Collaborations, Mentorship, and Support for Native Artists on a National Scale

Posted by Mr. John W. Haworth, Jul 28, 2021 0 comments

Recently, I wrote here on ARTSblog about the history and work of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF), the only national philanthropic organization focused exclusively on Native arts and cultures with a deep commitment to supporting Native artists in a spirit of advancing equity and cultural knowledge for American Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native communities. As a member of NACF’s National Leadership Council, I have had opportunities over many years to know the quality of their work and the tangible benefits the organization have given to Native communities. In this companion post, I want to focus on NACF’s work supporting Indigenous artists through the foundation’s programs and some of the art projects it has supported and promoted in recent years.

“Repellent Fence” – Land Art Installation on the U.S./Mexico border

In October 2015—before the fierce, polarized national debate about “the Wall” to be constructed on the U.S./Mexico border—I joined NACF Board members, staff, and regional arts leaders from both countries when the Native arts collective Postcommodity (comprised of composer and sound artist Raven Chacon, digital designer Cristóbal Martínez, and writer and multidisciplinary artist Kade L. Twist) installed the largest bi-national land art installation ever on the southern border. Supported by NACF, “Repellent Fence” was a two-mile temporary installation across the U.S./Mexico border near Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, Mexico. With 26 inflatable “scare-eye” balloons, each 10 feet in diameter and floating nearly 50 feet above and intersecting the national border, the central visual icon in this installation is a symbol that has been part of Indigenous cultures in the Americas for thousands of years. The project affirmed that tribal communities have inhabited these lands for ages, long before there were borders that divided people.

Aerial view of empty land with mountains in the distance. A line of large yellow balloons painted with red, blue, and black eye symbols float high in the sky.
“Repellent Fence,” installation by Postcommodity, 2015. Photo courtesy of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation.

And talk about community engagement and participation! As part of the celebration, there were performances, street art, dance, spirited talks by local elected officials and, certainly, lots of good food and drink. In creating and implementing the installation, the artists reached out to local, statewide, and national officials on both sides of the border to get “green-light approvals” at every level, including enlisting the cooperation of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials. It is profoundly moving and meaningful to have seen this work come to life in a time just before contested political tensions erupted about the Wall and the border. The documentary film “Through the Repellent Fence,” directed by Sam Wainwright Douglas, received support from NACF and has been widely shown in museums and cultural centers (it’s also available to stream through iTunes and Amazon). There is commentary throughout the film from cultural experts including Chris Taylor (Land Arts of the American West), cultural writer Lucy Lippard, and Matt Coolidge of the Center for Land Use Interpretation. 

Shift and Lift

NACF is especially active in supporting artists responding to economic justice and environment issues. Its SHIFT – Transformative Change and Indigenous Arts program gives artists opportunities to work with communities to examine complex issues from a Native perspective. SHIFT supports artist and community-driven projects responding to social, environmental, or economic justice issues from a Native perspective and respect for the community’s cultural assets and particular challenges. This work is grounded in a practice that not only brings a Native perspective about contemporary life to the table, but one that sparks discussion and considers options to address issues that are frequently misunderstood or misrepresented at the national level.

NACF also provides one-year awards for artists to develop and realize new projects through LIFT – Early Career Support for Native Artists, a program that encourages artists to develop projects that advance positive social change at the community level. The foundation believes providing support for artists in their early careers is critically important in developing fresh voices and envisioning the future of Native cultural practices. To that end, NACF also has an extensive track record of supporting the work of artists through Mentor Artist Fellowships. With an emphasis on the importance of opportunities for contemporary Native artists to deepen their connections to the artistic traditions and heritages of their tribal communities, these fellowships support American Indian and Alaska Native artists working both in traditional and contemporary practice.

As an excellent example of this practice, Nani Chacon (Diné) was awarded an NACF Mentor Artist Fellowship in contemporary visual arts in 2020. Chacon believes that “art should be accessible and a meaningful catalyst for social change.” She began as a graffiti artist and has more than 20 years of experience painting in public spaces combined with her commitment to creating art for community-based spaces and collaborating with communities where her work would be placed. With technical skills as a large-scale painter, the NACF Fellowship gave her the opportunity to work with apprentice artist Lynnette Hauzous (Chiricahua Apache, Diné, Taos Pueblo) on designing, producing, and installing the 2020 acrylic mural “Constellations” in the Navajo Nation. As a mentor, she coached her apprentice on how to coordinate a large-scale work, including how best to collaborate with local people in the community through conversation and research. 

A painted mural featuring two children under a night sky among flowers, trees, birds, butterflies, and other fauna.
“Constellations,” acrylic mural, Nani Chacon (Diné) 2020. Photo courtesy of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation.

Joe Feddersen (Colville Confederated Tribes) and Brenda Mallory (Cherokee Nation) were among the eleven participants in the 2020 program. As one of the leading basket weavers in the country, Fedderson is committed to revitalizing an ancient art form and using it as a tool for teaching Native youth about their cultures and histories. For their 2020 Mentor Artist Fellowship, Feddersen and his apprentice Julie Edwards (also from Colville Confederated Tribes) are sharing their creative work and telling stories in a local Headstart youth program. For her 2020 Mentor Artist Fellowship, Mallory will work with her apprentice, Lehuauakea (Kanaka Maoli [Native Hawaiian]), to produce works to share in a joint exhibition in the Pacific Northwest. An artist and educator, Mallory works to share her knowledge as a Native artist about the contemporary art world of commercial and nonprofit galleries, residencies, and best practices. 

Indigenous Installation in Portland, Oregon

Last year, NACF received one of its most significant gifts: the Yale Union Laundry Building in Southeast Portland, Oregon. Along with ownership transfer of the building and land comes the artistic transition from Yale Union to NACF, which is being effectively managed. Due to the pandemic, the Yale Union had to postpone their final exhibition, “A Feast of Light and Shadows,” from 2020 (when they still owned the building) to 2021. Although NACF did not produce this exhibition, the foundation has donated the gallery space and is helping promote the project—and it is an ideal exhibit to have at the facility during the transition.

View of a room lined with windows that cast blue patterned shadows on the hardwood floor. In the background is a large scale photograph and a grid of empty white bowls sitting on the floor.
Marianne Nicolson: “A Feast of Light and Shadows,” installation view. Yale Union, 2021.

The site-specific installation, on view through Aug. 29, 2021, is by Marianne Nicolson (b. 1969, British Columbia), a First Nations artist-activist of the Musgamakw Dzawada’enuxw First Nations, part of the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwak’wala speaking peoples), and curated by Hope Svenson. Nicolson’s work highlights some of the most significant issues around colonization, dispossession, land rights, and cultural genocide. This is especially relevant given the current discourse, both in Canada and the United States, about residential schools, the unmarked gravesites of Indigenous children, and health and environmental issues especially in Native communities. 

Although the pandemic has brought major financial and programmatic challenges for the cultural sector, it certainly is inspiring and encouraging to see such extraordinary accomplishments of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation. May this organization flourish in the days ahead! 

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