The Flagstaff Arts Council and the Coconino Center for the Arts are beginning the new year with two exhibits that look at change, growing technologies and diminishing culture.
"A Choctaw Story of Land and Blood"
In the Jewel Gallery, Prescott-based artist Karen Clarkson’s new exhibit, "A Choctaw Story of Land and Blood," explores how assimilation, relocation and the Dawes Act affected Choctaw tribal relations, community and culture.
By painting faces and people over legal, binding documents, reproductions of archival documents from the late 1880s and early 1900s, Clarkson reminds us of the real-life consequences of the Dawes Act and the systemic subjugation and assimilation of Native Americans, that history is not as clean as the documents that tell its tale.
The Dawes Act of 1887, otherwise known as the General Allotment Act or the Dawes Severalty Act, authorized the division of tribal lands into allotments that would be given to individual Indians.
“[The Dawes Act] effectively revoked all tribal land ownership in Indian territory and cleared the way for any unallocated land to become the state of Oklahoma,” said Clarkson, who is Choctaw. “Once they had made everybody an individual with a small allotment of land, the tribe was automatically splintered.”
Named after one of its commissioners and creators, Sen. Henry Laurens Dawes of Massachusetts, The Dawes Act and its amendments under the Curtis Act of 1898 and the Burke Act of 1906 abolished Native American tribal and communal rights with the intention of assimilating Indians into American society. Land was transferred to settlers and the U.S government. Within half a century, Indian land would decrease from 138 million acres to 48 million acres.
“When you take land away from people that shared it freely among each other and started basing Indian-ness on whether you had a land allotment it changes tribal dynamics,” said the artist. “The allotment policy depleted the land base and ended hunting as a means of sustenance. It also affected gender roles, as communal living had always shaped the order of Native communities.”
Despite overwhelming opposition from the Choctaw, America spent the next century dismantling the Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, Cherokee and Chickasaw communities and culture. Collectively, they were called the Five Civilized Tribes by the government and settlers.
“It was very sad and unfortunate, but it still is a part of history. Any time you can reflect upon history it’s only a good thing, whether it’s a sad history or a violent history,” said Clarkson. “I thought it was important not to try to dress it up.”
Throughout the exhibit are paintings and pictures of Clarkson’s father, Charlie, who served for more than 20 years in the U.S. Navy, and grandmother, Margaret Nale. Both are listed in what is now referred to as The Dawes Rolls. At the age of two, when Charlie’s father, a white man, died, Charlie was taken from Margaret, a Choctaw Indian, to be raised by his aunt. Margaret was never heard from again.
“All the time I was growing up [my dad] would never talk about her,” says Clarkson. “I feel it’s important to tell a little bit about her life in art as much as I can and try to illustrate what she went through, what the general feeling was at the time toward Native Americans.”
With little to no knowledge about her grandmother, Clarkson set out researching her ancestors and learning about Choctaw beliefs. What she discovered was the tragic history of a nearly forgotten people.
"A Choctaw Story of Land and Blood" brings to life the humanity hidden behind jumbled narratives and a complex centuries-long history that is violent, brutal and unbecoming of the America we strive to be.
"Arrangement for a Silent Orchestra: 451°F"
In the art center's main gallery, Flagstaff artist Julie Comnick examines growing technologies and their impact on cultural heritage with "Arrangement for a Silent Orchestra: 451°F," depicting images of violins through various stages of burning as a metaphor for a diminishing culture in contemporary society and what impact its loss might have.
After almost a decade of work, the first part of her project is complete.
“Going into this project I didn’t have an idea of how to paint fire, so it was a matter of studying the behavior of fire, figuring out what elements of it to retain to make it feel alive yet not stylized,” said Comnick of those initial stages. “It was important to me to really observe a traditional painting process so I didn’t take shortcuts; I did underpaintings in black and white and then developed the images from there.”
The end result is a series of a dozen large-scale oil paintings that depict the fiery destruction of nearly 100 violins over a 12-hour period, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. A video component adds ambient pops and crackles as it shows the process of the fire devouring the wooden instruments throughout the night. It also serves to represent how important the relationship between technology and art is to society.
“There are always questions asked and I think that’s what makes it art,” Comnick explained. “There are a number of ways to interpret it and I think people understand, by the time they come into the exhibit and see how long I’ve devoted myself to this, it’s not just one painting that comes out of this destruction, it’s years of work and a lot of ways of looking at it.”