A word with Marie Watt and Cannupa Hanska Luger
PEM kicked off the new year by opening Each/Other: Marie Watt and Cannupa Hanska Luger, a new exhibition featuring the work of two leading Indigenous contemporary artists whose processes focus on collaborative artmaking, community engagement and the land. Together, Marie Watt (Seneca and German-Scots) and Cannupa Hanska Luger (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota and European) emphasize creativity as a boundless process and connection to build greater empathy and understanding.
The artists joined us for virtual opening events from their studios, Watt in Oregon and Luger in New Mexico. Below is an excerpt from those conversations with PEM’s Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Executive Director and CEO, Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, as well as PEM’s Curator of Native American and Oceanic Art and Culture, Karen Kramer, and PEM Associate Curator, Lydia Gordon. You can watch a full recording of the Director's Dialogue event here.
Q: How did you set out to create the works in this exhibition?
Marie: This project was initiated by the curator John Lukavic (organizing curator and the Denver Art Museum’s Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Native Arts). One of our earliest meetings that included John was at a karaoke bar in New York. John saw these two artists from slightly different generations who had this shared practice of working with community and that is where the idea was born. Frankly, Cannupa and I didn't really know each other beforehand and it was a little bit of an awkward match and I mean that really respectfully. I think there is this assumption that just because artists work collaboratively that we would be able to collaborate. One of the things that was a saving grace in this collaboration was the relationship that Cannupa had with the Stelo Foundation. It allowed us a neutral space to make the work.
Cannupa: Art is a verb, art is an action, art is a process and we both figured how to share art in that fashion that is so contrary to the institutional spaces of art, the economic space of art. From my experience, art is a byproduct of something really special.
Q: What does the exhibition title mean to you?
Marie: Each/Other embodies an ethos and a throughline in our work. It acknowledges the human compulsion to make objects and to make a community that goes back in time that is part of the present moment and also part of the future.
Cannupa: I make things out of anything I can find. I’m excited for you all to engage in this work. Every piece that you see in this exhibition was made in collaboration with other people, entities, environment, history, culture, economics. There’s a tether and a tie to everything that’s been created that pushes forward the idea that the artist as an individual is a myth and we are all dependent upon each other in order to create work, to share work and to experience work and to celebrate work with diverse communities and cultural backgrounds.
Q: Why the she-wolf? How did you come together to select that as the principal symbol of representation of what you wanted to do?
Cannupa: The she-wolf carries this cultural context of the creation of Rome, but also Indigenous perspectives. Our relationship to the she-wolf is one of the few domestications that happened pre-contact, it was the domestication of wolves. We had to become the wolf’s pack as we benefited from the wolf’s strength and senses. There is a coded message in our relationship with dogs that seems a bit more accessible to a western gaze and western audience to describe kinships with more than human species.
Q: What resonates with you and surprises you in these collaborations?
Marie: One thing that is amazing in unpacking and holding these bandanas, thinking of this word, each/other, holding each one, you get a sense of a person being there. It’s standing in for a person. It was embroidered text, but sometimes it was images. A person’s stitch is like a signature or a thumbprint. It’s like a stand-in for their body and it comes in to make this collective piece. One of the things I think is wonderful about this object, this sculpture, is it does get installed in different ways. You see certain bandanas in some locations that you don’t see at another. It keeps repositioning itself within different spaces and that’s part of the story of the bandanas too.
Cannupa: When you are working at that scale, you relax your gaze. It’s not about the individual contribution, but the contribution of everyone. We wanted to represent and show what people had done, but it’s about the collective contribution.
Like a quilt or any kind of collaborative effort of accumulated parts. The messages are on the wolf, check it out. See which ones surprise you. It’s not about me or Marie. It’s about engaging with community.
Q: Cannupa, can you explain the backstory to your piece Every One, a pixelated portrait made through collaboration?
Cannupa: It addresses Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) in Canada – 4,000 women lost. But that number was so round and was a scale hard for me to comprehend. There’s something dehumanizing in the process of creating data. I understand it’s power to create safeguards and protocol and policy change. Having that data is really useful. But we’re also looking at maps of the disappearance of Indigenous women in Canada. The whole thing made me realize that dehumanization is why Indigeous women were brutalized this way. This whole project is built around how do we rehumanize data? The piece Every One is to look at 4,000 plus beads in relationship to that data set. It was built around social media to ask people to make a bead to represent each person in relation to this data. The beads were stained to be the portrait. I was in collaboration with the preparators to help assemble this piece, align the beads and make the portrait pop. It’s really nice to share that process with you all and I appreciate your accomplishment in doing so.
