Weaving Indigenous Narratives: Interconnectedness in TUAG’s Double Arrows
ART BY ELIKA WILSON
Tufts University Art Galleries (TUAG) opened its fall show Double Arrows on September 5, featuring the art of Elizabeth James-Perry, a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah on Noepe, also known as Martha’s Vineyard. Her art is inspired by the practices of Northeastern Woodland cultures, focusing on weaving and the use of white and purple wampum shell carvings of the Atlantic Quahog clam. Upon entering the show, viewers will be met with the same peace felt while being in nature. The spaciousness of the room creates a languid atmosphere, fostering the sense that there is enough time and space to take everything in and that each display of artwork will reveal its quiet details through careful observation and appreciation. After walking through the door, gallery viewers will immediately see a gorgeous image of the ancient Aquinnah Cliffs jutting out into the ocean with plants waving in the foreground, one of the most sacred sites of the Wampanoag tribal homelands. Beside the cliffs there is a picture of James-Perry’s garden of green sprouts glowing with life, titled The Future. These first pieces orient the viewer to the themes of James-Perry’s work: the connections between land, water, plants, and, of course, us.
James-Perry’s artwork focuses on human connection to the natural world. She draws from her background in marine biology to explore this connection beyond her wampum jewelry and textiles. She was involved in bringing together the perspectives of several northeastern Tribes and agencies for Ocean Planning Body meetings, an initiative created under the Obama administration to protect marine areas. James-Perry also helped the New Bedford Whaling Museum develop educational panels on seals and designed the Milkweed Warriors mural for TUAG in response to the designation of monarch butterflies as an endangered species.
From the inclusion of other Indigenous artists who also explore interconnectedness in their work, to the foraging many of the artists partake to collect art materials, the idea of human connection with the natural world is present at every level of the exhibition. Among the collaborators are the artist’s brother, Jonathan James-Perry, a traditional dancer, speaker, singer, and carver, grounded in the traditions of his ocean-going ancestors. Another contributor is the artist’s mother, Patricia James-Perry, who works with scrimshanding, the art of handcrafting items from whale ivory, bone, and antler. Outside of the artist’s family, the show also includes work from SMFA faculty member Tanya Crane, a jewelry artist who draws from natural materials to honor African American craft traditions, and Erin Genia (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate), a multidisciplinary artist who uses her role as an educator and community organizer to amplify the voices of Indigenous peoples in the arts.
The organization of the exhibition itself speaks to the interconnectedness of the natural world which James-Perry explores in her art. Laurel McLaughlin, organizing curator of Double Arrows spoke on James-Perry’s dedication to collaboration. “We initially invited her to do a solo exhibition, but in keeping with Elizabeth’s way of working, she’s always thinking about collaboration, kinship ties, working with the environment and also with her collaborators, it felt very appropriate that she extend[ed] our invitation to her collaborators. It really speaks to the whole point of the exhibition, in creating collaborations with nature, and extending it beyond to both human and nonhuman species,” said McLaughlin.
In a conversation with SMFA Professor Silvia Bottinelli, James-Perry explained that she included other artists in her exhibition because, “It makes for a richer experience to have pieces in conversation with each other.” This value for collaboration extends beyond James-Perry’s curatorial work for her own exhibition and connects to the Indigenous worldviews, that see the individual as interconnected to the land and all life. Artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation echoed the significance of interconnectedness in her own work, saying, “My content has a relationship to every single Native artist, their work, and their humor… They’re the ones that make my world go round because the content in their work is feeding me.” Walking through the Double Arrows exhibit and viewing art from multiple artists will lead gallery attendees to consider not only how each piece is related to the environment, but also how they relate to each other.
Aside from Tanya Crane’s Voyage sculpture mounted in the center of the back wall, James-Perry’s work lines the entire gallery, almost as if her work is the supporting cord of a necklace and Crane’s creation of reeds, fibers, and NuGold is the pendant dangling in the middle. On the floor of the gallery are displays of James-Perry’s wampum jewelry and a handwoven mat. Mashq (Bear) is a necklace with a string of milkweed colored with bloodroot dye strung through a piece of Quahog wampum consumed with a swath of deep purple. Another necklace titled Onkeehq, meaning seal in Wampanoag, recalls James-Perry’s aforementioned work with the New Bedford Whaling Museum. The necklace is made of milkweed and dyed with madder dye. The milkweed string is attached via sinew and bone beads to the wampum in the center, which emulates the body and flippers of a seal. In the middle of these two necklaces lies a bracelet, fittingly called Grounded/Centered. It is a cuff of alternating red and white patterned squares made with porcupine quills, smoked deerskin, thread, and black walnut and cochineal dyes. On the other side of the floor lies the piece On The Earth, a handwoven mat made of ash splints whose alternating shades of white elevate the texture beyond the intricacy of the weaving.
