© Tonita Cervantes, “LaDonna Brave Bull”
About Spirit: Focus on Indigenous Art, Artists and Issues
The scope of the work in this exhibition reflects the intricate nature of indigenous identity. Ten artists have created images that reveal expressions of pain, resiliency, resistance, healing, tradition, history and celebration.
The exhibition includes NatGeo photographer, Kiliii Yuyan’s sweeping landscapes, internationally acclaimed artist Meryl McMaster’s dream-like self-portraits, Projects 2020 award recipient Donna Garcia’s historical recreations, and Sundance Film Festival invitee Shelley Niro’s work focused on women and indigenous sovereignty. Canadian documentarian Pat Kane, Fine Art photographer Will Wilson and newcomers, Jeremy Dennis, the collaboration of Kali Spitzer & Bubzee and photojournalist Tonita Cervantes round out the show. Donna Garcia one of the exhibiting photographers has assembled and organized this exhibition. It has been featured on Lenscratch and highlighted at the Atlanta Photography Group in Atlanta Georgia prior to coming to the Griffin Museum Photography.
Spirit: Focus on Indigenous Art, Artists and Issues is an initiative designed to educate the public, through lens-based art, regarding the true history of indigenous people and recruit advocates for indigenous issues everywhere, but with a specific focus on the US and Canada, where native lands and people аre still coming under attack everyday.
Curatorial Statement by Donna Garcia
In 2018, I created my series, Indian Land For Sale. I thought it would be a straightforward conceptual series based on the devastating consequences of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the histories that surround it. As I began my research, I discovered that there was literally no original documentation around this event. I went to local archives, museums, even the area where the Trail of Tears began in Georgia – nothing but apologies. I was very frustrated, but I am not sure why I expected it to be different, because the ultimate goal of genocide is to wipe out all traces of a culture. That is when my project became about replacing what had been omitted from history.
Indian Land For Sale made me think deeply about the bias of history in North America. So when Aline Smithson asked me to host a week of Indigenous Art, Artists and Issues on LENSCRATCH, my goal was to feature a group of artists who represented a broad scope of lens-based perspectives, from icons to innovators.
As I curated this amazing group of artists, what struck me as strange, was that I hadn’t seen their work previously in my exploration of Contemporary Artists. Why had I not been introduced to the work of icons like Will Wilson or Shelley Niro? While all of the artists who will be featured/exhibited make work around indigenous issues, beyond that they need to be included in today’s photographic conversation, their work is compelling, distinctive, imaginative and impeccably executed. It’s important to know what the icons know, what the visionaries see, what the searchers have found and how the innovators create and how, as a collective, they will change the paradigm of history moving forward. You need to know these artists because their visual perspectives have the potential to reshape, retell, and rewrite the history of North America – now is the time. – DG
Photographer Kiliii Yuyan illuminates stories of the Arctic and human communities connected to the land. Informed by ancestry that is both Nanai/Hèzhé (East Asian Indigenous) and Chinese-American, he explores the human relationship to the natural world from different cultural perspectives. Kiliii is an award-winning contributor to National Geographic Magazine and other major publications.
Both survival skills and empathy have been critical for Kiliii’s projects in extreme environments and cultures outside his own. On assignment, he has fled collapsing sea ice, weathered botulism from fermented whale blood, and found kinship at the edges of the world. In addition, Kiliii builds traditional kayaks and contributes to the revitalization of Northern Indigenous/East Asian culture.
Kiliii is one of PDN’s 30 Photographers (2019), a National Geographic Explorer, and a member of Indigenous Photograph and Diversify Photo. His work has been exhibited worldwide and received some of photography’s top honors. Kiliii’s public talks inspire others about photographic storytelling, Indigenous perspectives and relationship to land. Kiliii is based out of traditional Duwamish lands (Seattle), but can be found across the circumpolar Arctic much of the year.
Statement – Masks of Grief and Joy
Photographer Kiliii Yuyan illuminates the hidden stories of Polar Regions, wilderness and Indigenous communities. Informed by ancestry that is both Nanai/Hèzhé (Siberian Native) and Chinese-American, he explores the human relationship to the natural world from different cultural perspectives.
