Arts & Culture

Review: Native Americans speak up in “Protect the Sacred” at Spaceworks Tacoma

Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, “Mní Wiconí/Umbo” in “Protect the Sacred.”
Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, “Mní Wiconí/Umbo” in “Protect the Sacred.” Courtesy

On the corner of South 11th and Commerce streets in Tacoma, visible through the window, a stage is set. The floor is thick dirt. Two old televisions give mute narration with black-and-white footage of Native American tribal rituals. An altar is neatly piled with sharp tools and a stack of papers certifying native blood. And on the wall, another certificate is stabbed to the wall with a bloody knife inside a gilt frame and red curtains.

This isn’t the kind of local Native American art show Tacoma’s been seeing for years at the Washington State History Museum, or more recently at Tacoma Art Museum’s Haub wing. This is something rawer, younger and bloody with anger and honesty about the conflicts inherent in being an urban Indian in 2017. It’s not quite as coherent or museum-show quality. But “Protect the Sacred: Native Artists for Standing Rock” inhabits Tacoma’s Spaceworks gallery like a sign toward the future — and anyone who’s going there should read it.

“As native artists, we reject externally constructed expectations for people of color, who are often confined by the recognition of their ethnicity in the mainstream art world,” says curator Asia Tail in a press release. “This exhibition empowers indigenous artists to represent themselves.”

Tail’s a Tacoma artist from the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma who guided Tacoma Art Museum through the sticky process of reconciling its white-centric Haub Western art collection with the native community. Her own art focuses on line and pattern. But as a curator, she’s clearly got a lot of connections, because “Protect the Sacred” holds a whopping 25 artists in that small corner gallery — from the up-and-coming to the international, and from tribes around the nation. And while the show ranges over media, genres and themes like a street protest, it speaks volumes about contemporary native identity.

The entrance is anchored by some heavyweights. Matika Wilbur (Swinomish/Tulalip) brings three of her vast photographic portrait series of native America: the ancient, wrinkled hands of “Miss Helen, last carrier of the Lovelock Paiute language” in sharp focus; Miles Allard releasing an eagle at Standing Rock with bird and man sharing the same hard, determined stare; and the cloudswept Quinault coastline. Marvin Oliver (Quinault/Isleta-Pueblo) offers a flawless serigraph of six leaping salmon in alternating red and black, with faint Salish-design circles embossed in the middle like abstract memories. It pairs well with Peter Boome’s (Upper Skagit) acrylic of mirrored black and red birds flowing into one another like an Escher design — as much a symbol of many-into-one as the artist’s interpretation of the unity of love.

Then things get a bit wilder. Raven Juarez (Blackfeet) collates her hypnotic, raw sketches of women swimming through dreams, holding out cactus-spined hands or stabbing themselves with poppy stems while flowers erupt from their heads. Tinged in watercolor like blood, they’re spidery but intense. On the other side of a column, Natasha Alphonse (Denesuline) pins strands of black clay woven like baskets or braids on the white wall, together hinting at a shape much broader and stranger.

In the video room is a rather disappointing story-doc from Melissa Woodrow (Wuksachi Band of Western Mono and Chicana), interviewing an old couple in Salinas, California, about how they see home, with mundane quotes such as “My house is headquarters for the whole family” and “If they are happy, I am happy.”

Much more compelling is Christine Babic’s (Chugach Alutiiq) installation of dirt, rabbit-skinning tools and her certification of native blood, mounted to ridiculous height and stabbed to the wall. She’ll complete the work at the show’s opening reception Thursday with an actual rabbit-skinning, but the installation is eloquent already about tribal traditions and official (white-approved) identity.

Despite the show’s commitment to support the water protest at Standing Rock, there’s a lot of individual self-reflection, particularly feminine: Lisa Telford’s (Haida) tiny woven cedar cowboy boots, Natalie Ball’s (Klamath/Modoc) elaborately arranged prop portraits, Geri Montano’s (Dineh/Comanche) delicately shaded intaglio prints.

The art about Standing Rock itself ranges from the symbol-filled “Mní Wiconí/Umbo” by Ka’ila Farrell-Smith (Klamath-Modoc) to the rather sentimental landscapes of protest encampment teepees by Yatika Starr Fields (Cherokee/Creek/Osage). Ryan Feddersen (Confederated Tribes of Colville Reservation) collides worlds, literally, in clever snow globes, where you can shake up the globe and make black paint rain down in droplets on the glassy blue pipe and green turf. Shaun Peterson (Puyallup) pays pastel, moonlit homage to Mount Rainier as our source of clear water in “Grandmother,” and Erin Genia (Sisseton-Wahpeton) translates the oil threat into reality using thick black vinyl lino-printed with flowing teal “water.”

Like “High Blood” last month, “Protect the Sacred” makes the same group-show mistakes: a few too many artists and a less-than-clear objective, despite Tail’s statement. But it’s exciting to see new artistic visions speaking truth that often gets toned down by bigger museums. As Tacoma’s only remaining noncommercial gallery space, Spaceworks Gallery is truly giving a voice to its community.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

Protect the Sacred: Native Artists for Standing Rock

When: 1-5 p.m. Monday-Friday through Feb. 16; opening reception 6-9 p.m. Thursday (Jan. 19).

Opening event: Includes blessing by Connie McCloud (7 p.m.), live tattooing by Nahaan, traditional rabbit skinning by Christine Babic (7:15 p.m.) and poetry by Sara Marie Ortiz, Erin Tail and E.J. Sweetly.

Where: Spaceworks Gallery, 950 Pacific Ave., Tacoma (entrance off South 11th Street).

Cost: Free. Proceeds go to resist the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock.