Meet the artists of ‘Mesh’, using their work to express contemporary concerns

The “existential crisis” returned more often than it was comfortable around the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. The sentence doesn’t suddenly sound hyperbolic. Which may be one of the reasons why “Mesh,” a group show of emerging Indigenous contemporary artists at the Portland Art Museum, lands so well. The four artists, representing a range of geographies and tribes in Oregon and beyond, each bring a distinct voice to shared concerns about what happens when we don’t care about our land and our people.

Ka’ila Farrell-Smith in her studio in Modoc Point, southern Oregon.Photograph by Sam Gehrke

Ka’ila Farrell-Smith: “It was a bet to leave Portland”

Several years ago, painter and mixed media artists Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, a member of the Klamath Modoc tribes, left Portland as an act of resistance and settled at Modoc Point in the south of the Oregon, historically in Klamath land.

“It was a gamble to leave Portland,” she said. “I use denial and flight as decolonial freedom and I do not participate in the white colonial system.”

Farrell-Smith is the daughter of Al Smith, an Indigenous activist whose lawsuit defending the right to use peyote in Indigenous religious ceremonies was taken to the United States Supreme Court and was the catalyst for the amendments. from 1994 to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. His studio is near where his father grew up before he was taken from his family as a young boy – Farrell-Smith uses the word “stolen” – and sent to Native American student boarding schools. He escaped several times.

She is keenly aware of her family and tribal history on earth, and the contemporary threats that weigh upon her. She looks down and picks up debris, such as casings and deteriorated metal that serve as stencils, as well as the earth pigments that are incorporated into her sophisticated, layered paintings. The “Klamath charcoal” used in her work comes from a forest fire near her home.

“Land Back” is her most recent series of paintings, begun when she moved to Modoc Point. The term refers to a widespread movement to reclaim indigenous lands, languages ​​and culture; The individual pieces in the series deal with the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and the fight against liquefied natural gas pipelines, which are often mapped across traditional Native American lands and sacred sites.

While working on the “Land Back” paintings, Farrell-Smith was heavily involved in efforts to stop the Jordan Cove pipeline project, which would have crossed traditional Aboriginal lands. Last spring, a coalition of groups opposed to the project, including the Klamath tribes, celebrated victory when the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality denied the project a key permit.

“I use the word ‘activist’,” said Farrell-Smith, describing his development as an artist. “My father used the word ‘activist’ with his work. “

This photo shows the head and shoulders of a woman facing the camera

Photographer Leah Rose Kolakowski is a member of the Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Tribe and lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.Photo courtesy of the artist

Leah Rose Kolakowski: “I don’t want us to look historic”

Leah Rose Kolakowski thought she wanted to be a tattoo artist. Then she discovered photography and the darkroom. She bought a camera and explored portraiture and more experimental aspects of the medium. While graduating from the Pennsylvania College of Art and Design, she considered getting into fashion photography, but, she said, it didn’t make sense.

A registered member of the Ojibway tribe of Keweenaw Bay, Rose Kolakowski spent her summers as a child on her tribe’s reservation in Michigan, returning to Pennsylvania for school in the fall. After graduating from college, she decided to move to Michigan, where she studied at Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College, a small school that offers courses in Ojibwa language, culture and history. It was the first time she had returned to Michigan as an adult. She stayed for a year and a half, finding a new purpose in her photography and learning the traditions of her family and tribe.

She had learned to dance the powwow at a very young age and had started dancing again. In doing so, she realized that people were more comfortable around her, asking her to take pictures or portraits. His powwow photographs from this era, such as the 2015 black and white “Woodland Powwow”, are both immediate and intimate, with the bright and detailed prints placing the viewer at the center of the action.

Encouraged by a friend to take her work to the Santa Fe Indian Market, one of the largest annual Native American art markets in the country, she used the money she made dancing at a powwow and got a flight to Santa Fe. She handed out her fingerprints for free, meeting as many people as she could. It was there that she met photographer Cara Romero, who would later become her mentor, in 2017, as part of the first cohort of the Native Art & Cultures Foundation’s Mentor Artist Fellowship program.

“With my work now, what I have found is the work of my heart, the work of my art,” said Rose Kolakowski. “I want people to look at my photographs 200 years from now and say, ‘This is what indigenous people looked like.’ It’s the opposite of Edward Curtis, ”she said, referring to the early 20th century photographer whose images of Native Americans were part of an effort to document what he saw as a growing culture. Endangered.