In his series Masks of Grief and Joy, Yuyan takes the viewer to Gambell, located on the northwest cape of St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, about 200 miles southwest of Nome and just 36 miles from the Chukchi Peninsula in the Russian Far East.
Death is not uncommon here on Alaska’s Saint Lawrence Island, whose population is entirely Siberian Yup’ik. The people of Saint Lawrence Island have been ravaged by colonization. In the 1800s American commercial whalers brought disease epidemics, followed by the 1900s when children were forced to leave their parents and attend boarding schools. An entire generation was subjected to the physical/sexual abuse and cultural genocide of those schools. The ensuing trauma has led Alaska Natives to the highest rate of youth suicide in the world – 13 times higher than that of American youth overall.
Lens-based artist and documentarian Kiliii Yuyan shares the story of Molly:
Molly comes running up to me, snow crunching under her feet as she giggles and tries to catch her breath. The two of us are standing in moonlit snow on an island in the middle of the Bering Sea. It’s Molly’s home. We joke around for a few minutes when she suddenly bursts into nostalgia about her best friend Robert.
Robert’s dad used to push the kids around the house in suitcases. They’d stare at each other and burst into laughter. As Molly tells me this childhood story, her eyes begin to glisten. She tells me Robert’s father was like a surrogate dad. They would go out on the land for weeks. He’d never let anybody in the village pick on her. The three of them were inseparable.
But then she pauses, and after a long while, she tells me in a faltering voice that Robert had killed himself, and his dad had died from a heart attack shortly after.
When Yuyan arrived in Gambell, one of the island’s two communities in 2018 with about 700 residents, he took on the task of creating a suicide-prevention program, in collaboration with the art teacher and staff at the Gambell school, as a form of art therapy for the students. One of the first activities was for the student to create papier-mâché masks. Arctic Indigenous cultures such as the Yup’ik are famously laconic, so this mask-making activity was designed as a socially acceptable way for teenagers to work through suppressed emotions. He asked the students to work on two masks: one representing their internal grief, the other representing their joy. He worked with his students for three weeks, taking cues from both traditional Yup’ik masks and references to pop culture.
The artist’s made portraits of the students wearing their masks in places that brought them closer to their grief and their joys. For grief, several students led him outside. He went to a basketball court, a reminder of a well-loved fellow student and basketball player who they said had recently committed suicide. Standing in that place, Yuyan could feel the pain carried by the students, as well as their fortitude in facing it. Most of the students wore their grief mask outside and their joy mask inside the comfort of their home.
During their time together, the students reflected on suicide in their community and how it had affected them. It was clear that it affected just about everyone, but there were also deaths from cancer and accidents as well. Despite all of the tragic losses, most of the students seemed to have a healthy approach to life. Their strength stands proves that despite centuries of ongoing trauma, Indigenous communities will continue to heal with each generation by learning to believe in themselves and preparing a way for their communities into a new era.
When one looks at these images what is apparent is the resilience of the individuals who аre wearing them and the compassion with which the pictures are made. As the world struggles in 2020 to find even a shred of empathy or humanity, both are found here.
View Kiliii Yuyan’s Website.
Meryl McMaster earned her BFA in Photography from the Ontario College of Art and Design University (2010) and is currently based in Ottawa, Canada. McMaster’s work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at Canada House, London (2020), Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (2019), Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto (2019), Glenbow, Calgary (2019), The Room, St. John’s (2018) Momenta Biennale, Montreal (2017), Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Santa Fe (2015), and Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, New York (2015), amongst others. From 2016-2020 her solo exhibition Confluence travelled to nine cities in Canada, including stops at the Richmond Art Gallery (2017), Thunder Bay Art Gallery, Thunder Bay (2017), University of Lethbridge Art Gallery, Lethbridge (2018), and The Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery, Sarnia (2020). Her work has also appeared in group exhibitions at Carleton University Art Gallery, Ottawa (2020), Australian Centre for Photography, Australia (2019), National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (2018), Ottawa Art Gallery (2018, 2019), Kitchener Waterloo Art Gallery (2016, 2019), the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec (2019), Plug In Institute for Contemporary Art, Winnipeg (2017), and Art Gallery of Guelph (2017), amongst others. She was longlisted for the 2016 Sobey Art Award and is the recipient of numerous awards including the Scotiabank New Generation Photography Award, REVEAL Indigenous Art Award, Charles Pachter Prize for Emerging Artists, Canon Canada Prize, Eiteljorg Contemporary Art Fellowship and OCAD U Medal. Her work has been collected by significant Canadian institutions, including the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; Montreal Museum of Fine Art; and the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.
Statement – As Immense as the Sky
Meryl McMaster uses photography to explore identity and its distinct cultural narratives within lush, spectacular natural landscapes that evoke ancient folklore and myth with extraordinary visual impact. Her cinematic style connects still life, sculpture, narrative and performance. Meryl draws on her own mixed heritage, her mother being of British/Dutch ancestry and her father a Plains Cree native, to explore important themes and issues of representation.
Creating symbolic, sculptural garments and props, McMaster assumes diverse personas, such as a dream catcher or wanderer, often transforming herself into hybrid animal-human creatures. Her performative self-portraits present themes around memory and self, which are both actual and imaginative, and allow the viewer into the realms of her ancestors. Each tableau contains references to a multitude of stories and traditions from diverse Indigenous communities. These scenes often recall the Romantic tradition of the solitary figure in nature from traditional literature and painting.
Through the process of self-portraiture, McMaster also embodies the “shifts” of her subjects depending on the natural environment and the costumes. She does not do public performances. In one solitary moment, she creates a story, which may look like its part of a film, part of a dream sequence, a storybook or recounting history. She describes her pictures as “private performances that are responding to memory and to emotion in different ways.”
These captivating images аre captured across ancestral sites in Saskatchewan, where Meryl father’s ancestors are from as members of the Red Pheasant First Nation, and have lived for many hundreds of years, and the area is very significant to her family. Also, early settlements in Ontario and Newfoundland, where the artist interprets, and re- stages collected patrimonial stories from relatives and community knowledge keepers.
Acknowledging the personal and social history and effects of colonization, McMaster contemplates how ancestral stories are imprinted into the landscape by the people who once lived there, as well as those who still reside there. Meryl states, “These are very powerful, overwhelming places, with all kinds of history buried within these landforms that predates human existence.”
McMaster presents herself in nature, viewing the environment and seasons as an integral part of the cultural context while addressing the environmental consequences of colonization. She warns of the dangers of unsustainable land usage and the eradication of key species within ancestral ecosystems.
View Meryl McMaster’s Website.
Donna Garcia’s work illustrate a semiotic dislocation that has been organically reconstructed in a way that gives her subjects a voice in the present moment; something they didn’t have in the past. Her images rise above what they actually are and become empathetic recreations in a fine art narrative. She has an MFA in Photography from Savannah College of Art and Design and her work has been exhibited internationally. She is a 2019 nominee of reGENERATION 4: The Challenges of Photography and the Museum of Tomorrow. Musee de l’Elysee, Lausanne, Switzerland. Emerging Artists to Watch, Fine Art Photography, Nomination (only 250 lens-based emerging artists nominated worldwide).
Statement – Indian Land for Sale
In 1830 the Indian Removal Act was enacted along the East Coast of America.
President Jackson declared that Indian removal would “…Incalculably strengthen the southwestern frontier. Clearing Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi of their Indian populations would enable those states to advance rapidly in population, wealth, and power.”
Systematic hunts were made to force indigenous people from their ancestral land.
A Georgia volunteer, later a Colonel in the Confederate service, said, “I fought through the civil war and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by the thousands, but the Indian removal was the cruelest work I ever knew.”
Following the signing of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 the American government began forcibly relocating East Coast tribes across the Mississippi. The removal included many members of the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations from their homelands to “Indian Territory” in eastern sections of the present-day Oklahoma. It was a 1,000-mile walk and took 116 days from Georgia, walking all day and only being allowed to stop at night to bury their dead. This is what we now know as the start of the Trail of Tears.
Not all indigenous people left in 1830, specifically the Cherokee. Many stayed, thinking that they would be allowed to live peacefully or have the ability to fight back (actually winning several legal battles against the removal order). However, the Georgia State government and Andrew Jackson, had plans for their land. Flyers began to circulate hailing “Indian Land For Sale”. White farmers flocked in droves to auctions of indigenous, ancestral land that was still, up to 1838, being occupied by its native people.
