their own environments. Only Cherokee is spoken in the film, reflecting the director’s corrective to the culturally erosive loss of one’s language.
Harkins’ Matrilineal Kinship, in the perfectly situated Chute Space, offers a different perspective. It doesn’t offer a literal corrective to violence, but it does offer a balance. Here, women are presented as respected bearers of culture and lineage. Kyle Bell’s (Muscogee) video How-To: Muscogee (Creek) Foods is a comforting vignette of traditional food preparation and Muscogee language spoken among women who enjoy one another and the tasks at hand. Raven Halfmoon’s (Caddo Nation) stoneware sculpture, solitary and powerfully lit in the darkened space, reflects how the strong Native women in her life inspire her.
Speaking of strong women, I Pray For My Enemies (Harkins) celebrates traditional plant medicine — the heleswv of the title – in the Contemporary’s outdoor Secret Garden. Plants cultivated by Patrick Freeland (Muscogee) are planted in ceramic vessels made by Muscogee elder Cindi Wood. So far they seem to be, if not thriving, at least surviving the punishing Georgia sun. The work emphasizes Harkins’ belief in the importance of both place and the native plants that grow there as physical and spiritual medicine.
The voice of Joy Harjo, our 23rd and first Native United States poet laureate, performing her own Stomp All Night, 2021, and This Morning I Pray for My Enemies, 2021, presides over it all.
As curator, Holland takes her title from historian James Clifford’s Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty-First Century (2013). This book explores new and unexpected meanings of the word Indigenous by seeking to remove, as Holland notes in her statement, “inherent contradictions of an Indigenous and diasporic life.”
Those inherent contradictions make these two shows necessary viewing and ripe for study and exploration. The real importance of the Contemporary’s efforts is not in the questions answered — can any of these issues be easily or quickly answered? — but in the questions raised by this very real first step.
Putting its land acknowledgment statement into action in an even more concrete way, Atlanta Contemporary plans to grant property to Cherokee and Muscogee citizens for their future use. The museum is working with artist Cummings-Lambert to imagine and execute this far-from-yet-realized cultural easement. Stay tuned for more news of this admirable project. It’s another possible answer to the questions raised in this important and enlightening exhibit.
(Disclaimer: Donna Mintz, a regular contributor to ArtsATL, is a studio artist at Atlanta Contemporary.) Mintz is a visual artist who writes about art and literature. Her work is in the permanent collections of the High Museum of Art and MOCA GA. She writes for the Sewanee Review, Sculpture magazine, BurnAway, and ArtsATL. She recently completed a book on the life of writer James Agee and holds an MFA from Sewanee’s School of Letters at the University of the South.