The names of the mentors that the foundation shared with Ash-Milby read like a list of the rock stars of Native American art, she said. She was less familiar with the apprentices. That’s where she decided to focus the show.
The voices of the four artists she chose — Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, Lynnette Haozous, Leah Rose Kolakowski and Lehuauakea — are strong and clear. Representing a range of geographies and tribes, their work is interestingly diverse, even where the subject matter or materials overlap.
Both artists use land-derived materials to simultaneously represent their connection to the land and connect their work to it, but the results are strikingly different. The barely contained agitation in Farrell-Smith’s work is a strident, impatient call to action. Lehuauakea’s work gives the impression of being simultaneously weightless and grounded, drawing the viewer into a meditation on what — and why — the pieces are.
Farrell-Smith, a Modoc Klamath artist based in southern Oregon, includes pigments sourced from the land around her studio in her layered paintings. Chalk, Painted Hills wild red, and charcoal from a recent wildfire are among the materials in her recent work. Lehuauakea, who is Kanaka Maoli, also uses local materials in their soft panels of hand-beaten bark, which they paint with concentrated geometric patterns from earth pigments and plant dyes that they collect and process. The dramatic black in their piece, “EA EA EA,” is from the 2020 Riverside fire.
Featuring just four artists, “Mesh” is the museum’s first exhibition from Native American art curator Kathleen Ash-Milby. She was approached by the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation, a nonprofit based in Portland and Vancouver, soon after she arrived in Portland in early 2019. The organization has been funding pairs of established Indigenous artists to work with younger Indigenous artists — program manager Laura Matalka describes the relationship as both supporting Native culture bearers and investing in the next generation of artists — and proposed a show of work by the mentors and their apprentices.
READ MORE: Meet the artists of “Mesh”
While she didn’t select the artists around a particular theme, Ash-Milby said she started noticing connections in their work as the show coalesced.
“They were all addressing current issues and had an element of activism in their work, in some cases more overt and in some cases more subtle,” she said. “They were all thinking about the world around them and those existential issues facing our world today.”
Lehuauakea’s work may be quiet, but it’s insistent: Language and culture that were forcibly suppressed can and should be reclaimed. Farrell-Smith is more pointed. The title of her painting series in the show is “Land Back.” The museum opened an exhibition space to show work by Indigenous contemporary artists in 2015 by repurposing space near its permanent Native American art collection. It was evidence of a commitment on the part of the museum to show contemporary Native American art, said Ash-Milby, but some artists resisted showing their work in the small space, which they said was also hard to find.
As she planned “Mesh,” a colleague’s exhibition schedule opened and Ash-Milby was invited to use space in the museum’s contemporary art galleries for her exhibition. And like that, “Mesh” expanded into the thoughtful, findable, breathable show that it is. Ash-Milby included more work by Farrell-Smith, Rose Kolakowski and Lehuauakea, and commissioned a mural by Lynnette Haozous. Painted directly on the wall at one end of the galleries, it’s a massive, saturated depiction of a young Indigenous woman whose gaze is directed firmly back through the show. Haozous lets a handful of turquoise Apache morning stars drift around one corner of the space where they come up against Farrell-Smith’s riotous paintings, which transition into Rose Kolakowski’s serene portraits and vibrant images of powwows that don’t so much capture the action of the ceremonies as make you feel it. The show gathers itself around another corner to culminate in Lehuauakea’s earthy, undulating pieces. It’s a rich conversation, and an enjoyable one.
Ash-Milby said she could have done the show in the smaller space, but it wouldn’t have been the same. Agreed, and presenting the work of these four artists in the larger space may mean more people will see it, essentially giving these early career artists not just more exposure, but a bigger platform. “I always say ‘bold’ because that’s how it comes across to me,” said Ash-Milby about their work. “They just don’t have any fear in speaking out and using their work to deliver those messages. It’s really inspiring.”
When: Nov 6, 2021 – May 8, 2022 Related virtual event: “The Artist as Activist,” a panel discussion with the artists moderated by Wanda Nanibush, the curator of Indigenous art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, 5:30 p.m. Tues., Nov. 23
What: “Mesh,” a group exhibition of Indigenous contemporary artists ***