It was in 1838 that 7,000 US soldiers in Georgia enforced a final evacuation. The Cherokee, Creek, Shawnee and Choctaw villages were invaded and the people were forced to leave, at gunpoint, with only the clothing on their backs.
For the few who resisted, approximately 1,800, died while imprisoned for refusing to leave.
Historians such as David Stannard and Barbara Mann have noted that the army deliberately routed the march of the Cherokee to pass through areas of known cholera epidemics, such as Vicksburg. Stannard estimates that during the forced removal from their homelands, 8000 Cherokee died, about half the total population. Half of the Choctaw nation was wiped out and 1 in 4 Creek.
A Cherokee survivor of the trail told her granddaughter, “The winter was very harsh and many of us no longer had shoes. Our feet froze and burst, as we left bloody footprints in the snow. We were not allowed to stop to bury our dead. Many mothers carried their dead children, miles, until we stopped at nightfall. All night you could only hear digging.”
View Donna Garcia’s Website.
Shelley Niro was born in Niagara Falls, NY. Currently, she lives in Brantford Ontario. Niro is a member of the Six Nations Reserve, Bay of Quinte Mohawk, Turtle Clan. Shelley Niro is a multi-media artist. Her work involves photography, painting, beadwork and ﬁlm.
Niro is conscious of the impact post-colonial mediums have had on Indigenous people. Like many artists from different Native communities, she works relentlessly presenting people in realistic and explorative portrayals. Photo series such as Mohawks in Beehives, This Land is Mime Land and M: Stories of Women are a few of the genre of artwork. Films include: Honey Moccasin, It Starts with a Whisper, The Shirt, Kissed by Lighning and Robert’s Paintings. Recently she ﬁnished her ﬁlm The Incredible 25th Year of Mitzi Bearclaw.
Shelley graduated from the Ontario College of Art, Honours and received her Master of Fine Art from the University of Western Ontario.
Niro was the inaugural recipient of the Aboriginal Arts Award presented through the Ontario Arts Council in 2012. In 2017 Niro received the Governor General’s Award For The Arts from the Canada Council, The Scotiabank Photography Award and also received the Hnatyshyn Foundation REVEAL Award.
Niro was honored with an honorary doctorate from the Ontario College of Art and Design University in 2019.
In March of 2020 Niro received The Paul de Hueck and Norman Walford Career Achievement Award from the Ontario Arts Foundation.
Statement – The Shirt
The Shirt is a compelling series of photographs by Shelley Niro that create a narrative of Indigenous sovereignty where women are central.
Although best known for her award-winning filmmaking, Nero’s photographic works often involve performance work by people who she knows as a way of rejecting the clichéd interpretations of Indigenous people in the media. In the series The Shirt, Niro’s friend and fellow photographer Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie of the Taskigi Nation and Diné Nation, faces the lens and directly confronts the viewer. Photographed in a landscape, Hulleah is wearing a series of five T-shirts that sequentially say: “The Shirt”; “My ancestors were annihilated exterminated murdered and massacred”; “They were lied to cheated tricked and deceived”; “Attempts were made to assimilate colonize enslave and displace them”; “And all’s I get is this shirt.” In the sixth image, she appears without any shirt; in the seventh, a smiling white woman wears the final shirt of the series.
Niro twists the archetypal tourist tee shirt from the point of view of First Nations Peoples as an exploration into the lasting effects of European colonialism in North America. According to Niro, The Shirt series came about as she flew over the Texas landscape. Looking out her window, she recalls the way the land below was partitioned, indicating ownership, and how it reminded her of the complex history that took place on that land.
“I looked out of my window and saw the land below chopped up into squares, each square neatly fenced off from the other. I thought about the ‘Indians’ who fought for that land, as well as the sacrifices made by tribes and nations in their efforts to keep away the settlers from their land and communities.” says Niro
Each photograph in the series is set within a literal and conceptual landscape that underscores the importance of land rights to the Indigenous struggles for self-determination. The powerful images show the progression of the shirt from one frame to the next until the Indigenous woman has the shirt literally taken from her back. The shirt becomes a metaphoric remnant of colonization, ripped off the backs of Indigenous women who live there.
