Art gallery: chiefs, clans and relatives
Muscogee Nation art curator Laura Marshall Clark showcases the fusion of cultures in her exhibit, Chief, clans and relatives.
Sons from Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England left for North America in the 18th century seeking asylum from political and religious oppression. Nearly 300,000 Scots, Irish and Welsh had arrived on the continent by the time of the American Revolution. Many found forests, fertile soils and rivers in the lands of the Chickasaw, Muscogee, Choctaw, Cherokee and Seminole nations of the southeast. When Celtic immigrants began to intermarry into tribes, they were influenced by the everyday use of materials, language, textile styles and some of their descendants became tribal leaders.
While exploring her own ancestry from the Muscogee Nation, art curator Laura Marshall Clark found among her relatives an Irish trader from the 1700s who married two Muscogee women. She heard similar family stories among the Five Tribes artists she knew. Inspired by their respective journeys, she spent two years collecting them to develop the exhibition. Chief, clans and relatives.
Through the new exhibition, artists from the Five Civilized Tribes with mixed heritages provide their personal answers to this little-known story. The distinction and fusion of Indigenous and Celtic paradigms are fused in deep ties of family histories held by these early Americans. The more than 60 works of art explore the question of singular and mixed identities, cultural norms and anomalies, and shared histories of subjugation and colonization.
Above: Between two worlds; Bill Hensley (Chickasaw/Choctaw); 40 x 30 in; Acrylic painting on canvas; Courtesy of the artist.
The exhibit includes works by 34 artists whose art reflects their Native American heritage and influences from across the pond. The exhibit first opened at the Living Arts Center in Tulsa; the show is now on at the Choctaw Cultural Center, in Calera, Oklahoma, from July 23 to December 31, 2022.
The work is diverse and varied; established and emerging artists. The pieces, which range from pottery and beadwork to paintings and textiles, carry on age-old traditions of color, Mississippian period symbols, and traditional and non-traditional materials combined with modern techniques.
Similarities in line quality, 2022, Daniel McCoy (Muscogee Creek); 16 x 20 inches; Mixed media on board; Courtesy of the artist.
Many of the artists credit their grandmothers for their inspiration. Chickasaw visual artist Dustin Mater describes how his grandmother helped him explore the colors and history of his tribe. Today, in a style described as Muskogean Rococo, his works range from a portrait of a former mother of the Chickasaw clan to an oyster shell sculpture of a tribal warrior sharing a ceremonial pipe with a high Irish king.
Sarah Sense, who is of Choctaw ancestry, recalls her grandmother’s story of the Choctaw nation’s generous monetary gift in 1847 to the starving people of Ireland during the Great Potato Famine. Sense combines Choctaw and Celtic imagery in much of his work. She layers photographs in an intricate process with traditional basketry patterns, creating striking two-dimensional art.
For Chickasaw and Choctaw textile artist Margaret Roach Wheeler, inspiration goes even further back in her family line: her Mahota hand weaves, named after her great-great-grandmother, are nods to the Choctaw nation and Scottish influences, as evidenced by his play Ishtaboli: War’s Little Brothera handwoven cotton loincloth in a Mahota tartan pattern that involved four weaving techniques.
Above: Deora De, 2020, J. Dylan Cavin (Choctaw), 21.5 x 15 in. ; Ink, watercolor; Courtesy of the artist.
Artists Erin Shaw, Bobby Martin and Tony Tiger blend the symbols of their tribal and Celtic ancestry in painting, ceramics and prints. Contemporary artist Billy Hensley creates Indigenous portraits of past and present tribal members, while Daniel McCoy uses vibrant colors and imagery from pop culture, landscapes and his Indigenous traditions.
The beadwork of Cherokee artist Martha Berry incorporates designs from all five tribes; Scott Roberts’ glorious pots are handcrafted and fired in the style of ancient Muscogee and Choctaw artisans. Blacksmiths Daniel Worcester and his son J. Daniel produce art on the forge, creating beautiful inlaid knives sought after by collectors. Chiefs, clans and relatives also includes fascinating portraits of pearl artist Chickasaw Shelby Rowe.
bear crossing, 2021, Billy Hensley (Chickasaw/Choctaw); 16 x 22 inches; Ink and watercolor on paper; Courtesy of the artist.
Whether it is sculpture, painting, textile art, finger weaving, pottery, prints, metalwork, photography or works on old paper, the artists of the five civilized tribes presented in this unique exhibition depict their contemporary culture in works of enduring beauty.
“Indigenous and Celtic identities are grounded not only in the importance of family and communities that are close to our hearts, but also in values centered on relationships, respect, cultural continuity, and reverence for ancestry,” Clark says. . “The works of art of Chief, clans and relatives bring us together, connect across time, keep our cultures distinct and vibrant, and forge a common path.
Between two worlds; Bill Hensley (Chickasaw/Choctaw); 40 x 30 in; Acrylic painting on canvas; Courtesy of the artist.
Identity, 2020, Billy Hensley (Chickasaw/Choctaw); 36 x 24 inches; Acrylic painting on canvas; Courtesy of the artist.
Holitopa (Sublime), 2021 Dustin Illetewahke Mater (Chickasaw/Choctaw), 24 x 12 in.; Acrylic painting on canvas; Courtesy of the artist.
Excerpt from our August/September 2022 issue
Chief, clans and relatives is on display July 23 through December 31, 2022 at the Choctaw Cultural Center in Calera, Oklahoma. For more information, visit choctawculturalcenter.com.