Lecture honors contemporary Haudenosaunee artists

Dr. Scott Manning Stevens spoke on April 8 about the challenges that indigenous artists face in the contemporary world. Courtesy of Emma Koolpe

In today’s world, it seems that non-Natives view the terms “contemporary art” and “Indigenous art” as incompatible. As a result, Native American artists often struggle to find their identities as creators. Associate Professor and Director of Native American and Indigenous Studies at Syracuse University Dr. Scott Manning Stevens explored the relationship between modernity and indigeneity in the art world when he presented his lecture, “The Arc of History in Contemporary Haudenosaunee Art,” in Taylor Hall on Thursday, April 11. He explained that, unless curators explicitly market exhibitions of modern Native American art with the label “contemporary,” visitors often walk out of the galleries, dissatisfied because the art did not seem “Indian enough.” This historicizing of Native peoples makes it difficult for Indigenous artists to make their mark in the contemporary art scene.

Stevens welcomed his audience with a traditional Mohawk greeting, as he is Akwesasne Mohawk (Stevens, Scott M., “The Arc of History in Contemporary Haudenosaunee Art,” 04.11.2019). For those readers who may not know what “Haudenosaunee” means, Dr. Stevens clarified in his lecture: “‘Haudenosaunee’ is the term for what is otherwise known as ‘The Iroquois League.’” As he points out, Iroquois is an “exonym,” or a name that comes from outside a community; Haudenosaunee is merely the Native American equivalent of Iroquois.

Stevens was this year’s Ribicoff Visiting Professor and Lecturer in Art History, a program that allows students to learn from experts in many aspects of the art world. “At present, Dr. Stevens is leading a field-based
seminar on ‘Tradition and Contemporary Issues in Native American Art,’” stated Art Department Chair Lisa Collins in an email correspondence. The six-week course takes its students to a new museum each week; past galleries include the American Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of the American Indian. Student Livia Bartels ’20 remarked in an email interview, “[H]e’s a great, approachable professor, and [is] always willing to have a conversation.”

Associate Professor of English and Native American Studies Molly McGlennen articulated the importance of Stevens’ lecture. In an email interview, she explained, “For me, Native peoples are underrepresented, both historically and now, at our institution. By being attentive to that, by leaning into that reality, we not only see Stevens talk as an opportunity to learn something new, but an obligation of sorts—that by engaging with his talk and the works he presents, we are saying that Native peoples’ knowledges and Native communities and artists are important for all of us and foundational to this place.”

The main objective of Stevens’ lecture was to examine the ways in which Haudenosaunee artists are able to stand out in the current art world while simultaneously dealing with their own, collective history: “What contemporary Haudenosaunee artists are up against is creating a sense of Haudenosaunee culture which is based in our own longue durée in the continent.” For many Native American artists, there is a notion of being trapped in the past, which Stevens explained: “[N]o word has been more destructive to young, Native people than ‘authenticity.’” Despite these setbacks, Dr. Stevens highlighted the works of several Native American artists who continue to innovate.

In particular, Stevens focused on the works of three artists: Shelley Niro and Alan Michelson of the Mohawk nation, and Jolene Rickard of the Tuscarora nation. Each of these artists put forth varying perspectives toward Haudenosaunee history in their work. For Niro, a prominent subject is Sky Woman, the protagonist in the Mohawk creation story. One of her works that Dr. Stevens discussed, titled “Flying Woman #6,” depicts Sky Woman flying over a group of Native American protestors. Sky Woman’s presence above the activists seems to suggest that she will protect them while they fight to preserve their legacy and identity in American culture.

Michelson’s current series of work is called “Honödagayas,” which means “destroyer of villages.” The picture that Stevens showcased from this series was of a bust of George Washington, overlayed with the image of the Indigenous lands he had destroyed during the Sullivan Expeditions. Since then, Honödagayas has not only become the nick- name for George Washington, but is also, as Stevens mentioned, the Mohawk term for
“President of the United States.”

Finally, Rickard’s work utilizes extensive mixed media. One of her pieces that Stevens analyzed was “Sky Woman Looks Back,” which consists of a video in the center of a woman’s eye. Sky Woman falls through a hole created by a tree, which in turn creates the world.

Despite the darkness of this art, Stevens concluded his lecture on a positive note, displaying a more recent work by Niro, titled “Treaties.” The picture is adapted from the design found in the Two Row Wampum, which signifies the treaty signed by the Haudenosaunee and Dutch settlers. At the center of the picture are two hands engaged in a handshake, which Stevens emphasized: “We are not saying to stay away from each other; we are a handshake away but don’t cross that boundary.” He concluded, “If we can both agree—which is a huge if—not to cross those lines…then perhaps there is some hope for us after all.”

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