The presence of a Diné woman in this terrain also draws attention to the connection between violence against Indigenous women and the land. In an extraction-based economy, sites of temporary worker housing are common, and as a result there is a rising level of violence against the local Indigenous women living there.
Historically, colonization has specifically targeted women, reducing them to the property of men under many policies and laws, including the 1876 Indian Act in Canada. Niro’s work demands viewers to be present and engaged, to place themselves in relation to the narrative as perpetrators or survivors of colonialism.
Shelley Niro challenges the clichés and stereotypes associated with the Indigenous community, especially women, through bold imagery and words that resonate across various cultural backgrounds. And through performance, she has exposed history and taken it into extraordinary dimensions where healing can hopefully begin.
View Shelley Niro’s Website.
Pat is a photographer in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. Pat takes a documentary approach to stories about people, life and environment in Northern Canada with a special focus on Indigenous issues, and the relationship between land and identity. He’s a grantee of the National Geographic Society’s Covid-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists, and an alumni of the World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass.
Mentorship is important to Pat. He offers free training opportunities to promising photographers in rural Northern communities, and is the co-founder and president of the Far North Photo Festival — a platform to help elevate the work of visual storytellers across the Arctic. He’s also a mentor with Room Up Front, a program for emerging BIPOC Canadian photojournalists.
Pat is part of the photo collectives Indigenous Photograph and Boreal Collective. Pat identifies as mixed Indigenous/settler and is a proud Algonquin Anishinaabe member of the Timiskaming First Nation (Quebec). His work has appeared in: National Geographic, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, World Press Photo among others. His photos have been exhibited at Photoville (New York), Contact Photography Festival (Toronto) and Atlanta Celebrates Photography (Atlanta).
Statement – Here is Where We Should Stay
For generations, Indigenous people in Canada have lived under the laws and values of European settlers through forced assimilation. The introduction of residential schools, formed by the federal government and instituted by the Catholic and Anglican Church, pulled Indigenous children away from their lands, families, languages and identities. The goal was to bring “civilization to the savage people who could never civilize themselves” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Final Report, 2015). This project focuses on how Indigenous people in my region are moving towards meaningful self-determination by resetting the past. The act of reclaiming culture and identity is ongoing, and my friends here are resilient in a place where symbols and systems of colonization loom large. We can hear colonization when Dene families pray to the Virgin Mary, but we see Indigenization when a young woman holds the hide of a caribou in her arms. In Catholicism we are Children of God, but in the Dene worldview we are One with the Land. There is a tragic and complex tension between the way of the church and the way of the ancestors. While it may be impossible to break free of the colonizers, the subtle, defiant and beautiful acts of resistance gives strength to say “we are still here; here is where we shall stay”.
The title of this project is from the final story of “The Book of Dene”, a collection of parables from various Indigenous groups in Northern Canada. In the legend titled, “The Two Brothers”, two young siblings sneak away in a canoe and become lost. They travel west, south and east, visiting many different lands but suffering tremendous hardships. Some of the people they meet ridicule and take advantage of them. After many years, they make their way to the North and are welcomed and fed and clothed by the people there. One brother says to the other, “Here is where we shall stay.” An elderly couple asks who they are and the brothers tell their incredible story. It is revealed that these are the boy’s parents, and they are finally reunited as a family in their homeland.
This project was created for the World Press Photo 2020 Joop Swart Masterclass.
View Pat Kane’s Website
Will Wilson’s art projects center around the continuation and transformation of customary indigenous cultural practice. He is a Diné photographer and trans-customary artist who spent his formative years living on the Navajo Nation. Wilson studied photography, sculpture, and art history at the University of New Mexico (MFA, Photography, 2002) and Oberlin College (BA, Studio Art and Art History, 1993). In 2007, Wilson won the Native American Fine Art Fellowship from the Eiteljorg Museum, in 2010 the Joan Mitchell Foundation Award for Sculpture, and in 2016 the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant for Photography. Wilson has held visiting professorships at the Institute of American Indian Arts (1999-2000), Oberlin College (2000-01), and the University of Arizona (2006-08). In 2017, Wilson’s received the NM Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. His work is exhibited and collected nationally and internationally. Wilson is Program Head of Photography, Santa Fe Community College.
