11 June–4 September 2022, Atlanta Contemporary
For the Cherokee, our creation story is tied to our ancestral lands, which include what is now known as Georgia. Our identity as Native people originates from that location, even if we no longer live there. As with other Indigenous groups of this continent, Cherokee understanding of self and culture has changed over time either by choice or necessity. And with that, so has our relationship to land. Migration has never been a foreign concept to Cherokee, but as settler colonialism continues to impact the lives of Indigenous peoples on this continent, one result has been a large, ongoing Cherokee diaspora. Much like our ancestors who adapted and evolved in order to ensure survival of self and culture, so do twenty-first-century Cherokee. It is in this reality of continuation that many Cherokee artists create their work.
Returns: Cherokee Diaspora and Art, exhibited at Atlanta Contemporary, features the work of three artists: Luzene Hill (Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, born 1946), Brenda Mallory (Cherokee Nation, born 1955), and Kade L. Twist (Cherokee Nation, born 1971). Each artist explores his or her identity—as a contemporary person, a Cherokee citizen, a human being in a global environment—in unique ways. The technical definition of diaspora is a “people settled far from their ancestral homelands” or “the place where these people live” and involves movement and migration. While the term was once primarily associated with Jewish communities, it has since been expanded to include African and Native communities, though the latter have been slower to adopt conversations of diaspora into art history. In Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers (2008), Kobena Mercer, an art historian of the African diaspora, notes, “[The] language of migration has an intimate connection with the lived experience of modernity because uprooting is intrinsically perspectival: the immigrant who arrives as a stranger or newcomer from the point of view of the receiving society is at the same time an emigrant from the point of view of those who are left behind or who chose not to leave.”
Gregory D. Smithers’s The Cherokee Diaspora: An Indigenous History of Migration, Resettlement, and Identity (2015) explores the impact of migration and creation of diaspora on Cherokee culture. Smithers argues for an understanding of the Cherokee as a migratory people with a deep history in movement, adaptation, and diaspora. For Smithers, the Cherokee are not just tragic figures who persevered through adversity set in play by the appearance and settlement of Europeans, but they are also a culture that has always understood migration and had deeper cultural tools that enable them to navigate and adapt. He notes that travel was not uncommon for Cherokee up through the early nineteenth century, it was just always understood that they would return home.
By the twentieth century, a new Cherokee diaspora began to take shape. Unlike the Cherokee diaspora of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this diaspora was not leaving as a community but as individuals, forced to form new ways of connection with their Native identities. After World War II, Cherokee began to move about the United States at greater rates. A new type of “Trail of Tears” occurred when many experienced the impact of the termination and relocation era of the 1940s to the 1960s, which revoked and destabilized citizenship and community within Native nations. And now in the twenty-first century, Cherokee live all around the United States and even globally. It is through this lens that the exhibition takes its central thesis.
Historian James Clifford, from whose book Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty-First Century (2013) the exhibition borrows its name, examines processes of cultural renewal through the production of art. Clifford seeks to remove the perceived contradictions of an Indigenous and diasporic life. So much of Indigeneity is an inherent perception of an internal connection to the land from which one emerged. But removal from our land does not make us any less Indigenous. Clifford states: “Diasporic ruptures and connections—lost homelands, partial returns, relational identities, and world-spanning networks—are fundamental components of [I]ndigenous experience today.”
Returns: Cherokee Diaspora and Art is meant to be viewed as a homecoming, a celebration of resilience but also contemplation of reality. Like many homecomings, it is bittersweet but hopeful. The art featured in Returns is no more based in stereotypes than the artists themselves. Instead of confirming an outsider’s idea of Indigenous reality, the artists use art as a mechanism to not only celebrate but also interrogate their Indigeneity. It is in these interrogations, demonstrated through a variety of media, that the exhibition asks visitors to reexamine their own place on this land.
As you enter the gallery space, you are confronted first by Twist’s powerful installation, ᎠᏥᎸ (atsilv). Kade L. Twist is a California-based artist whose work spans multiple media—video, sound, interactive, text, and installation—and sources inspiration from the place and community in which it is created. A consistent theme within his art production revolves around migration, displacement, and the experience of a contemporary Cherokee in search of ways to create return through art in order to address the imbalance that separation from homeland creates. Twist looks to storytelling and has used the Cherokee language and his own poetry to talk about Indigenous issues of displacement, both from a personal and global standpoint. Through multimedia installations and sculptures, Twist creates work that exemplifies the definition of “contemporaneity” proposed by art historian Terry Smith, who argues beyond a time-based understanding but instead for one shaped by globalization, inequality, and immersion in an image economy. For Smith, contemporary art has the capacity to grasp the relationship between time and being. Twist does this while actively investigating the history and impact of dislocation on Cherokee communities and the resulting diaspora through a central theme of longing for home.
ᎠᏥᎸ is the Cherokee word for fire and it is this manufactured fire that centers the rest of the works of the exhibition. The installation consists of seven individual videos of a house burning. Six of the screens sit piled upon a base of propane tanks, made inert but still visible, and a seventh screen faces east. Seven is a sacred number for the Cherokee: we have seven clans as well as seven directions, and fire is central to our identity. It is the fire that grounds our communities—we moved the fire with us when we were forced from our ancestral lands to our current home in Oklahoma—and it is around the fire that we perform our regenerative stomp dances. The fabricated aspect of Twist’s fire and the destructive imagery hint to outside foreign forces, but the very presence of such a symbol also denotes cultural survival.
