This fall, multidisciplinary artist Merritt Johnson joined thousands of Indigenous people and their non-Indigenous allies at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota to peacefully resist the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The proposed pipeline—which through the work of Energy Transfer Partners is currently 87 percent complete—would carry crude oil directly southeast from the Bakken oilfields of northwestern North Dakota to the oil tank farms of southern Illinois, passing underneath the Missouri and Mississippi rivers on its way.
On 4 December 2016, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that they would not approve permits for the DAPL to cross under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, just north of the protestor encampments at Standing Rock, instead ordering an Environmental Impact Statement with the goal of comparing various route alternatives. Though the fight to block the pipeline is by no means over, this decision marks a victory for DAPL opponents, who say the pipeline, should it break, would contaminate not only Standing Rock’s water supply but those of millions of people living downstream, and that the pipeline’s construction is desecrating tribal lands, including a sacred burial site.
Alongside this acute disregard for hallowed land and public health glares non-Natives’ long-held practice of violating the rights of both Indigenous people and the land itself. Participating DAPL activists refer to themselves as “water protectors,” and standing out among them are artists like Johnson, whose labor provides visibility for the #NoDAPL movement and helps communicate the Indigenous beliefs behind it.
At Standing Rock, Johnson focused on a collaboration with fellow artists Ginger Dunnill, Nicholas Galanin, Cannupa Hanska Luger, and Dylan McLaughlin. Calling themselves The UnNamed Collective, they worked “under the flags of many Onkwehonwe and Settler Nations who have come in support of water and land.” The collective is currently in production, putting together sound and performance works, a film, and video installations. In their artist statement, they write: “We acknowledge that the need to protect water and land is increasing in every part of the world; we come together to cultivate gratitude and respect for water, land, and balance between all living things dependent upon them, to protect what is sacred. . . . To protect this water is also to protect the land and all our relatives, to live in balance.”
Johnson has been fulfilling her own version of this mission statement for well over a decade, and an examination of her oeuvre provides rich access to what the above-mentioned practice of cultivation and balance looks like. “Thinking about water having hands makes our efforts to trap and control it seem problematic,” she says in her 2014 video collaboration with Cannupa Hanska Luger, How to Shake Hands with Water. “We are so dependent on it, and it really doesn’t have any need for us.”
Offering an anthropomorphism that forces contemplation of water’s decidedly non-human qualities, How to Shake Hands with Water presents an alternative model for interacting with the natural world, and is representative of much of Johnson’s work in sculpture, live performance, video, and painting. Johnson, of mixed Kanienkehaka (Mohawk), Blackfoot, and non-Indigenous descent, “promotes land and our non-human relatives as survivors in the present moment of conflict and consumption,” and she emphasizes that these relatives and survivors are to be acknowledged and considered, not simply used as resources. Her art asks viewers to participate in a relationship with nature as a responsive agent, both as a method of critiquing past interactions and as a way to plan for those to come.
This Is a Creation Story is a series of paintings on the existence of the natural world and the way humans see—and fail to see—their existence within it and as dependent on it. Working in oil, alkyd, graphite, and pastel, Johnson articulates interactions between human and environmental orders by using lines and vectors: in the back cover image, They started cutting holes in the sky because they said they wanted to know what was beyond it (the holes they made by accident weren’t enough to see through because their eyes were closed), rigid, red, parallel lines seem to present the title’s man-made offense: an alarming geometric wound, suggesting the effects of greenhouse gases on the ozone layer, slices into a sky otherwise softly graded in pastel blue and wispy white. And in Peripheral Land (8th Ave.), Johnson’s lines depict urban planning and development as a sinister bind preventing the viewer access to the natural landscape: bright yellow lines run in a cartographical screen across a nearly imperceptible geography of smoky swirls and dark voids, more maelstrom than land. A city, this painting intimates, is a human investment in completely obscuring, and thus neglecting, the land on which—and from which—it was built.
While most of the pieces in This Is a Creation Story emphasize a critique of Settler culture’s relationship to the land—consider such titles as What’s left that you can’t see with your eyes the way they are and We see through your lines and we blow them out (you mine because you are empty)—Johnson’s paintings also promote Indigenous approaches to communicating with the environment. In If the lead splashed out when it hit the water (as a sound), the artist suggests, as she does in her personal statement, that “listening can be a way to see”: blue, green, and gray lines demarcate the order of a river’s flow, which Johnson disrupts with dark splotches representing the industrial introduction of lead—invisible, tasteless, odorless, and deadly. Against the poison’s harmful silence, the painting’s title asks viewers to listen to the water, “looking with closed eyes open, breathing in and out in service of making possibility.” To make possibility is to respect the river’s autonomy, to understand that its water sustains humanity, and that in turn water, as Johnson writes, “has its own right to flow without pollution, damming, or rerouting.”
Copyright © 2016 by Merritt Johnson. Images appear courtesy of the artist.