Statement – Autoimmune Response (AIR)
Photographer and installation artist, Will Wilson (Diné/Bilagaana) creates a deliberate counter narrative to the romantic visions of Indigenous people living in an unchanging past. Though born in San Francisco, he draws inspiration from the many years he spent living on the Navajo Reservation as a child.
Wilson creates tension in his photography and installations, as the artist believes that Indigenous people remain responsible for protecting the environment and its future for all species. This story underlies the “quixotic relationship between a post-apocalyptic Diné (Navajo) man and the devastatingly beautiful, but toxic environment he inhabits.” This setting includes familiar symbols of cultural persistence, such as a Hogan (a traditional Navajo dwelling), coexisting with computers, wires, and futuristic furnishings.
Wilson describes AIR (Auto Immune Response) as a dialogue with “a post-apocalyptic Navajo man’s journey through an uninhabited landscape.” The artist’s use of self-portraits as the main character searching for answers about survival: “Where has everyone gone? What has occurred to transform the familiar and strange landscape that he wanders? Why has the land become toxic to him? How will he respond, survive, reconnect to the earth?”
For native tribes like the Diné, “toxic environment” encompasses not only the physical environment (the much larger Navajo Homeland, Dinétah, which was mined heavily for Uranium throughout the 20th Century), but also a historical environment of colonial resource extraction, arbitrary borders, and Federal Indian Policy which sought to “civilize the Indian” on reservations, for the more lucrative purpose of a land grab, for either mineral resources or agriculture. Wilson’s character resists arbitrary borders by existing in both, and yet his ever-present gas mask demonstrates that environmental contamination also ignores arbitrary borders. The result of this has been increased cases of cancer and autoimmune diseases among the people inhabiting these areas, destruction of ancestral land, and a continued history of “slow violence” against indigenous people.
Even though Wilson started this work in 2004, what is interesting to me is that it is more relevant than ever in 2020. As the world currently fights the devastating effects of climate change, and tries to push back on government’s irresponsibility around the decimation of our planet for profit, AIR reflects how native people have been fighting this for over a CENTURY.
Although this work focus’s on complex social and environmental issues, the result is a collection of dreamy yet powerful photomontages, in which the main subject merges with his environment creating poetic images that reflect dissolved states of time and space. The performative power of this work lies in the use of photography as an action for expressing feeling, not just for documentation.
View Will Wilson’s Website.
(b. 1990) is a contemporary fine art photographer and a tribal member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation in Southampton, NY. In his work, he explores indigenous identity, culture, and assimilation.
Dennis was one of 10 recipients of a 2016 Dreamstarter Grant from the national non-profit organization Running Strong for American Indian Youth. He was awarded $10,000 to pursue his project, On This Site, which uses photography and an interactive online map to showcase culturally significant Native American sites on Long Island, a topic of special meaning for Dennis, who was raised on the Shinnecock Nation Reservation. He also created a book and exhibition from this project. Most recently, Dennis received the Creative Bursar Award from Getty Images in 2018 to continue his series Stories.
In 2013, Dennis began working on the series, Stories—Indigenous Oral Stories, Dreams and Myths. Inspired by North American indigenous stories, the artist staged supernatural images that transform these myths and legends to depictions of an actual experience in a photograph.
Residencies: Yaddo (2019), Byrdcliffe Artist Colony (2017), North Mountain Residency, Shanghai, WV (2018), MDOC Storytellers’ Institute, Saratoga Springs, NY (2018). Eyes on Main Street Residency & Festival, Wilson, NC (2018), Watermill Center, Watermill, NY (2017) and the Vermont Studio Center hosted by the Harpo Foundation(2016).
He has been part of several group and solo exhibitions, including Stories—Dreams, Myths, and Experiences, for The Parrish Art Museum’s Road Show (2018), Stories, From Where We Came,The Department of Art Gallery, Stony Brook University (2018); Trees Also Speak,Amelie A. Wallace Gallery, SUNY College at Old Westbury, NY (2018); Nothing Happened Here, Flecker Gallery at Suffolk County Community College, Selden, NY (2018);On This Site: Indigenous People of Suffolk County, Suffolk County Historical Society, Riverhead, NY (2017); Pauppukkeewis, Zoller Gallery, State College, PA (2016); and Dreams, Tabler Gallery, Stony Brook, NY (2012).
