VACNJ’s new exhibitions to focus on work by indigenous artists

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SUMMIT, NJ — The Visual Arts Center of New Jersey will open two new exhibitions on Saturday, Oct. 9, that examine the interconnectivity of the human body, land and water. The Main Gallery show, “The First Water Is the Body,” takes its title from a poem by Natalie Diaz from her 2020 Pulitzer Prize–winning collection, “Postcolonial Love Poem.” The exhibition features multidisciplinary work by indigenous artists and makers from throughout North America and includes photography, video, sculpture, ceramics, basketry, beadwork and textiles. The show is curated by Maria Hupfield, an artist, educator and member of the Anishinabek Nation from Wasauksing First Nation, Ontario, Canada. Hupfield said, “A visual compliment to Diaz’s text, the work in this exhibition accepts the body as the human form of water and that the fate of water is the fate of all people. Featuring the work of 16 electric and unapologetic makers that belong to and operate in relation with indigenous communities from across the USA and Canada, these artists work to produce seismic shifts in cultural perspectives that point to reciprocity, critical accountability and awaken solidarity with place, lands and waters.”

A fully illustrated catalogue with an essay by Hupfield will accompany the exhibition. Participating artists include Carrie Allison, Natalie Ball, Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, Jewel Cameron, Mique’l Dangeli and Nick Dangeli, RYAN! Feddersen, Anita Fields, Shan Goshorn, Shannon Gustafson, Courtney Leonard, Marianne Nicolson, Wendy Red Star, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith and Neal Ambrose-Smith, and Kali Spitzer. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue are funded in part by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New Jersey Council for the Humanities. A series of related public programs that will complement the exhibition are funded in part by a grant from the N.J. Council for the Humanities.

Concurrently, in the art center’s Mitzi and Warren Eisenberg Gallery, artist Athena LaTocha will create an installation responding to specific landscapes in New Jersey. LaTocha is best known for monumental works that explore the relationship between natural landscapes and human-made environments. While she is interested in the wilderness and unspoiled landscapes, she is also intrigued by industrial sites — such as quarries, gravel pits and mines — many of which can be found throughout New Jersey. LaTocha begins each project by going directly to the land, carefully observing and listening to what it can reveal about its geological and cultural histories. She compiles a bank of digital images and videos to evoke memories of these experiences and gathers materials — tire shreds from the sides of highways, bricks from excavation sites and various organic materials — to use as tools in creating the work. LaTocha typically works on large rolls of paper laid out on the studio floor and immerses herself directly into the painting process, throwing and hurling ink; lifting and whipping the paper to manipulate the large pools of ink wash; and dragging, pushing and scraping tools through the layers of ink. She typically adds soil and plant materials and particle detritus collected from her work sites. For this project, she will also use large sheets of lead to gather molded impressions of various New Jersey rock faces. LaTocha will incorporate these life-size lead imprints into her works on paper to create an intimate and immersive viewing environment in the gallery.

LaTocha, who was born and raised in Alaska, is a Standing Rock Lakota and Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa. Her work has been shown across the country, in places such as the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Ark.; IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Santa Fe, N.M.; CUE Art Foundation and Artists Space, New York City; South Dakota Art Museum, Brookings, S.D.; and the New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, La. She received her bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a master’s degree in fine arts from Stony Brook University, N.Y. This project — a companion exhibition to “The First Water Is the Body” — is organized by VACNJ curator Mary Birmingham.

In celebration of Indigenous People’s Day, the opening of both exhibitions will take place on Saturday, October 9. Occurring between 1­ and 6 p.m., the event will include tours of the exhibitions, samples of indigenous foods, and performances by the Silvercloud Singers & Dancers, an intertribal Native American troupe that weaves together traditional and contemporary Native American song and dance. The event will begin with a blessing and land acknowledgment, recognizing that the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey is situated in Lenapehoking, the ancestral land of the Lenape people, and honoring all indigenous communities. For more information, visit artcenternj.org.

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