Larger Than Memory: Contemporary Art From Indigenous North America

By Jenna Duncan, November 2020 Issue.

Larger Than Memory, on view in Heard Museum’s Grand Gallery, presents works by indigenous North American artists, produced between 2000 and 2020. The title of the show was borrowed from a poem called “Grace,” published in 1990 by Joy Harjo: “I know there is something larger than the memory of a dispossessed people. We have seen it.” This very current collection of artworks appears in time when so many things seem to be in a state of redefinition, revolution, and reimagining.

For this show, the museum commissioned several pieces and site-specific works. At entry, enormous ceiling-suspended sculptures hang, almost weightlessly. “Earrings for Big God,” by Eric-Paul Ridge, is a collection of three pairs of earrings, recreated to giants’ size.

One pair resembles turquoise jaclas (smooth stone necklaces or loops). The “stones” are really fabric stuffed with polyester stuffing like a pillow, veined with fake hair. Another pair look like cream-colored dentalium shell earrings, gray bells jangling at the bottom fake fur trim. These art objects made from mass produced materials (fake fur and fake hair, muslin, polyester fill) were bought at craft and fabric stores, instead of produced by hand in an artisan or home manner.

“It was the artist wanting to comment on the fetishization of the indigenous jewelry trade,” Erin Joyce, curator, says. She explains that in his hometown of Gallup, New Mexico, Ridge works in a restaurant. There he has observed indigenous artists who sell their items and he noticed buyers seemed to ascribe more value to pieces produced from more expensive materials. “Artists who didn’t have the same financial bandwidth weren’t valued as highly by the patrons,” Joyce says.

By working with easy to acquire, mass-produced and inexpensive materials, the artist purposefully removed assigned notions of richness, exclusivity in the large-scale pieces.

“Larger Than Memory” Installation View, Platt Photography, Courtesy of the Heard Museum

Above the arches of the gallery, the images of King Kamehameha III and an upside-down Captain James Cook gaze down on visitors. This is the work of native Hawaiian artist Ian Kuili’i, who visited Heard Museum in August and painstakingly cut all the thin slivers of vinyl by hand for the installation. Kuili’i, now based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is well-known for his finely detailed paper cutout portraits. (Eight cut-out portraits are also on view in the show.)

“For me, as a curator, it’s very important to discuss what to show with the artists, themselves,” says Joyce. “The idea may evolve through conversations with the artists.”

By posing Captain Cook, a European explorer largely known as “discoverer of Hawaii,” upside-down, notions of historic accuracy and who had the privilege of telling certain narrative, also become inverted. Kuili’i’s piece, titled “Monument,” interrogates the institution of monument-making, asking who makes them and in what communities are they placed, Curator Joyce explains.

Recent work is at the heart of the exhibit’s concept. But curators also wanted to include a broad diversity of artists, Joyce says. Curators selected from artists old and young, in various stages of their careers. The result is a large show with work from many different tribal communities across the U.S. and Canada. Care was also given to equitable representation of gender and sexual identities.

In many ways, Larger Than Memory breaks out of assumptions of what Native American art looks like and represents. Throughout the show, there is evidence of artists engaging with and challenging mediums and modes of production.

Another example of the artists bending the rules and breaking free of constraints from their various mediums appears in Jeffrey Gibson’s “Brighter Days” (2019). From across the room, the piece looks like a carefully woven wall-hanging. But closer examination reveals a vividly colored geographic painting, fringed with beadwork.

Nearby, a mysterious white mass, comprised of broken-down stepstools, perches atop a large platform of black filing cabinets. Brian Jungen’s work, “Tombstone” (2019), uses modern, seemingly benign office equipment to represent a turtle shell alone and adrift on a black sea. Curator Erin Joyce explains that the turtle shape suggests Turtle Island, an indigenous name for North America, and the filing cabinets may represent the burden of governmental bureaucracy that tribal communities of the U.S. and Canada experience every day.

Placement and harmony are an important consideration when designing an exhibit, especially a group show. “Works can have interesting conversations with one another in a gallery space,” says Joyce. The museum curators decided they did not want to have all the paintings together, all the sculpture together, videos, photography with photography.

“It was exciting as the pieces arrived and we started installing them. You can’t always tell the details from a photograph,” Pardue says. “The one that really surprised me was Marie Watt’s piece.”

“Larger Than Memory” Installation View, Platt Photography, Courtesy of the Heard Museum

Watt’s enormous textile, “Companion Piece,” presents the image of a wolf, embroidered in black thread, across a number of reclaimed Army surplus blankets. The wolf’s tongue is a stark contrast to the rigid Army green and black; the thread used for the tongue is bright pink. Pardue explains that examining the incredible detail, twists and turns, of each thread, and the enormity of the piece, really impressed her.

Many works show a distinctive resourcefulness in finding and repurposing materials which helps build context and provides commentary. This resourcefulness is evident in two sculptural works by Cannupa Hanska Luger. “The One Who Checks and the One Who Balances” presents two figures in brightly-colored ceremonial dress. The garments are made of felt, craft store materials and crochet. On the ground, near this couple, “This is not a snake” sculptural installation curves its way across the floor. It is made from salvaged barrels. The non-snake is a train of discarded items like oil barrels, utility buckets, wire and other junkyard odds and ends, leftover from the practices of extractive industries such as the oil industry, mining, military, and prison industrial complexes. Joyce says the artist describes it as a “grotesque monster of waste.” Started about a decade ago, he has added to the piece over time, and says it will continue to grow as long as these waste-producing industries continue to thrive.

There is a blending between tribal histories and the influence of Europeans presented in many of the pieces. This cultural overlap would be difficult to avoid, considering the history of the last 600-700 years. Kent Monkman’s painting, “Miss America” portrays a mélange of Native and American symbolism, with a healthy dose of irony mixed in.

“[Monkman’s] work appropriates the European tropes of history painting, and he’s indigenizing it,” Joyce says. “You will see this in his gender-fluid, alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testicle.” Miss Chief appears in various different paintings as an interstellar time traveler. “She is there to reverse the Colonial gaze.”

Within Western art traditions, there is an idea that capturing a moment in history can be “the ultimate artistic expression.”

In “Miss America” (part of a four-part, continent-themed series) Monkman references a series of frescos by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s fresco “Apollo and the Continents” (1751-53). In Tiepolo’s works, Apollo the sun god, is central in the tableau.

“[Monkman] reclaimed that with Miss Chief. She’s mounted atop a reptile and leading the charge against unwanted visitors to North America,” Joyce explains. In one corner of the painting, there is a turtle’s head, again referencing the land mass of North America. Also found in the image: there’s a red-headed basketball player with angel wings, and a bird of prey alighting upon his gloved, falconer’s arm. Another character looks like the white statue of liberty, topless, suckling a brown-skinned child, while wielding a yellow revolver in her free hand. In the background of the melee, there’s a pre-Columbian pyramid, flanked by the smoking embers of the Twin Towers. This is a very dense work with many characters and layers of meaning. To some viewers, it could read as a postmodernist statement, seeming to challenge and to redefine everything.

Regulars to the Heard and members will recognize a diptych by formerly local artist, Steve Yazzie. Yazzie has painted companion pieces, in dialogue with one another. In one painting, the artist sits on top of a rock, surrounded by evergreens. In the other image, a coyote sits occupying the artist’s studio. They are both inhabiting one another’s habitat. Joyce explains this was a return to painting for the artist.

Larger Than Memory is on view at Heard Museum through January 2021. For more information, visit

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

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