Dennis holds an MFA from Pennsylvania State University, State College, PA, and a BA in Studio Art from Stony Brook University, NY.
He currently lives and works in Southampton, New York on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation.
Statement –Nothing Happened Here
Nothing Happened Here illustrates the shared trauma of living on indigenous lands without rectification. Reflecting upon his experiences and observations in his community on the Shinnecock Reservation in Southampton, New York, Dennis illustrates the burden of loss of culture through assimilation, omission of Native history, loss of land, and resulting economic disadvantage.
Dennis’s photography often explores indigenous identity, cultural assimilation and the ancestral traditional practices of his tribe, the Shinnecock Indian Nation. This photo series explores the violence/non-violence of post-colonial Native American psychology. Though science has solved many questions about natural phenomena, questions of identity are more abstract, the answers more nuanced. His work is a means of examining his personal identity and the identity of his community, specifically the unique experience of living on a sovereign Indian reservation and the problems that are faced.
In Nothing Happened Here, the artist captures surreal, almost cinematic production in the stillness of one picture.Through the use of digital photography, these images have a haunted urgency and profound dislocation from their landscape, which is uncomfortable yet familiar. The arrows in each image act as a symbol of an everlasting indigenous presence in each scene. Dennis’s decision to place non-natives subjects in these tableaux creates a tension that forces the viewer to consider the idea that there is a shared burden and poses the question, how do we overcome our troubled past?
As more truth about the early contact-period between colonists and indigenous groups, comes to light, it is difficult not to link the current dilemma of power, gained or lost, with that disturbing history.
By looking to the past, Dennis traces issues that plague indigenous people back to their source. For example, centuries of treaties, land grabs and colonialist efforts to whitewash indigenous communities have led to the ways that indigenous communities interact with their environments today, and the constant struggle to maintain autonomy over culture, identity and place.
Nothing Happened Here is a nuanced interpretation around the reality of the “white guilt” that many Americans have carried through generations, and the inconvenience of co-existing with people their ancestors tried to destroy. These stylized portraits of non-indigenous people impaled by arrows focuses on the most dramatic emotions and complex moments of silence and thought for the subject around these issues. With racial divisions and pressures reaching a nationwide fever pitch, it is more important than ever, according to Dennis, to offer accurate and compelling representation of indigenous people.
“I like making use of the cinema’s tools, the same tools that movie directors have always turned against us (curiously familiar representations, clothing that makes a statement, pleasing lighting), to create conversations about uncomfortable aspects of post-colonialism.”
Jeremy Dennis’s lens-based work strives to preserve the indigenous mythology that influences it; these stories grant him access to the minds of his ancestors, including the value they placed on sacred lands that, despite four hundred years of colonization, they remain anchored through the tradition of storytelling.
When asked about assuming this role as storyteller Dennis says, “Our ancient stories showcase the sanctity of our land, elevating its worth beyond a prize for the highest bidder.”
View Jeremy Dennis’ Website.
Kali Spitzer is a photographer living on the Traditional Unceded Lands of the Tsleil-Waututh, Skxwú7mesh and Musqueam peoples. The work of Kali embraces the stories of contemporary BIPOC, queer and trans bodies, creating representation that is self determined. Kali’s collaborative process is informed by the desire to rewrite the visual histories of indigenous bodies beyond a colonial lens. Kali is Kaska Dena from Daylu (Lower Post, British Columbia) on her father’s. Kali’s father is a survivor of residential schools and Canadian genocide. On her Mother’s side and Jewish from Transylvania, Romania. Kali’s heritage deeply influences her work as she focuses on cultural revitalization through her art, whether in the medium of photography, ceramics, tanning hides or hunting.
Her partner, Bubzee, is a mixed media artist who was raised by the river of the Slocan Valley settled on Sinixt land. Bubzee creates magic in many forms. She is a weaver pulling together past, present, future and all of the stories they hold, maiden mother, crone, all the creatures on earth. There is nostalgia unraveling here, something ancient and familiar that stem from her creations like remembering a dream -all the light, balanced by dark -all the life, communing with death. Every story told and echoed from the marrow of bones, carried through and brought to life by every piece that she creates. .
