“Monarchs” to Open at Bemis Center


December 5th, 2017

Jeffrey Gibson
Mixed media installation: robe (canvas, wool, artificial sinew, glass beads, tin and metal jingles, nylon fringe), drum (wood, rawhide, acrylic paint), video
Dimensions variable
Courtesy the artist and Roberts & Tilton,
Los Angeles, CA

Omaha, NE—Every year, monarch butterflies migrate from Mexico across the entire border through California, New York and Nebraska, all the way to Canada. Each journey is made by several generations of the butterflies, which live for only a few weeks. This, however, does not stop them from following the paths that their ancestors had countless times before.

Monarchs: Brown and Native Contemporary Artists in the Path of the Butterfly is the next exhibition to open at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts this week. Resident Curator Risa Puleo explained some of personal and political motivations behind the exhibition.

“When I was applying to be the curator in residence at Bemis, it was in August of 2016 and two events were happening nationally that I was following very closely,” Puleo said. “One was the defense of Standing Rock from the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the second was the election campaign at that time. Trump was really campaigning based on a promise to build a border wall in Mexico, and I saw a continuity between these two events that I didn’t hear people talk about too much, which was in one case the historic policy of the United States to place or force Native Americans onto a reservation, sort of enclosing them within the United States, and then the other building a wall to exclude Mexicans. When I saw that both of these groups were people who were indigenous to this land, that became a reason for me to think about this line and between Standing Rock and the border wall.”

For Puleo, the life of the monarch was the metaphor that provided the context for negotiating some of today’s most defining political questions.

“So the monarch butterfly’s path gave me some parameters for which to conduct my research in this area. Over the past year, I’ve traveled to North and South Dakota, to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and I started my research looking for artists in these areas, and what I was looking for was for the enduring indigenous presence in this country.”

Monarchs is expansive, a collection of work by 37 different artists filling the entirety of the Bemis Center’s first floor gallery space. Many of the pieces are rooted in native traditions, using materials like wood and animal hide, while others feature more recent artifacts, like reclaimed photography and American Latino pop art from the early ‘90s.

Not all of the work is to be displayed in Monarchs is visual. The exhibition includes a sound installation and performances later on in its run at the Bemis.

“The work that I was drawn to was primarily, I would say, was abstract or process based. So while my motivations began with thinking about the historic conditions that produced Standing Rock and the call for the border wall, I wanted to search instead for like how artists were using processes or ways of thinking that were about recovering knowledge from their pas—from their particular lineage and bringing those ancestral traditions forward in the future. So if you look around the exhibition, you’ll see paintings that employ a porcupine quills or you’ll see paintings made from adobe, so I was really interested in the artists who were going back to the histories of using materials and bringing them forward in the present.”

All of the artists featured in Monarchs offer unique voices in the dialogue on culture in America, but while the story of migration is a collective narrative, Monarch’s is just as much a personal one.

“This is maybe one of the most personal exhibitions that I have ever made and also one of the most satisfying on an emotional level for me to make, because when I came to Omaha, I had been traveling for almost four years. I wanted to come to Omaha because I wanted to stay still, and I wanted to, you know, do it do it everybody else does like cook at home—have a regular schedule. So I think one of the driving forces behind this exhibition was me thinking about landing and then also the question of what is home, and I think that the reason I came up with this exhibition was as a way for me to think through that question for myself, and on the way I found 37 artists thinking in similar ways—especially at a particular moment in our country when we’re very divided.”

Monarchs: Brown and Native Contemporary Artists in the Path of the Butterfly will open at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts this Thursday, Dec. 7th, beginning with a members’ preview reception and tour at 5:00pm. The exhibition will officially open to the public at 6:30pm with a ceremony with a community ceremonial ritual lead by exhibiting artist Sarah Rowe. There will be an ARTalk with Puleo and Exhibitions Manager Alex Priest after followed by a casual reception. For more information, visit BemisCenter.org.

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