The hope is that after visitors walk into the space, they traverse counterclockwise around the fire, the same path as our stomp dances. This path leads to Luzene Hill’s hauntingly beautiful Traces and Wounds installation, suspended from the ceiling. Hill, originally from Atlanta, is a multimedia artist best known for conceptual works addressing issues of violence against women and exploring Indigenous knowledge. She creates installations of resilience and strength as counternarratives to removal and sexual violence, which women are more likely to experience and Native women even more so. Through work informed by pre-contact Indigenous culture, personal experience, and her family history, Hill advocates for Indigenous sovereignty—linguistic, cultural, and personal—as well as a reclamation of female power and sexuality. A warrior against the trauma that has been placed upon her ancestors and herself, Hill responds to moments of imbalance both in her existence and the larger world by bringing awareness through her practice that directly counters a destructive narrative.
The Incan-inspired khipu of Traces and Wounds, presented with cochineal dyed silk strings threaded through a thick fabric, appear either as contained knots or chaotic tails and speak to an Indigenous way of communication and recordkeeping. The message is one of warning but also survival. Destruction is a side effect of settler-colonial influence, but so is Indigenous survival.
This work is followed by the large-scale installation Now That the Gates of Hell Are Closed . . . , which is meant to evoke a classroom through its central focal object (similar to a blackboard) and two-rowed presentation, but instead of a somber teacher and wooden desks, the space is subtly surrounded by vulvae and bare legs in strong outlines and splashes of red and brown. The message is clear: the patriarchy is no longer welcome in Indigenous life and definitely not within that space of expression. Hill activates the work at various times through the inclusion of female sitters, quietly seated upon chairs in the center. The overall effect is beautiful and contemplative, but there is also a tension that any woman who has been made to feel ashamed of her inherent sexuality and power will recognize.
Hill’s work is followed by the balanced and monochromatic display of eight works by Brenda Mallory. Portland, Oregon–based artist Mallory’s work ranges from individual wall hangings and sculptures to large-scale installations. Mallory works with mixed media, using natural and found materials to create multiple forms that are joined with crude hardware or mechanical devices to imply tenuous connections and aberration. She is interested in ideas of interference and disruptions in systems of nature and human cultures. Mallory’s tactile and geometric work is both installation and sculpture. Often made up of multiple pieces able to exist on their own, the resulting work is multi-surfaced and immersive. Biological forms resembling spores, pods, and plant-like stalks are rendered through the marriage of harsh industrial metal objects and silky soft-looking skins or fibers. The work Mallory creates is much like the environment that we live in, both beautiful and dangerous. It is also like life and history, full of pain and joy. Her work is a representation of her self-realizations and personal history bared to the world. It reflects a diversity of identity by grappling with the hard parts and forging them together with the soft.
At the heart of Mallory’s practice is a desire to reclaim her connections to the Cherokee community. While her work may not always read as culturally derived, her continued desire to be recognized as a Cherokee artist is always present in how she discusses her work. And the fact that so much of her work is based in balance—soft and hard, dark and light, natural and manufactured—calls to a Cherokee worldview that should not be overlooked. The two Reformed Packings take the aesthetics of packaging, corrugated to protect the object within, deconstructed to something new and beautiful. Drivebelt Experiment #2 goes even farther and takes discarded drivebelts and reforms them into unrecognizable abstractions that emphasize the texture and unseen beauty of an everyday industrial object. A sense of balance and regeneration is also found in Soft Focus #4. The work combines waxed cloth, a process that adds strength and malleability to an otherwise soft material and marries the molded objects together with hog rings. The end result is symbolic in the way that it has been made, unmade, and remade, a physical representation of Mallory’s understanding of herself as a Cherokee woman.
The exhibition concludes with Twist’s other installation of two videos, Of the Smiles We Leave Behind and Demand Aggregation. Combined into a corner, the works create a dissonance through their competing but complementary sound. With Demand Aggregation, a rolling script of text taken directly from the #AngloAmericans Twitter page shows a weirdly dystopian PR scheme of sustainable mining. The alarm-like sound warns the viewer that while the words may seem positive, the impact on the environment is not. Of the Smiles We Leave Behind features a California condor, perched next to a water source. The lapping waves complete the sound component. Condors for Twist are especially symbolic as he views their current existence much the same way as that of contemporary Indigenous people: bred outside our natural habitats, forced to adapt to the world we have inherited, longing for a home never truly known but recognized in our being. While this parting fact may leave the viewer feeling a sense of weariness, the reality that you must again exit past ᎠᏥᎸ (atsilv) reminds Cherokee people that there is always hope as long as we continue to practice our culture, make art, and keep the fire burning.
Ashley Holland currently serves as the associate curator for the Art Bridges Foundation. She is the former assistant curator of Native art at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis. Holland earned her doctorate in art history from the University of Oklahoma in 2021 with a focus on Indigenous identity, cultural memory, and issues of diaspora in Cherokee contemporary art. She received her MA in museum studies from Indiana University–Purdue University and BA in art history and religious studies from DePauw University. Holland is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and currently lives in Rogers, Arkansas.