Forming Relations

Morgan E. Freeman, Former DAMLI Native American Art Fellow
Jami Powell, Curator of Indigenous Art
Hood Quarterly, spring–summer 2021

How can we shift our understanding of land from one of ownership and extraction to one of relationality?

How do we move toward a recognition of our shared humanity?

How do we create a world in which future generations can thrive?

Form and Relation: Contemporary Native Ceramics examines the work of North American Indigenous artists whose practices are grounded in our relationships to the land and to one another. Using the "flesh of the earth" or clay as a central organizing medium, the artists in this exhibition draw not only on the materiality of the clay but also on the capacity for the land and these forms to hold knowledge. Like communities throughout the globe, the artists in Form and Relation grapple with difficult questions surrounding issues of community, identity, gender, land, extraction, language, and responsibility. Through the works in this exhibition, Anita Fields, Courtney M. Leonard, Cannupa Hanska Luger, Ruben Olguin, Rose B. Simpson, and Roxanne Swentzell invite us into timely conversations about how we can better understand and reconcile the complexity and ambiguity that surrounds us, our histories, and our present moment.

All of the works in Form and Relation are recent acquisitions to the Hood Museum's collection or loans directly from the artists, some of which were commissioned specifically for the exhibition. In addition to providing a deeper examination of local contexts, the site-specific commissions in Form and Relation provided unique opportunities for Dartmouth students and community members to engage with the artists and their work through participation and dialogue.

For example, ceramic and electronic media artist Ruben Olguin has dedicated much of his career to attending to the rich history and ingenuity of adobe. While earlier pueblos were built using a puddled adobe—laying down wet clay in layers—the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors at the end of the 16th century introduced the method of sundried brick making. For his installation at the Hood Museum, Olguin created an iteration of his ongoing series Fractured: Broken Landscapes composed of an adobe pit structure using bricks made in collaboration with the Hopkins Center Ceramics Studio and members of the Dartmouth community, demonstrating the collective effort that is necessary for this architectural tradition. Fractured doubles as a projection surface and reflects a looping video of dry clay being washed away with swirling water, as a map of the local surrounding area fades in and out. Together these elements acknowledge the erasure of New Hampshire as Abenaki homelands and the infrastructural elements that disrupt the landscape.

Also examining disruptions and impositions upon Indigenous land and water places, Courtney M. Leonard's BREACH: Logbook 20 | NEBULOUS is now part of the Hood Museum's permanent collection. Rooted in her connection to and knowledge of water places and the sea, Leonard compels us to interrogate our own relationships to water. This site-specific installation invites us into a dialogue about the violence we perpetuate against our environments, and against the aquatic ecosystem in particular. It explores the impact of "ghost traps" or "ghost fishing," which occurs when castaway aquaculture traps and nets are left in open waters. They continue fishing aquatic species in a ghost-like fashion, with ropes and cords that often fatally entangle whales, seals, and other species.

Artists in Form and Relation use clay as a medium to unearth truths that are otherwise more comfortable to ignore. In her sculpture Reconstruct, Conversion, Here, Anita Fields houses a small figure inside of a church-like structure, sitting on top of a hoard of gold bars. Fields created this work after returning from a residency in Mexico and learning that conquistadors often plundered the Aztecs' gold possessions and subsequently melted them down into bars that were sent back to Spain.

Although the museum has been closed to the public since last March, Cannupa Hanska Luger's Every One (#MMIWQT Bead Project) was visible until April of this year in the museum's vitrine window, confronting another uncomfortable truth, the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls as well as queer and trans people (MMIWQT). Inspired by a tintype photograph taken by Kali Spitzer, Luger created this work through social collaboration—the contributions of hundreds of Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants who sent thousands of hand-shaped two-inch clay beads that Luger fired, painted, and strung to re-create Spitzer's image. The more than 4,000 beads that compose this work visualize and acknowledge the over 4,000 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada, referencing data collected by the Native Women's Association of Canada. Through the inclusion of "Q" and "T" in the title, as well as the illumination of the work in lavender light each night during its time at the Hood Museum, the #MMIWQT Bead Project recognizes the LGBTQ+ and Two-Spirit community members not reflected in available data and brings light to the lack of data currently available on similar violence in the United States.

Throughout the exhibition, figural forms serve as vessels of communication, inviting the viewer into an interpersonal dialogue. Roxanne Swentzell and Rose B. Simpson—two artists in the exhibition who are also mother and daughter—often confront deeply personal truths and invite audience introspection. Simpson's Dream Machine figure references appropriation, trauma, and war, but also the hope that emerges from within these spaces of marginalization. Swentzell's Sitting on My Mother's Back depicts a woman hunched over, cradling her knees while two figures rest on her back, wrapped up in her hair—seemingly unaware and ungrateful for the stability and nourishment she provides them. The works illustrate how the Earth sustains and nourishes our lives and cautions us against neglecting this relationship.

For many of us, our interaction with art and the world around us has forever changed over the past year. As our interactions continue to be mediated through virtual spaces, we are grateful to have Form and Relation on view and for opportunities to invite our audiences to think more deeply about our relationships to place and to one another.

Form and Relation: Contemporary Native Ceramics was made possible, in part, through the Diversifying Art Museum Leadership Initiative, funded by the Walton Family Foundation and the Ford Foundation. It is on view through January 2, 2022.


Written June 08, 2021