New Regional Indian Art Exhibition Centers, Voices – 71Bait

In Voices from the Rez, a new exhibit at the La Jolla Historical Society, 10 Native American artists from Southern California feature painting, sculpture, fashion, performance art, writing and music.

One of the featured artists is Gerald Clarke, a conceptual and installation artist from Cahuilla, who said he’s grateful that an institution like the La Jolla Historical Society exhibits the work of Native American artists not as craft or history, but as contemporary art.

“The history of Native American art is fairly recent. It’s been just 50 years or more since the works we made in our communities were often considered ethnographic artifacts or crafts,” he said. “And only in the last few decades has America actually seen and considered Native American art as something that we can include in the world of fine arts.”

Clarke, who teaches in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Riverside, has exhibited throughout the United States and extensively in the Southwest.

“It’s difficult for a local artist who lives in his community to display his work in a professional setting where his own community can see it,” he said.

Philipp ScholzRittermann

Gail Werner’s “Desert Composite IX” (Encaustic, 12″ x 9″) is part of “Voices from the Rez” which opens June 3, 2022 at the La Jolla Historical Society.

The La Jolla Historical Society hired longtime curator Dana Hicks to develop the show. Hicks said that Native American art adds an essential perspective, especially in this region.

“In Southern California, especially in San Diego County, we have more reservations here than in any other county in the United States,” she said. “But I find when I’m in town and I talk to people, they don’t really know anything about the indigenous people here, so I felt like maybe the voices of people on the reservations aren’t being heard.”

Recently appointed executive director of the La Jolla Historical Society, Lauren Lockhart, said it was important to them to recognize the ancestral Kumeyaay territory on which the museum is located.

“I love that this exhibit is an opportunity to both acknowledge that past and celebrate the contribution of artists and the Indigenous communities of Southern California today,” she said. “I think that is crucial for us. We are an organization that, through our exhibition program and archive, has a long tradition of not just looking to the past, but finding ways to translate that past and make it relevant and applicable to the present audience.”

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Philipp ScholzRittermann

“I’m No Tonto,” by artist Johnny “Bear” Contreras, featured in a 2022 work-in-progress photo, will be part of “Voices from the Rez” at the La Jolla Historical Society.

The artists in the exhibition are Chuck Contreras, Gail Werner, Gerald Clarke, Gordon Johnson, James Luna, Jamie Okuma, Johnny “Bear” Contreras, Robert Freeman, Sandra Okuma and Tracy Lee Nelson.

Luiseño and Kumeyaay artist and blues musician Tracy Lee Nelson has several works in the exhibition, including a variant of a Kumeyaay-style woven basket.

“We are known for making baskets out of deer grass – or juncus, as we call it in our language. I’ve been making baskets for years. Of course it was passed down from my mother,” Nelson said. Nelson’s mother is from the Mesa Grande (Kumeyaay) Reservation and his father is from the La Jolla (Luiseño) Reservation, where Nelson now resides.

After playing with the band Redbone (of “Come and Get Your Love”) at the Super Bowl in 1996, when he replaced his guitar strings he found they were too important to throw away. As his musical career progressed, he began collecting more of these important guitar strings. Eventually he decided to make a basket out of the threads to do justice to the meaning.

“As we make the baskets, elders say that you always think positively — prayers — for everyone who comes across the basket,” Nelson said, adding that as he weaved each steel string, he reflected on the honor and energy he had felt as he played each set of strings.

One of Clarke’s works in the exhibition is The Peon Players, a sculptural painting depicting the traditional game of peon. He said people in Indigenous communities would likely recognize the faces hiding under a blanket right away.

“If you’re not familiar with our culture, the work seems almost imaginative, like surrealism or something,” he said. “But if you’re in culture, it might as well be a fruit basket. It’s something we do so often in our communities.”

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Philipp ScholzRittermann

A work of charred watercolor paper, Gerald Clarke’s Branded Print is part of the La Jolla Historical Society’s Voices from the Rez exhibit, opening June 3, 2022.

Clarke is also a longtime rancher and has been making sculptural branding stamps for years. He recently started burning words onto paper—words like “immigrant,” “native,” or “amnesia.”

“You can see how the paper has charred and it’s quite a violent process,” he said. “I started doing this around 2016 because I saw increasing violence and anger in American society. I’m not a violent person at all, but I feel like these prints somehow capture what’s been happening over the past few years. And I When I talk about immigration, I’m talking about land. I talk about who belongs and also about the identity of being an indigenous person.”

The exhibition includes monthly programs – an evening with artist Johnny “Bear” Contreras on June 17; a reading by writer Gordon Johnson; and a musical performance with Tracy Lee Nelson. The exhibition starts with a reception at 6 p.m. on Friday 3 June.

Clarke is proud and grateful for the La Jolla Historical Society — while also acknowledging there is still work to be done.

“It’s important that we exhibit at places like the La Jolla Historical Society. But it’s also important, it’s interesting, right, that we’re exhibiting there at the Historical Society and not at the contemporary art center down the road. And I think that’s a testament to how mainstream America has kind of categorized us and put us into certain ideas,” he said. “I hope that as the 21st century progresses, America will begin to open its mind beyond what is normally accepted as traditional Native American art.”

La Jolla Historical Society presents “Voices from the Rez”

Friday, June 3, 2022 at 6 p.m

Ongoing until September 4, 2022

La Jolla Historical Society

Free

This exhibition celebrates the work of ten Native American artists living on reservations in San Diego and Riverside Counties, working in all mediums from painting and sculpture to fashion, narrative writing and music. San Diego County is home to eighteen reservations – more than any other county in the United States – and a prolific and diverse creative output of Indigenous contemporary artists working today. Native Americans of Southern California live both on and off the Rez, preserving historical culture and traditions while inhabiting the modern world. The work of the artists featured in Voices from the Rez honors their past while embodying new perspectives on contemporary life. Join us for the opening reception of “Voices from the Rez” at the La Jolla Historical Society on Friday, June 3 at 6:00 p.m. This exhibition can be visited from Saturday 4 June to Sunday 4 September during museum opening hours. Register here to attend the opening reception! The exhibition is free and open to the public. For more information, visit lajollahistory.org/exhibitions/current-exhibitions or call (858) 459-5335.

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