Native American artists give voice to their history at the VMFA

“Four Seasons (Fall)” by Wendy Red Star is show as part of the VMFA’s exhibit.
Murphy Adams beads QR codes to create interactive art pieces on the Native history of six of Virginia’s rivers. Photo by Georgia Geen.

Three artists from the Virginia Museum of Fine Art (VMFA) exhibition, “Hear My Voice: Native American Art of the Past and Present” spoke on preserving and innovating their cultures’ Oct. 13 at a panel discussion held at the museum.

The exhibition, which opened on Aug. 19 and will run until Nov. 26, includes a blend of newer and older works — many of the latter heralding from the 19th century. Several of the older works, mostly a collection of what can be considered practical objects like beaded moccasins and intricate baskets, were accompanied by educational audio clips.

All the featured artists are Native American and many blended traditional techniques with modern materials or innovations.

“I put [my work] through my experiences and my knowledge,” said beadwork artist Molly Murphy Adams during the panel. “It might look native to an audience, but it also has a lot of elements that are very contemporary, very modern, very much about fashion.”

Murphy Adams described the painstaking process of creating beadwork, which comes from her family and tribe, the Oglala Lakota. The piece she created for this exhibition, “Map: Commonwealth Project,” represents a break from the “rigidity of trying to make it perfect,” she said.

“I’m not full native, I’m from a very mixed background so that always reflected in the materials and the imagery that I used,” Murphy Adams said.

The embroidered and beaded silk map depicts six of Virginia’s rivers. From afar, its six accompanying panels appear to be decorative, but Adams incorporated an element she doesn’t think has been done before in beadwork art.

“As far as I know, I’m the only person beading QR codes,” Murphy Adams said.

Visitors to the exhibit can scan the codes with their smartphones to learn about the evolution of the names of the six rivers. Murphy Adams said she hoped visitors will understand the significance of the language the names represent.

Virgil Ortiz creates large-scale pottery similar to that created by the Cochiti tribe, of which he is a member, during the late 19th century.

“I was born into a family of potters,” Ortiz said during the panel. “All of the masters are dying out. The families that are left behind with them have a hard time continuing this tradition because everybody has a job off of the pueblo.”

“Four Seasons (Fall)” by Wendy Red Star is show as part of the VMFA’s exhibit. Photo by Georgia Geen.

“Steu” and “Cuda” are large ceramic figures painted with geometric designs featured in “Hear My Voice” and are also part of Ortiz’s “Pueblo Revolt 1680/2180” series, which combines ceramic figures and science fiction photography to engage and educate youth. The Pueblo Revolt was an uprising of indigenous people against Spanish Conquistadors in what is present-day New Mexico.

“When the non-natives first arrived at the pueblo, they had destroyed a lot of the figurative pottery and pottery in general,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz’s “Taboo” series, which he discussed during the panel, features work similar to that displayed at “Hear My Voice.” The series gears towards political commentary, which was a traditional aspect of earlier pottery as the Cochiti witnessed western migration of non-natives. Many of those original pieces were also destroyed, Ortiz said.

“I basically went back to the beginning of really reinforcing what my message is about, giving voice back to all the pieces that were broken,” Ortiz said.

Jeremy Frey, of the Passamaquoddy tribe, is an eighth-generation basket maker. Like Ortiz, he discussed the decline in the art form through the generations.

“The basket tradition is a long, long tradition that was really suffering as far as carriers of the tradition and knowledge of the craft,” Frey said during the panel.

Frey has begun to use new materials for his baskets, such a cedar bark, which isn’t traditionally used. However, all of his materials are still locally sourced, he said.

Frey’s piece, “Deception” is on display at “Hear My Voice.” The piece is tightly-woven, which is part of Frey’s artistic style and has warm colors brought out by natural dyes.

“The whole basket is kind of innovative,” Frey said. “From the very beginning one of my initial goals was to try and master and bring back and even create new things that were deeply based in tradition.”

Georgie Geen, Staff Writer

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