“it was a thickly wooded hill” and the dilemma of indigenous art | Galleries + Museums + Exhibitions

The yəhaw̓ Indigenous Creatives Collective is a group of indigenous creatives in the Pacific Northwest who organize exhibitions, workshops, performances and more. One of their current projects is a piece in the UW’s own Henry Art Gallery.

Located in Henry’s lobby, “it was a thickly wooded hill” faces all visitors as they enter. The title itself suggests the meaning of the exhibition. The land where Henry lives was actually a densely forested hill in the past, according to artist Satpreet Kalon.

The work centers around the grief of Indigenous people and the loss of land, as well as the generational trauma that many BIPoC people experience. As the title suggests, it’s a bit controversial because Henry himself is on stolen land on the Coast Salish.

“Henry’s audience is not our audience,” Callon said. “That’s not the audience we’re trying to reach, that’s not the audience we’re trying to center, [and] that’s not the audience we’re trying to advocate for.”

This is one of the reasons why Kahlon describes this collaboration as mentally and emotionally difficult. The yəhaw̓ Indigenous Creatives Collective is currently in the process of acquiring their own land to create a truly indigenous art space that is easily accessible to Indigenous people.

They’re currently in talks for a location in Rainier Beach, but the process is tumultuous.

“Our real estate attorney says, ‘You’re going to get it.’ And we’re like, ‘No, we’re not going to get our hopes up again,’” Kahlon said. “It was a process of hope and grief, and so we really wanted to capture both of those things in this installation.”

“it was a densely wooded hill” covers the entire cube-shaped room. The central part hangs from the ceiling like a chandelier, stretching several feet wide. Hanging from the wooden slab are numerous objects, many of which have been collected by the artists over their years.

On the ground is a central walkway with three stumps, a reminder of the many trees that were lost when the area was settled by white people. Flanking the path, extending to each wall, is a beach of oyster shells. The room is sparse and gray – devoid of color and life except for the hanging piece in the middle.

The space exudes “a collective grief of generations around the loss of green space and the loss of spaces to be like our most animal human selves,” Kahlon noted.

The work will be added to over the course of the exhibition, which runs from October 1, 2022 to March 2023.

densely forested hill 3

“We will have community sessions where we invite the community to come and add to the piece,” Kahlon said. “We ask the public to come and bring you anything of sorrow or mourning.”

During the interview, Kahlon emphasized the importance of centering local voices, both during the community sessions and when visiting the exhibit. The space is intended for local residents and BIPoC people to reflect and grieve, and one’s position within that community should be considered in that experience.

In keeping with Indigenous traditions of caring for the land, many elements of the exhibition will be reused in some way by the yəhaw̓ Indigenous Creatives Collective after it is complete.

“Do you see the oyster shells that are in space?” Callon asked. “We specifically chose this material because oyster shells can be used as soil fertilizer. They can be used to create a path. We really wanted something that could be reused on [future] site in a really functional way and has a longer life than just an exhibition.”

The piece is deeply powerful, especially considering the history of the area, the artists who created it, and the materials it was made from. Every aspect of this exhibition is carefully planned and executed with precision. Creating local space in a predominantly white institution is a difficult task, but an important one, and something our entire community can learn from.

Contact writer Samantha Alhorn at [email protected] Twitter: @samahlhorn

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