Heard Museum's "Confluence" Embraces the Generational Shift in Native Communities

"Confluence: Inter-generational Collaborations" at the Heard Museum bursts at the seams with bright hues, nods to urban culture, and a strong thematic undercurrent of environmental sustainability.

Rainbow-colored butterflies hang on wires from the ceiling amid glass raindrops suspended above a pond, all created from recycled materials. The piece, called Butterfly Dreams, is a collaboration between Kristen Dorsey (Chickasaw) and Shenoa Moeckel (Navajo and Jicarilla Apache) and highlights the need for stewardship of precious resources. In a dynamic mural titled Strength of Our Being, Warren “Tsishpiah” Montoya (Santa Ana Pueblo and Santa Clara Pueblo) and Dominic Burke (Pima and Maricopa) paint a half-bear, half-fox creature that represents the artists’ respective clans. Other media vary from fashion design and photography to drawings, paintings, and even an interactive video game. 

For "Confluence," first-time curator Jaclyn Roessel, who serves as the Heard's director of public programs and education, pairs seven mentor artists, ages 30 to 40, with seven mentee artists, ages 16 to 20. The title is a geographical term that describes the merging of two rivers — a place of unification that is considered sacred and powerful within American Indian communities.

Currently, tribal communities are experiencing a flux in their demographics. The percentage of young people is at an all-time high. The National Congress of American Indians states that the median age for American Indians and Alaska Natives on reservations is 26 years old, compared to the national average of 37 years old. About 32 percent of Natives are under the age of 18, compared to only 24 percent of the total population. (The percentage is even higher within the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, with more than half the population under the age of 18.) Furthermore, a growing number of American Indians are living off the reservations and in urban settings.

Cultural knowledge and tradition is at risk, making the need for a meeting point, an exchange between generations, critical. 

"Confluence" aims to be an experimental workshop — and it succeeds. The artists breathe life into a museum that is not known for contemporary art. With video games, skateboards, and street art, the imagery and media are young and fresh. Utilizing the gallery space as their studio, the artists worked for three months to produce individual and collaborative pieces that share an emphasis on community. Writes Roessel, "Each mentor artist is invested in a career that not only cultivates pride in culture and identity, but also includes a rich connection to giving back to their communities." 

The highlight of the exhibition is a multimedia installation by Klee Benally (Diné) and Shaandiin Yazzie (Navajo), who created a campaign against cultural appropriation that moves beyond the gallery walls. Their slogan? “We are a people, not a brand.”  

Benally and Yazzie offer a set of red stickers labeled "Racist" and place them next to a cheeky infographic that teaches visitors "What to Do When you See A Racist Product." A signable petition calls for Spirit and other Halloween costume stores to end the exploitation of indigenous identity by halting the sales of their racist and sexist costumes. And a piece titled Miss Appropriation features a doll named Princess Redskin, complete with pink packaging and stereotypical accessories — lipgloss, a hairbrush, and a bundle of sticks. 

(If you're still confused about when it's acceptable to don a hipster headdress or Navajo-print boyshorts from Urban Outfitters, let us help you out — it's never. The answer is never.) 

"Confluence" cares about the details, utilizing a unique font for in-gallery text designed for the exhibition by a Pueblo artist. It also features behind-the-scenes sketches and photos that are adhered to the wall via a traditional wheat paste method. 

The mentee artists get the short end of the stick when it comes to the text panels, in which they are asked rather rudimentary questions (e.g., "Did you have any 'aha' moments during this experience?"), but the mentors are given the freedom to express their hopes for future generations. 

After first emphasizing the need for clean water and air, Klee Benally, in a candid plea, writes, "The darkest point in any society is when kids take their own lives, and we face this crisis disproportionately in Indigenous communities. My hopes, prayers, and intentions are that we reconfigure the conditions to the root of these issues so we can end the societal conditions (e.g., capitalism, colonialism, hetero-patriarchy, and white supremacy) that create this problem."

"Confluence: Inter-generational Collaborations" is on view at the Heard Museum through April 17. For more information, visit the Heard Museum's website
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