Q: Marie, can you talk about your quilt that features Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise?
Marie: The cosmos and the stars connect us. When we look up into a night sky, it’s an experience we are sharing with someone a ways away. It could be a neighbor or someone across the globe.
In northern Australia, I met an Aboriginal artist whose paintings were based on her inherited story of The Seven Sisters, which refers to the Pleiades constellation. There are different Seven Sisters narratives here across the United States. In this piece, everything was guided by these stars. It just seemed so right to embroider the Enterprise on this piece. I was thinking about how our relationship to that space is both ancient and modern. Once I leave this place, others will not only gaze and understand our orientation based on these stars but also we’re like custodians of this space.
Cannupa: I think we’re limited by our understanding of science fiction. I’m limited by it and I love science fiction. I listen to audiobooks in my studio. I think Star Trek is an interesting segue in. I like the idea of considering an Indigenous perspective on science fiction and how that challenges even time and the way we engage with it. These stars are really old. Their light will shine into the future and have been shining far into the past. I think it’s interesting to consider science fiction or Indigenous fiction or Indigenous storytelling as a glimpse into science fictions. So much of our cosmology are these beautiful mythical stories with incredible heroes and extremely dangerous enemies. All are built for a metaphor for how to live presently. It’s like good old- fashioned empirical science but embedded in a narrative that has meaning.
Q: This exhibition is very much about the materials that are used. Why is that?
Cannupa: Craft is intergenerational. It’s things passed down from people working with that material from time and memorial. It’s our responsibility to understand this deeper relationship that the material itself becomes a conduit for connection to those who have passed before us. There’s an ancestral knowledge that’s inherent in the materials. It’s a muscle memory older than our own physical body. I find that to be incredibly informative and also incredibly powerful in relationship to transmitting ideas and communication. It’s for future generations and it’s a communication with ancestors that have already passed.
Marie: I have used blankets a lot in my work. I’m interested in how blankets are used in my family and my community. In Indigenous communities, blankets play a significant role. I started collecting these blankets at thrift stores, anything $5 and under. I focused on wool because they have this longevity and stories and they’re passed on. I quickly realized that they were these objects that were markers for memory and story. We are received in blankets. We are imprinting on these objects and then we depart the world in them too.
What I really appreciate about blankets is I’m interested in the tactile kinesthetic properties but also because we have a human experience that’s tied to cloth, it instantly creates this open place where we can engage with that material … the tactile experience with it, because it is so familiar. That’s true for clay. That’s true for wood. The imperfections, the parts that are mended, stained or soiled, those parts tell me something about that object’s story. Part of my role as an artist is to listen to those materials.
Q: How does art and your projects specifically help with ongoing mental health challenges, and particularly during the pandemic?
Cannupa: We have to adjust in ways we never expected and that challenged us. We never expected to be sheltering in place. And sheltering in small places with people we have intimate relationships with and it challenged what a relationship is in a way. Or you are alone. We were shifting and adapting in real time with everyone else. We adapted this project and transformed it to allow people to embroider their experience onto those bandanas. We chose bandanas because they did protect people like a mask. That bandana was also a symbol of the social unrest at that time. The bandana became a symbol of protection, whether from a virus or your identity from exposure. You can cut a piece of fabric in the shape of a bandana. We have contributions from a women’s prison and it’s bandanas with Sharpie markers. We were open to the idea of “Tell me how you’re doing.”
Marie: Our mental health has been affected by art and craft being embraced by our education systems. That’s an area I’d like to see change, the accessibility in arts education. I hope our practices sort of amplify the importance of this. Everybody is an artist, right? Everybody has this capacity to make things. We live in an institutional space where that’s not necessarily held as a priority.
Each/Other: Marie Watt and Cannupa Hanska Luger is organized by the Denver Art Museum. As part of February School Vacation Week on Friday, February 25, view the award-winning two-part film Sweet Land: A Contemporary Opera, which is featured in the Each/Other exhibition and reimagines narratives surrounding the founding of America and westward expansion in order to make visible the violence and erasure of American history.
Each/Other: Marie Watt and Cannupa Hanska Luger
January 29, 2022 to May 8, 2022
On This Ground: Being and Belonging in America