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HomeArtPowerful Visions of Reclaimed Narratives by Indigenous Artists

Powerful Visions of Reclaimed Narratives by Indigenous Artists


PORTLAND, Oregon — Outside a fourth-floor window in the Portland Art Museum, rain-darkened tree branches dotted with crows make a latticed silhouette against a mottled gray sky. In bright contrast, a 22-foot mural illuminates a room of the modern and contemporary art wing, alive with its own light and vivid planes of saturated color: pollen yellow, turquoise, blossom pink, pulsing red. Created by Lynnette Haozous, an artist and social worker based in Albuquerque, “Into the Sun” (2021) shows an Apache woman who stares with an unwavering gaze during the sunrise ceremony, which marks the transition into womanhood. “This mural is an act of rematriation,” Haozous says, her words emblazoned on the gallery wall. “It is an act of resistance against the patriarchal systems that have tried to control Indigenous existence and resistance.” 

An enrolled member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, with Diné and Taos Pueblo ancestry, Haozous is one of four Native and Indigenous artists featured in Mesh, an exhibition of 21 works blending cultural traditions with contemporary perspectives and pressing social and environmental concerns. Works by Klamath Modoc artist-writer-activist Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, photographer Leah Rose Kolakowski, and kapa maker Lehuauakea — all under the age of 40 — accompany Haozous’s mural. Each of the featured artists apprenticed with an established artist as part of the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation’s Mentor Artist Fellowship program. Each mentor’s name is included in the exhibition copy, enhancing the show’s sense of intergenerational vitality, with shared knowledge pumping through a creative circulatory system.

Installation view of Mesh at the Portland Art Museum. Pictured: Lynnette Haozous, “Into the Sun” (2021), acrylic (courtesy Portland Art Museum, photo by Jon Richardson)
Installation view of Mesh at the Portland Art Museum. Pictured: Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, “Torture State” (2021), acrylics, Painted Hills wild red, Klamath charcoal, aerosols, graphite, oil bars on wood panel, 60 x 48 inches (courtesy Portland Art Museum, photo by Jon Richardson)

The exhibition radiates life, beauty, and tenacity. Through various materials, the artists collectively delve into connections to land and to community, pushing back against colonizing forces, and reclaiming their own narratives and power.

“I didn’t start organizing the exhibition as a thematic show,” said curator Kathleen Ash-Milby in a panel discussion. “But it became clear pretty early that there was this thread of interest in current events and social issues that was emerging in [the artists’] work and their work was really acting as a form of activism.”

Installed on the walls flanking Haozous’s mural are eight works by Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, who lives in Modoc Point, Oregon. Her expressive mixed-media paintings buzz with frenetic scratch-scrawl marks, as well as handwritten notes and layers of stenciled shapes and letters, smears of acrylic, smudges of pigments, ghostly imagery, a haze of aerosol paints. A case near the paintings holds hunks of earth pigments and objects the artist collected on Klamath lands and used as stencils in her Land Back series. In “Missing Her: No Man Camps” (2019), the letters LNG (the abbreviation for “liquefied natural gas,” or fracked gas) are circled and crossed out, a reference to her fierce opposition to Jordan Cove Energy Project’s proposed — and since cancelled — pipeline, which would have run through hundreds waterways and her tribe’s traditional sacred lands.

Leah Rose Kolakowski, “Woodland Powwow” (2015), archival inkjet print on satin finish paper, 36 x 24 inches (courtesy Portland Museum of Art)
Installation view of Mesh at the Portland Art Museum. Pictured: Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, “SKODEN” (2019), acrylic, oil paints, graphite on cedar canoe paddle flats (courtesy Portland Art Museum, photo by Jon Richardson)

Seven of Leah Rose Kolakowski’s experimental photographs punctuate the wall in the next room with striking portraits of Native women and scenes from powwows. The dreamlike crowd imagery from the Gathering of Nations powwow in Albuquerque, shown in “Gatherings” and “Gatherings II” (both 2018), looks like it’s been digitally manipulated. But the layering effects are actually the result of in-camera techniques, skills the artist honed while studying darkroom photography and alternative processes at the Pennsylvania College of Art and Design. A member of the Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa living in Santa Fe, Kolakowski says her photography is “a way to express pride and appreciation of the beauty of not only my tribe, but other tribes.” She adds, “I like to think of my art as raising awareness that we’re still here, we’re still vibrant. We’re not a dying culture. We’re very diverse.”

The final section of the show features five works by Lehuahuakea, a Native Hawaiian artist living in Seattle and, at 26, the youngest in the show’s line-up. Their work centers on kapa, a cloth handmade from mulberry fiber that’s used in Native Hawaiian practices and rituals, from birth to death. “Mele o Nā Kaukani Wai (Song of a Thousand Waters)” (2018), a roughly 11 by 8-foot work made from swathes of kapa that have been stitched together and painted and stamped with traditional patterns in plant dyes and mineral pigments, drapes the expanse of one wall. Its surface forms a mountainous terrain, like an animal hide or a map that traces mythologies and storylines through lifetimes. This centerpiece also served as Lehuauakea’s thesis project at art school, propelling them through graduation and into life as a practicing artist.

Lehuauakea, “Mele O Nā Kaukani Wai (Song of a Thousand Waters)” (2018), mixed mulberry papers, handmade plant dyes and mineral pigments, gouache, ceramic beads, thread, 8 x 11 feet (courtesy Portland Museum of Art)
Lehuauakea, “Mana Māhū” (2020), Oregon earth pigments and plant dyes on hand-beaten kapa, approx. 17 x 17 inches (photo by Mario Gallucci)

Lehuauakea says they hope that visitors to Mesh see in their work a sense of overlapping identities and expansiveness, and that there are many ways to be Native. They hope young people who share similar experiences to those they had as a teenager struggling with pressures to assimilate can see themselves in the works and recognize the power in honoring all the elements of themselves. “It’s important for me that our younger generations, especially,” Lehuahuakea says, “feel like they are represented positively in these spaces that weren’t created necessarily for Black and brown people.” Growing from the roots of Native and Indigenous histories spanning generations, Mesh pulses with ancestral knowing and thrums with fresh, present-tense possibilities.

Mesh continues at the Portland Art Museum (1219 SW Park Avenue, Portland, Oregon) through May 8. The exhibition was curated by Kathleen Ash-Milby, the museum’s curator of Native American art.

A panel discussion dedicated to mentorship and matriarchy is scheduled for May 8.



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