These pieces of jewelry and the handwoven mat sandwich the work of other featured artists who also draw upon Indigenous knowledge and materials to explore human connections with the environment. Erin Genias’ Listen, a sound vessel reminiscent of an ear shape or an eroded landscape with turquoise water at the bottom, simultaneously speaks to the power of water and the destructive nature of colonialism. Also in the center of the room are Patricia James-Perry’s pendants from her Pootahpuh Whale Collection. There are three pendants: a narwhal, a sperm whale, and a right whale scrimshawed on cross sections of fossilized mammoth tusks. Jonathan James-Perry’s Blue Heron Necklace uses traditional cold hammered copper to depict an abstract heron. The necklace is strung with white glass trade beads, and the center pendant is hand-engraved Rhode Island slate with strips of rose gold copper on either side. The combination of these artists’ work provides a rich conversation of Indigenous artists, drawing from traditions of their past and posing questions to viewers about their own relationship to the natural world.
Due to the way James-Perry forages her art materials, it is essential that she is attuned to the cycles of nature and knowing what grows when and where. She wild-harvests cedar, willow, and cattail in addition to growing native plants like milkweed, sedges, and corn to use in her artwork. To dye her braided or spun necklaces, she uses local dyes made from plants: red from bedstraw, orange from bloodroot plants, and green from mint. In her interview with Bottinelli, she added that “walking on the beach to collect seaweed for dyes… you have to plan life around those seasonal harvesting rounds—plant materials simply do not last out in the elements.” If James-Perry does not forage her materials, she grows them. In praise of the mat Sky Beings over Mystic River, McLaughlin emphasized James-Perry’s connection with the reeds used to hand weave the piece, saying, “She grows them, she knows when to harvest them, she knows how to treat them, and how to weave them.” With many of James-Perry’s materials, at no point is there a disconnect between her life and artistic process, as she raises them herself and gives them new lives in the form of her work.
Double Arrows echoes the larger role of Indigenous art in reminding people of the interdependencies we share with the natural world. In an interview for Cultural Survival, a publication that shares Indigenous artists’ stories, Shipibo artist Sara Flores said, “[the] work of art and the work of environmental activism… towards Indigenous sovereignty cannot be separated; they must move forward on the same path.”
Broadly speaking, in museum history, exhibits of Indigenous art have included only historical objects without drawing connections to Indigenous peoples in the present day. At Tufts, the Double Arrows show at SMFA as well as Véxoa: We Know show at Aidekman Arts Center, display an intentional effort to counter this history and exhibit the work of contemporary Indigenous art and artists on campus. Elizabeth Canter, the manager of academic programs for TUAG added that “In the last 10 years since I’ve been here, other contemporary Indigenous artists’ work has been shown in several group exhibitions, the most notable of which was A Decolonial Atlas exhibition in 2019. There have been other exhibitions that have featured works from the Permanent Collection, such as re:imagining collections in 2023, which featured antiquities from the Permanent Collection made by Indigenous groups in Central and South America. Additionally, there have been class visits and faculty that have pulled work from the Permanent Collection for object study and research purposes (For example, these Native American objects).”
As for representation of Indigenous art in the future, Canter said, “I think Véxoa marks a turning point for us, as it was curated by guest curator and educator, Naine Terena (member of the Terena Indigenous people of the Brazilian State of Mato Grosso do Sul). The idea of self-representation here is really important and as an institution helps us to consider the stories we tell—who tells them and how we tell them.” There has been programming beyond the TUAG fall exhibits to promote community connection with the art. The Véxoa exhibit had a Reception and Artist Program on September 20, and Double Arrows had a Toast, Tour, & Workshop on September 13 as well as an Artist Talk on October 18. While these events are a wonderful starting point, and Véxoa certainly does mark a turning point, junior Muri Mascarenhas, a Brazilian student who worked on the show points out that, “There are few real appealing strategies to support people in interacting with the Indigenous narratives. Works of art displayed in a gallery don’t make an art experience; Art is created when others interact with someone’s art. It’s about belonging, connecting, and co-learning.” Indigenous artists, especially the ones shown at TUAG, must be continuously engaged with larger communities in meaningful conversations about their work to ensure that they are rightfully seen as agents of change instead of disappearing into the past.
Following their work on Véxoa, Mascarenhas suggested that viewers fully engage themselves in the TUAG exhibits, “There’s a playlist available downstairs at the galleries. Get those songs, walk through the gallery, and let that art belong with you too,” Mascarenhas said. There is room for more connections and conversation within the Tufts community around future exhibits of Indigenous art. “It’s our job to make the exhibits strategically interesting, and now it’s up to people to immerse themselves and share with friends.”