On visiting Return from Exile, a traveling exhibit of Southeastern Native American artists – with stops along the Trail of Tears. (Columbia State CC, Pryor Art Gallery).
What to Make of this palimpsest
It’s fitting, as you walk among the many images in Return from Exile, that they embrace the device of palimpsest. Historically, palimpsest was a parchment or papyrus, erased and written over, and over. The practice had pragmatic roots in saving resources, but as a trope for this exhibit, it sings.* There has been erasure – as you can see in the faceless warrior of Brent Greenwood’s Civilized Uncivilized. But also, an almost alchemical and fluid exchange: today overwrites yesterday; yesterday underlies today.
Often, with a historic palimpsest, you can see the old text; other times not. Bobby C. Martin’s WWII sailor (Uncle David) appears over a Coke sign over land allotment numbers (evoking dog tags). Numbers to keep track of the expendable. The girl in Dylan Cavin’s Blue Moon is overwritten by entries in a register. Visible or not, the contents of the palimpsest’s lower layers can sometimes be retrieved – their imprints are still in the material – and have contributed to our understanding of history.
The Practice through Art: Working with Bias
The themes of the exhibit, according to Cherokee Nation tribal leader Troy Wayne Poteete, are Removal, Return, Resilience. And a larger book on the exhibit reports how some of the native artists said they did not want to be identified with only the one event, the Removal. This was to be stuck in the past.
In this perspective, the exhibit succeeds. Michele Wilkinson, curator of Columbia State’s Pryor art gallery, told Nashville Arts: “There’s a big nod and homage to the past… But as a collection of work, it doesn’t dwell in the pain.”
And she’s right. But frankly, it was hard for me to embrace a show that was not entirely defiant and retributive. I did not get far into the exhibit before I realized that this was my viewer’s bias. I had to admit to an idealized vision. My headline for the Trail of Tears history goes something like: Noble naturalist is crushed by elbowing hoard of industrial ruffians. As an art viewer, I try to put myself on alert lest my baggage muddy the nuance of the work.
Not that the crushing industrialist isn’t present here: One look at the serrated steel of Troy Jackson’s (Cherokee) Return from Exile: A Driven Force, and you feel the jaws of that history. The show’s flagship sculpture, Jackson’s Return from Exile: From East to West (above), hits you – its beauty, its fluidity, its metamorphosis as you circle it, the marks made by those steely jaws, and the idea of the human being as palimpsest. As the man writhes forth from his metallic prison, body scored by interactions with serrated metal, the sculpture exudes muscularity. The emerging human put me in mind of a recently viewed time-lapse video, a dragonfly pulling free from its larval casing, and unfolding that seems at one moment laborious and at another ecstatic.
With this, Jackson captures the idea of outgrowing a prison, of breaking out, but in the sense of growing to a next stage as both a scarred but adorned being. I admit that the beauty clashes, a bit, against my sense of outrage, especially for those jaw-like elements of the past still extent in the present. Am I holding that vision too fast – to the extent of missing the movement, the syncretism, and the richness in this 200-year process?
Whenever you view art – especially from a different culture, or even a different region – you are bringing so much to the table. The experience often says more about the viewer than the art. The contract in viewing an exhibit is just to minimize background noise in order “listen” to the art more closely.
There is defiance in these works, of course – in the untranslated Cherokee syllabary that is occasionally a title, more often a text on which present day scenes share space. Defiance sits in the phallic-nosed “Booger” mask – a representation from Cherokee tradition of the outsider, bringer of disruption, chaos, annihilation – that appears in both Joseph Erb’s and Roy Boney’s pieces.
Disruption is also present. We see it in the fine color statements of Shan Goshorn’s woven baskets. Tiny strips of paper form an intricate pattern, engineered to display a natural image. But the underside of the paper, lined with English text, interrupts the weave of the natural image at every juncture. Visually, the text element and the color elements are strikingly disparate, however tightly they are woven together.
With just a slight animistic variation on “today is layered over yesterday,” the palimpsest takes on a sense of the ghostly. Ghosts co-exist with us in a shadowy realm, haunting a place or an event that echoes through time. Ghostly presences run through the works. Signing a deal with the Booger-masked “outsider,” in Joseph Erb’s Petition, the signatories are the ghostly masked chiefs of a legendary bygone deal.
Nothing in this show struck me as more ghostly than fiber artist Margaret Roach Wheeler’s Chikasha Issoba (horse). With its dreadlock mane, wood jointed hands and human form, it radiates presence. You feel someone is there. You move around to view it straight on, and you are drawn to the void, a dark recess where the horse’s face – its vitality, its recognition – should be.
I felt this void face call me – like unacknowledged things from the past – to “sit” and explore.
What to do with Mind-stuckness
By the end of this exhibit, I came away feeling my own view of the Trail of Tears was a little “stuck” in time. Was my view – my story – limiting the present day potential of these Native American artists?
For example, I was surprised, watching a video of Margaret Roach Wheeler, Issoba’s creator, to find how positive, connected, and humble she is as she speaks of her dauntingly impressive fashion work (Mahota Handwovens).
Once again, I was left to think that perhaps the darkness I brought to the horse was my own.
I also took in something from this show about fluidity, about taking the long view. In meditation practice, when you find your mind persisting in its frenetic craziness or its glazed boredom, one of the tips is to try moving your focus. Take a longer view.
This tip has worked both in meditation and in mind-stuckness. For example, when I think of the massacres taking place in mid 20th century Tibetan monasteries, and the forced “removal” of the monks, I have come to replace my anger with gratitude for how much the world has gained from the teachings, freed like spores, as monks protected and carried them along on their escape over the harsh mountains.
The artists in Return from Exile let us see how they are taking a long view. In a reversal over generations, they have turned their “barren” Oklahoma home into a beacon, where universities form a hub for the arts. There’s some comfort to see the larger weave of events layered by time. In the long view, no one moment prevails. What prevails more is the stories we pick up, like raw materials, and weave to form our present. The exhibit speaks to flexibility and fluidity, to absorbing, integrating, moving forward – which is not quite forgive and forget. All this spoke to me.
In her “Return From Exile” essay, part of a book about the Exhibit, Heather Ahtone (Choctaw/Chickasaw) mentions watching her teenagers near the exhibit, reminded that they were the 7th generation since the Trail of Tears – a significant generation in her Native tradition as the generation to consider when planning how your actions today will impact the future. Poteete has said the Trail of Tears is a tribute to a generation that endured. He sees that generation as a link and a beginning, and the Trail as not about their victimization.
This show brought me through the ways we, as humans, can re-story our history by taking a larger perspective – in wearing all our layers, in embracing past’s ghostly brush with present, in asserting the nexus of captivity, metamorphosis, and molting. Thanks to all!
*A palimpsest tradition specific to Native Americans is ledger art, which has a rich tradition of its own.