From left: Dyani White Hawk, Sasahehsaeh Pyawasay, Crystal Marie Moten, Rosy Simas, Alanna Morris-Van Tassel, and Jovan Speller. All photos by Alicia Eler for the Star Tribune.
"I think of home more as a feeling than a place,” said artist Jovan Speller's mom, Carolyn Cobbs.
Cobbs is one of two voices, along with the mother of artist Dyani White Hawk, Sandy, heard in a 30-minute film called "Braids." Weaving together ideas of home and the braiding ritual, it played on a loop at Walker Art Center May 3 as part of "Choosing Home: A Right, a Privilege or an Act of Trespass," presented by the Walker's Mn Artists program and guest curator Speller.
The evening event continued discussions about centralizing indigenous voices at the museum following last spring’s "Scaffold" controversy. A panel discussion focused on two groups of people: those who “have been systematically and strategically eliminated, removed, and disappeared from their indigenous homelands in the U.S., and those who were stolen, sold, transported, and exploited within the U.S., far away from their African homelands,” according to the program.
White Hawk and artists Alanna Morris-Van Tassel and Rosy Simas joined a lively conversation with Crystal Marie Moten, assistant professor of history at Macalester College (focusing on 20th century U.S. and women's/gender studies and African-American women's history) and Sasahehsaeh Pyawasay, enrolled member of the Menominee Nation, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in organizational leadership policy and development.
Above: From Alanna Morris-Van Tassel's performance "Yam, Potatoe an Fish!" at the Walker May 3
The panel raised questions about the role of the institution in bringing more native/indigenous artists into the space, and about understanding America’s history of colonialism. In addition, Simas, Morris-Van Tassel and White Hawk each presented performances that harkened to their cultural histories and relatives — Simas is Seneca, White Hawk is Dakota, and Morris-Van Tassel' family emigrated to the U.S. from Trinidad & Tobago.
One of Moten’s questions that evening focused on how the artists have been able to reconcile history within their art practices.
“We can make tiny chips, tiny, tiny efforts to continue to chip away,” said White Hawk, noting the many others who have come before that have also done this. “We continue to make efforts to help reconcile, whatever that may look like, as an end result.”
Above: From Dyani White Hawk's performance "Understanding Her(e)" at the Walker Art Center's Perlman Gallery on May 3.
White Hawk’s performance for that evening was a collaboration with Gwen Westerman and Neil McKay, Dakota friends and relatives whom she positioned in the Walker's Perlman Gallery, speaking in Dakota and sharing their perspectives and understanding about home. It was a reminder that the Walker is on historically Dakota land. In fact, Mni Sota is a Dakota word.
"My intention was to insert our voices into this space, to permeate our voices into this space, as a space in response to this last year . . . to the — I don’t even wanna talk about it anymore — but to the 'Scaffold' erection and dismantling," she said, then paused. "That's interesting." Everyone laughed.
"I wanted their voices and Dakota language to be spoken in this space, for them to have space here, for them to be heard here, welcomed here, paid to be here, for me that is an effort toward that reconciliation," she said.
On a more serious note, she said there have only been three solo exhibitions by Native artists at the Walker: George Morrison, Edgar Heap of Birds, and Morrison again. The Walker is in “the same formula it is today for the past 80 years," she said.
Simas responded to Moten's question by saying, "I'm allergic to 'un' words, 'de' words and 're' words. I don't know about reconciliation but what I do know is where I am, and I've always known who I am and I know where I come from, and so I bring those things into a space. It isn’t to put anything in anybody's face, it is to occupy the space in which indigenous people have always occupied."
Then Simas took it back to events that unfolded during and after the takedown of Sam Durant's "Scaffold," a replication of eight gallows used in U.S.-state sanctioned executions, which was supposed to be a part of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden's grand re-opening last May.
“We have done a lot of work and unpaid consulting and talking and negotiating,” said Simas. She brought in her own family history. “I come from a long line of diplomats. I mean, my fifth great grandfather negotiated with Washington, who then came and burned down our towns. He is called Town Burner in Seneca.”
The question from Moten brought the discussion further into the ways that indigenous and African-American histories have been erased or made invisible in mainstream culture. Artists who are speaking from and about that history often are required to do “translation” work. The panelists made clear that the white, colonial perspective remains dominant, and that it is not their responsibility to explain cultural differences.
So it was ironic that, when the panel was opened up for questions, a man who self-identified as white and European was the first to speak. He did not ask a question — he just stated his frustration about the Trump administration, and then told the panelists he had a lot of compassion for them.
It felt like the conversation was starting from zero. In a panel focusing on people of color and indigenous voices, it would have been polite for a white guy to think to himself: "Hey, I could not talk and allow the voices of people of color to be here and be heard instead of my own." This sort of awareness of who is taking up space is exactly what the panelists had been discussing for 90 minutes.
Pyawasay responsed with a general statement about colonialism. "A lot of the work that I think about is that we are all a part of this system, regardless of what side our lineage or relatives were on. We are all a part of it. Until we can reconcile those traumas and heal from those traumas, we are not really gonna be able to become better or better as a society, and so I think we need to reconcile that we have all either benefited or been displaced or have these particular traumas because of the settler colonial project. We are all colonized and continue to be.”
From the audience, a very pregnant Speller spoke up about how she, as an artist, always has to justify her work as artwork and not "black art."
The process of reconciliation requires white people to recognize their privilege, she said. “It would be incredible, like, do y'all know what 'white art' looks like?" she asked the audience. "I think it would be amazing if at some stage, there were white artists and white people who recognized their place in history, and this presentation is about the concept of choosing home. Some had choice.”
Morris-Van Tassel spoke about the experience of interviewing her mom for the performance/audio piece she made. She was born in New York; her mom emigrated there from Trinidad & Tobago and now is retired and living in Houston.
“When she talks about Tobago, there's just so much joy,” she said. “When the narrative shifted to Brooklyn, the clouds just rolled in. She is of this age but it is still came to the surface. And I resonated with that too. My mom's in me, I'm in my mother, like what’s going on here.”
The panel wrapped up with a return to the original concept and question of home, and a powerful statement by Moten about where things could go next.
“I was specifically thinking about meaning of home in African-American history, where our particular home spaces were usually stripped from us because we were in the homes and domestic spaces of white women. So what does it mean for an African-American woman to value and to nurture her own home without having to nurture a white woman's home? And what would it mean to make a statement that women are defining home?
“I was also thinking about the ways in which feminism has been defined over the years as women having to leave the home. But what does it look like when we return?
“And I like 're' words, when we reclaim.”
Below: Stills from "Braids," a short film by Dyani White Hawk, Jovan C. Speller and Elizabeth Day