The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, located in Santa Fe, is currently hosting a groundbreaking exhibition that showcases the remarkable talents of 14 distinguished First California artists. “California Stars: Huivaniūs Pütsiv” is a momentous event, offering a platform for visibility and representation to Indigenous communities and artists in California. This exhibition is a testament to their sustained struggle for recognition and celebrates their contributions to contemporary art, which have too often been overlooked or excluded from the traditional Euro-American canon.
The Stars of California Stars
The exhibit features the works of prominent artists such as Cara Romero (Chemehuevi), Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock), Rick Bartow (Mad River Band of the Wiyot Tribe), and Jacob Meders (Mechoopda Indian Tribe of Chico Rancheria/Maidu). These artists represent a rich tapestry of Indigenous cultures and artistic expressions.
A Musical Connection
The title of the exhibition, “California Stars: Huivaniūs Pütsiv,” draws inspiration from an unrecorded Woody Guthrie song, “California Stars.” In 1998, this song was brought to life with music composed and recorded by Billy Bragg and Wilco for their joint album Mermaid Avenue. The song, previously unpublished and written just before Guthrie’s iconic “This Land Is Your Land,” carries a sense of both dreaminess and melancholy. It begins with the evocative line, “I’d like to rest my heavy head tonight, on a bed of California stars,” reflecting moments of adversity and hope.
Huivaniūs Pütsiv: Stars with Us/Around Us
The subtitle of the exhibition, “Huivaniūs Pütsiv,” is derived from the Chemehuevi language and translates to “stars with us/around us.” This subtitle symbolizes beauty, power, and permanence. It embodies the illumination and inspiration that these artists have provided to the Native American contemporary art field for over six decades. Their contributions have not only endured but continue to shine brightly.
A Diverse and Complex Exhibition
The exhibition occupies multiple gallery spaces, offering a precise and complex survey of First California artists. It not only showcases the talents of these artists but also highlights the diverse cultures within Tribal communities in California. For instance, a photograph by Cara Romero vividly captures the realities faced by some Tribal communities. Two women in Chemehuevi dress traverse a landscape scattered with colonial remnants, including money, Tribal ID cards, and gambling tokens, all intermingled with Indigenous basketry. As they move through this colonial debris, they hold each other’s hands, embracing their culture and identity, casting an amber-orange glow of resilience.
James Luna: An Intersectional Visionary
The exhibition includes an entire gallery dedicated to the late James Luna’s work, anchored by his iconic photograph “Half Indian/Half Mexican” (1991). Luna’s triptych embodies a profound exploration of identity. The three frames capture different facets of his identity, reflecting the limitations imposed by dominant cultural binaries. His work challenges the rigidity of identity, offering an essentialized version of himself, a poignant commentary on intersectionality.
A Legacy Unveiled
“California Stars: Huivaniūs Pütsiv” not only shines a light on the artistic brilliance of First California artists but also reveals a rich history of contributions that have been overlooked in the traditional Euro-American canon. Curator Andrea Hanley (Diné) emphasizes the impact of multiple generations of First California artists on the contemporary art field. The exhibition serves as a reminder of their significance and invites the audience to appreciate the profound impact they’ve had on the art world.
“California Stars: Huivaniūs Pütsiv” is a celebration of art, culture, and resilience. It unveils a legacy that has long been hidden from the mainstream, providing a well-deserved platform for recognition. This exhibition invites us to explore the depth of talent within First California artists and their enduring impact on the art landscape. As we walk away from this illuminating experience, we carry with us a newfound understanding of the significance of these artists and their remarkable contributions to the world of contemporary art.