RECAP: Exploring Indigenous heritage through art; a discussion

Art by Erin Genia outside the George Sherman Union (Photo by Nicole Galioto/BU News Service)

By Nicole Galioto
Boston University News Service

Artists Erin Genia and Elizabeth James-Perry were on-hand for a panel discussion Thursday night in Boston University’s George Sherman Union, exploring how their work is informed by their Indigenous heritage.

Lynne Allen, a Professor of Art at Boston University, led the panel, titled “Art & Indigeneity: A Conversation with Elizabeth James-Perry & Erin Genia.”

Erin Genia, a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, completed her artist residency in Boston this year and recently worked with the Office of Emergency Management to come up with a creative project that addressed people’s needs.

She said that the pandemic’s disproportionate effect on certain groups of people, as well as the wildfires caused by climate change, caused her to think about “this cultural dissonance that I experienced as a Dakota person.”

“I decided that my project would be focused on drawing attention to what I perceive as a cultural emergency,” Genia said.

Genia did a series of projects in the residency to address this, starting with panels that confronted the lack of Native American art in and around Boston. Other projects Genia completed included a beaded vest that was inspired by her appreciation for old Dakota pieces and a “cultural emergency kit giveaway” that contained products made by Native American people and businesses.

Genia’s project at Boston University, titled “Caution: Cultural Emergency” (2021), is an art installation inspired by the Dakota mythical creature, Unktehi, a sea monster responsible for the perils of the sea, such as flooding. Genia, who has incorporated Unktehi in some of her other works, said she tries to “center the oral traditions of Dakota people.”

For her, Unktehi is a reminder of the land that used to be underwater but also serves as a reminder that “looking not that far into the future that we’re facing potential flooding in this very spot.”

Because “of this [museum] history of taking our cultural items, many times from massacre sites or outright stealing our pieces, our cultural treasures,” Genia said that she enjoys making art in the public sphere rather than in museums. She said that it should be acknowledged that even art in the public sphere is often displayed on stolen Indigenous land.

Elizabeth James-Perry, of the Aquinnah Wampanoag, is an artist working with textiles, wampum shell carving, beading, and natural dyeing techniques.

She uses many natural forms in her work, especially animals such as bears, wolves, and fish. James-Perry said, “I like to use them [animals] when I’m creating maps to emphasize our Native notions of the land as a living being that is worthy of our respect.”

The bear outline that she uses in some of her map pieces will appear in her work that will be displayed at Boston University, titled “Bear Map.” James-Perry said that the black bear “is very patriotic, and for me, it’s a really good reminder of cultural survival.”

James-Perry also discussed her work at the Museum of Fine Arts, a garden that she made engulfing Cyrus E. Dallin’s statue of a Native American man on horseback. The garden contains corn and beans that were grown in a method traditionally used by local Indigenous people and is framed by quahog shells.

In the discussion that followed the presentations, Allen asked what drives each of the artists to continue passing down their traditions despite the obstacles they face. Genia responded that one of the ways to stand up to the destruction is by “continuing to [develop the culture]. So, I don’t think I have a choice. I am required to do it as a Dakota person.”

Genia’s work has been seen on display on the lawn of the George Sherman Union, while James-Perry’s work will be on display in the near future on the second-floor landing of the George Sherman Union.

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