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On her way toward a doctorate in art history studying the folk art of Okinawa, Brenda Kingery returned home to Oklahoma to attend a traditional Native American powwow. The experience changed her life trajectory.
“I was so stunned by the beauty of the dance,” Kingery said, that she became an artist, making paintings that capture not only the intensity and variation of the fancy dancers’ regalia in motion, but the sensations they inspire.
Changing Direction, an acrylic abstract painting made in 2017, might not refer directly to that change in life direction, but it represents generational change in how artists of the Chickasaw Nation see their roles, and in how others see their work.
Visual Voices: Contemporary Chickasaw Art, opening Thursday and on view at the Briscoe Western Art Museum through Jan. 18, brings together 55 works by 15 contemporary Chickasaw artists.
Kingery is a 2019 inductee of the Chickasaw Hall of Fame. Now a tribal elder, she said her work in Visual Voices is about “how elders very much want to keep our cultures. We want our young people to keep it, but also to be able to interpret it their way. So this whole exhibit is about all 15 different artists, keeping their cultures in different ways.”
For anyone expecting traditional weaving, pottery, beadwork, and metalsmithing of native cultures, Visual Voices will be a revelation. While much of the artwork includes these traditional elements and materials, it offers a decidedly contemporary take on what constitutes tradition.
The first piece on view near the title wall is a stunningly crafted figural sculpture by Margaret Roach Wheeler titled Leda and dated 2017. The piece is actually a weaving, said Michael Duchemin, Briscoe president and CEO.
“The whole mannequin, including the face, it’s all woven as one piece,” he said, pointing out the delicately rendered face, healthy head of braided hair, orange and red dress with fringes, and draped, wing-like frock with a swan’s head wrap mimicking a mink stole.
“Weaving is one of the traditions that’s been really strong in native culture,” Duchemin said, “except that here you’re seeing a very modern expression of what is a traditional art form.”
Leda is accompanied by another figure, the haunting Murder of One depicting a blanket-wrapped male with long locks and a headdress featuring a single crow’s head. The title refers to the term for a grouping of crows, but might also reference tragedies past and present endured by members of the Chickasaw tribe.
Exhibition Program Manager Laura Marshall Clark, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, said many people might be familiar with the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of five nations – the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole – from their ancestral lands following passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
Clark said the Chickasaw view their history in terms of seasons, and the period before forced removal is considered to be the fall. Winter is the forced removal and relocation, which resulted in much suffering and death among the tribes, and adapting to unfamiliar territory to eke out survival.
Spring arrived as the tribe settled into a new rhythm of life and change, she said, and summer is the season of abundance. The Visual Voices incorporates the four-season theme in the exhibition layout, with works grouped in sections titled Hashtola’ Ammo’Na’ (fall) Hashtola’ (winter), Toompalli’ Ishtayya’/Yohbi (spring), and Toompalli’ (summer).
A 2018 sculpture titled Prayers Rising by Johanna Underwood Blackburn incorporates both the clay of the new Chickasaw home state of Oklahoma and the four-season theme, with symbols derived from a 1723 regional map presented to the governor of South Carolina by Chickasaw leader Fani’ Minko’ (Squirrel King) that also form the exhibition logo.
Tribal Nations throughout the U.S. are in a season of abundance, Clark said, “experiencing what some people are calling an artistic and cultural renaissance.”
One function of the Visual Voices exhibition, which has traveled to several venues throughout the South since 2017, is to expand notions of what the Chickasaw and other contemporary tribal nations have accomplished.
For example, Clark said, the 57,000-member Chickasaw Nation in particular is building an economy based on diverse commercial enterprises including banking and manufacturing, moving far beyond gaming as a main source of tribal income, and 72 percent of tribal members live outside of reservations.
“We want to spread the uniqueness of Chickasaw culture, not only creating awareness, but also an appreciation for history,” Clark said.
For the Briscoe, Duchemin said the exhibition follows the museum’s recent course of expanding the definition of Western Art.
“This show is a continuation of what we’ve been offering previously, expanding that definition, creating more diversity, more inclusiveness, a bigger understanding of … Western art,” he said.
Some museumgoers might be surprised to see artworks such as the modified Star Wars stormtrooper helmet, Cosmic Warrior II by Dustin Mater, or the Kowimilhlha Hattakat Lohofa’ Ittafama (Wildcat Man Meets Bigfoot) cartoon painting by Lokosh (Joshua Hinson) in a museum of Western art, Duchemin said. But Visual Voices “opens up that discussion about what fits under the tent.”
Contemporary Chickasaw artists are “reinterpreting their culture through a variety of different means,” he said, “and that fits, because this is who people are today, not who they were in the 20th, or the 19th century. And we’ve got to make room for that.”
The Briscoe hosts a preview party Thursday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., with $20 tickets for members and $40 tickets for nonmembers. Space is limited by pandemic safety protocols. On Sept. 26, the museum will host a virtual curator’s talk with Curator of Education Ryan Badger and Visual Voices curators Maneula Well-Off Man and Karen Whitecotton. The event is $10 for non-members with registration required for all.