Rose Kolakowski’s most recent work, portraits where her models dictate how they want to be portrayed and hyperkinetic powwow images, are shot in color.

“I don’t want us to look historic,” she said.

This black and white image shows a person wearing a cloth draped around their shoulders, standing in a field

Lehuauakea is a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) mixed artist currently based in Seattle.Photo by Moriel O’Connor

Lehuauakea: Kapa’s work guides “the path of cultural reconquest”

At 25, Lehuauakea, who is mixed with Kanaka Maoli (native of Hawaii), is the youngest artist included in “Mesh”. However, their art practice evolved rapidly from the painting they did in college to the nuanced craft work they now focus on.

Born in Portland, Lehuauakea spent his childhood in Hawai’i before returning to Portland for high school and college. They were following a standard Western art curriculum at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, they said, when they realized something was missing. During their last two years of college, they began incorporating traditional patterns, replicating objects they had seen as children in Hawaii.

From there, the transition to working with the kapa, a kind of cloth made from hand-beaten bark, led Lehuauakea to what they described as a “path of cultural recovery”. (They also notice that there is no word for “cloth” in their traditional language.) The work takes a lot of time and energy. Lehuauakea makes the tools which are used to beat the bark into thin sheets which they then paint by hand with earth pigments and plant dyes which they also manufacture and process.

The patterns and designs that Lehuauakea uses on the texture sheets are personal and location-based. They created patterns of cedars and pines, and rivers and waterfalls also make their way into their work. “There is so much water here! said the artist, who is now based in Seattle.

“It is more appropriate for contemporary designers to create new designs that represent them and their experience today,” said Lehuauakea. “There is so much spirituality in the models created centuries ago. Using them is not approved without knowing their origins or knowing who they belonged to.

In their more recent works, Lehuauakea stopped including English translations of the titles of the works. They describe it as an act of indigenous resistance and resilience. It is also a reaffirmation of the native Hawaiian language, the use of which was banned from 1846 to 1986.

“This is partly what needs to be shared, what is worth sharing and what is worth keeping in our communities,” said Lehuauakea. “You can see something beautiful in the patterns and technical forms, but unless you have access to a good dictionary or know the language, the meaning is only available to certain audiences. “

This photo shows the artist standing in front of a brightly colored mural

– Lynnette Haozous, who is Chiricahua Apache, Diné and Taos Pueblo and a member of the San Carlos Apache tribe, painted the mural behind her for “Mesh”.Photo by Jon Richardson, Portland Art Museum

Lynnette Haozous: “What are my modern weapons?

It was important to Lynnette Haozous’ family that she graduated from college, which she did, majoring in social work and graduating from the Highland University of New Mexico in 2016, at the age of 31. years. But at that point, she also knew she wanted to be an artist.

Haozous, who is Chiricahua Apache, Diné and Taos Pueblo and a member of the San Carlos Apache tribe, cites activism as a catalyst for her to take her art more seriously. Her final year of college, she participated in the Save Oak Flat movement, an effort to protect lands considered sacred by the Apache tribe and threatened by copper mining in Arizona.

“What are my modern weapons? She remembered asking herself. She created posters and flyers for the movement and explicitly saw how art could be used for something powerful and to promote a message.

Her interest in mural painting arose out of a desire to use her art to communicate with a wider audience, and in 2020, she was selected to apprentice with Nani Chacon as part of the Native Arts & Arts Mentor Artist Fellowship program. Cultures Foundation. Working with an established muralist who was also an Indigenous woman, Haozous learned not only the technique, but also the importance of actively engaging with a community about the content that is broadcast in public spaces.

“She taught me the importance of using art to improve communities and the future, the importance of teaching and giving back,” Haozous said.

Haozous’s contribution to “Mesh” is a graphic fresco painted directly on the wall of a gallery, where it saturates the space with color and warmth. In it, a monumental young Indigenous woman surrounded by geometric shapes – turquoise Apache morning stars, yellow-gold orbs, and stacks of triangles – gazes resolutely into the galleries. The abalone shell on her forehead refers to the Sunrise Ceremony, a coming-of-age dance for women that was illegal to perform from 1883 to 1978, when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was adopted.

Many indigenous societies were historically matriarchal, Haozous noted; museums and art institutions have traditionally not been.

“What a way to make it an act of repatriation and decolonization,” she said.

– Briana Miller, for The Oregonian / OregonLive

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