Statement – Braiding Wounds
Body as site
carrying blood memory forward.
Interrupted by colonial acts.
Weaving together the strength of ancestors.
(Excerpts from the writing of Mariah Curry)
Through generative collaboration, Kali Spitzer (Jewish and Kaska Dena) and Bubzee (European settler) hold space for one another braiding their ancestral connections to heal colonial wounds. Created on the unceded lands ofMusqueam, Skwxwú7mesh, Tsleil-Waututh, Sinixt and Mi’kmaq Nation, Braiding Wounds is a series of Tintype images with digital drawings that speak to the restorative labor of caring, deep listening, witnessing, and remembering.
Over the past 15 years, Kali and Bubzee’s kinship grew over their love for art and its capacity to create space for resurgences. Created in the last couple of years, this is a first of a series of collaborations that reveal points of connectivity between them, the continuums of their ancestral strength, and the land towards a deep love and kinship that holds space for one another. Where sites of colonial trauma shift into restorative acts of caring, witnessing and decolonial love.
“Indigenous Femme Queer Photographer Kali Spitzer ignites the spirit of our current unbound human experience with all the complex histories we exist in, passed down through the trauma inflicted/received by our ancestors. Kali’s photographs are intimate, unapologetic and make room for growth and forgiveness, while creating a space where we may share the vulnerable and broken parts of our stories which are often overlooked or not easy to digest for ourselves or society”, according to Ginger Dunnill, Creator and Producer of Broken Boxes Podcast (which features interviews with indigenous and other engaged artists).
View Kali Spitzer & Bubzee’s Website.
opens in a new windowView Bubzee’s website
Statement and Bio- Standing Rock: Water Protectors
My work focuses on the common thread that binds people together: their humanity, and the dreams they have for a better life.
I am a social documentary photographer. In my childhood, I was always attracted to the underdog, the invisible – perhaps because of my own overwhelming feeling of not belonging.
After years of working in Hollywood as a Casting Director and feeling spiritually unfulfilled, I walked out of the studio and picked up a camera. It was time to tell the stories of people who don’t have a voice, rather than casting for commercial advertising and consumer products that nobody needs.
I am fascinated by the resilience and community ties that are created out of a lack of resources. Witnessing the human spirit and the will to survive against all odds is humbling.
I was a witness to the historical and Indigenous-led movement that occurred on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota in 2016-2017. For six months I lived and documented the abuses of militarized law enforcement agencies, interviewed elders and Water Protectors, and photographed head-to-head confrontations from the frontlines.
My images are some of the people who inspired an indomitable, but peaceful movement, protesting the illegal construction of a pipeline that failed to conduct an environmental impact study or honor the sacred lands and treaties between the Lakota people and the US government.
The images of these notable Native Americans are living proof that the legacy of artists, warriors, Chiefs and medicine men have prevailed despite an ungrateful nations attempt to rid the land – their land – of their existence.
Today the country feels like it is barreling at an accelerated pace in an unknown and dangerous direction; but prophecies from the ancestors encourage us to not give up, to have faith in the Creator, and to continue the fight for a sustainable future.
In 1877 Chief Crazy Horse of the Lakota people, a mystic and fierce warrior, had a vision:
” I see a time of seven generations, when all the colors of mankind will gather under the sacred tree of life and the whole earth will become one circle again.” – Crazy Horse
I dedicate my part of the Griffin Museum of Photography exhibit to LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Tamakawastewin, Good Earth Woman.
LaDonna, matriarch of the Indigenous-led movement at Standing Rock, made the journey on April 9, 2021. She is now in the arms of Creator and her beloved husband, Miles Allard. She quietly passed away surrounded by family, friends and Water Protectors. – Tonita Cervantes
“This movement – Defend the Sacred-No DAPL – is not just about a pipeline. We are not fighting for a reroute, or a better process in the white man’s courts. We are fighting for our rights as the indigenous peoples of this land; we are fighting for our liberation, and the liberation of Unci Maka, Mother Earth. We want every last oil and gas pipe removed from her body. We want healing. We want clean water. We want to determine our own future.” – LaDonna
View Tonita Cervantes’ Website.
All About Photo
What Will You Remember
What Will You Remember 6.15.2021