Iroquois exhibit displays tradition, connection to nature

The Bertha V.B. Lederer Gallery is holding a “Beaded Birds and Beasts” exhibit that highlights the work of contemporary Native American artists Natasha Smoke Santiago, Carrie Hill and Peter Jemison. Though some of their beads have lost their vibrancy, the craftsmanship nevertheless enriches the history within the pieces, as some of the artwork dates back to 1912.

The beadwork varies from wall hangings to purses to pincushions, all utilizing a wide variety of colors. In addition, the theme of the beadwork seems to highlight nature itself. Many of these seemingly mundane utalitarian works prove to be artwork—they are adorned with animals like wolves, dogs and birds. The importance that the Iroquois place on nature is clearly expressed in these works.

There are other pieces of mixed media as well, such as ceramic and acrylic on canvas. Santiago’s pieces seemed to emphasize Iroquois women in particular. Her piece “Mother Fracker” captured the bodice of a pregnant woman in ceramic. This work was interesting because it had what looked like an amber strand of DNA draped over the right breast. “Mother Fracker” stood out over some other pieces and moves people to take a moment to stop and appreciate it.

Another thought-provoking piece of Santiago’s was “Sky Woman.” This work contained a small statuette of mixed media that depicted a Native American woman with diabetes. In one hand, she held an insulin syringe and in the other, braided feathers of the tribe.

This work beautifully captured the juxtaposition of Western medicine and Native American tradition. Surrounding the woman were tiny bottles of insulin, reflecting the pressures of Western culture that bombard Native Americans.

Alongside Santiago, Hill exhibited traditional Iroquois baskets woven out of sweet grass and splint. This piece reflects the artisanship that accompanies basket weaving and how tedious, yet rewarding, such creations can be.

Lastly, Jemison’s work was oil and acrylic on canvas. One of his most significant pieces was “Sentinels (Large Yellow).” The painting has a desert background image with several wilted yellow flowers—their heads drooping to the yellow floor in sorrow.

Interestingly, Jemison chose to paint multiple lines coming off of the flowers, reminiscent of halos. Perhaps this symbolizes how some Native American tribes worship nature as their deity. Though this piece was a bit puzzling, it was still profound. The flowers were dying, yet they gave off a sense of life—what reincarnation centers on. By showcasing motifs of birth, decay, death and rebirth, Jemison gave a wonderful depiction of Iroquois culture and belief.

This exhibit will be open until Oct. 7. Lederer Gallery itself is open Wednesdays and Thursdays from 1–4 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 1–5 p.m. There is ample work to be appreciated by all who visit regardless of how familiar one is with Native American culture.