"Each/Other" at DAM highlights indigenous artists — The Know
The Denver Art Museum’s “Each/Other” is an experiment of sorts, comparing and contrasting — and then combining — the work of two contemporary indigenous artists who have established themselves as crucial voices in community art-making.
Both Marie Watt and Cannupa Hanska Luger are known for engaging in a creative process that brings people together to contribute both intellectual energy and actual labor to finished products. As this show presents them, the pair aren’t makers as much as they are co-makers, allowing free-form collaboration to guide the direction of their art.
Watt is probably best-known for organizing sewing circles where folks gather with needles and thread and the willingness to share personal stories that they stitch symbolically into large quilts intended to capture communal histories, struggles and hopes.
Luger owes much of his fame to his “Mirror Shield” project, where he posted instructions on the web for making reflective shields protestors could use to protect themselves from authorities attempting to break up their collective actions.
The shields were made of soft cardboard but their power came from the fact that their mirrored-fronts forced aggressors to look back at themselves as they engaged, sometimes violently, against peaceful demonstrators.
Both artists make other types of work, and do so with considerable success, but “Each/Other” aims to highlight the power of participatory art and to put the focus on the act of creation rather than the object that gets displayed at the end.
That makes the show an unusual offering for DAM and other traditional museums of its kind, which have for a centuries now gone largely in the other direction. Art museums tend to elevate completed objects deemed as fine by putting them on pedestals or hanging them on walls in gilded frames. The challenges of chipping away at marble or applying loose pigments to a canvas are implied, though not openly venerated.
And so, “Each/Other” requires a different kind of looking than DAM visitors may be accustomed to. Its contents are awe-inspiring but more so when you know the back story.
Exhibit curator John Lukavic brings this point home to visitors by billboarding a quote from each artist on the wall at the entrance of the gallery. You can’t miss them and they serve as de facto instructions for moving forward.
This from Luger: “Art is not an object, it’s a process. It’s a verb, not a noun.”
This from Watt: “Collaboration is an active agent in this work, not simply a means to an end.”
In that way, viewing the work becomes an interactive process in itself. For example, Watt’s “Companion Species: Ferocious Mother and Canis Familiaris” appears at first to be simply a collection of random words, sewn into small pieces of fabric that are attached together into a larger collage hung on the wall.
If you go
“Each/Other” continues through Aug. 22 at the Denver Art Museum. Info at 720-865-5000 or denverartmuseum.org.
But a read of the accompanying curator’s text tells a deeper narrative. The piece was created during a sewing circle where participants discussed themes of equity as they pushed thread through reclaimed wool blankets. The text, which includes such words as “agency,” “deviant,” “guide,” “nurturer” and more take on a richer meaning.
For the most part, “Each/Other” functions a mini-retrospective of each artist’s career output, offering a sample of signature works.
Viewers encounter Watt’s “Skywalker/Skyscraper (Babel)” and other pieces that stack thin layers of neatly-folded wool blankets into impossibly tall, skinny towers that mimic the form of skyscrapers. They are a remembrance of Iroquois ironworkers whose labor — famously conducted at great heights and without safety harnesses — enabled the construction of skyscrapers in Manhattan
We also see her “Butterfly,” which was actually created in 2015 when she was an artist-in-residence at DAM. The piece, born of a local sewing circle, combines wool blankets, thread and tin jingles to relate a story told by two young indigenous girls about their experiences as powwow dancers.
From Luger, we get “Every One,” a 2018 piece made from 4,000 clay beads strung together to recreate a photo taken by Kali Spitzer that captures the face of an indigenous female. The piece call attention to the “thousands of missing and murdered indigenous women, girls, queer and transgender people n Canada” and implies that the blame rests collectively, as collateral of the infiltration of outside workers brought into the country during a period of increased natural resource extraction.
There is a sampling of Luger’s video work, as well as a series of costumes he has made for performances pieces. There’s also his “Emergent,” a set of ceramics shaped into animal skeletons bringing attention to the lasting impact of the mass slaughter of bison herds in the West during the 1800s.
After that, the exhibit moves into a higher concept. Prior to the show’s opening, DAM commissioned Watt and Luger, who have never collaborated before, to create a piece together.
The result, among the exhibitions showier pieces, is also titled “Each/Other” and to make it, the artists asked participants around the world to embroider messages into bandanas while considering if “acts of collaboration help heal broken bonds with the environment and with each other.”
The bandanas are shaped into a larger-than-life feline figure bearing words and phrases, like “Hope” and “Be an ally.” They contain different languages and symbols. Playful at first, the object gains poignancy as your knowledge of its creation grows.
As an overall exhibit, “Each/Other” fits well into the Denver Art Museum’s efforts to update its connections to Native American art. DAM, in many ways because of its location in the West, was a pioneer in the collection of indigenous art and its elevation to what institutions traditionally consider “museum-quality” art,
There’s a mixed legacy in that. In some ways, it exoticized art by Native Americans as something “other” than American. And there will always be questions — suffered over though probably unanswerable — around how some art was acquired and whether artists were compensated appropriately.
But DAM goes to great lengths to tell a different story these days, and to tell it fairly and inclusively. It is making strides. More than that, it is bringing new life to a collection of art that for many years felt ancient and static. Shows like “Each/Other” reminds visitors that indigenous art is vital and ongoing, that its voices expand and evolve, and that the exciting part may still be yet to come.
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