Living Legends: The Indigenous Art of Storytelling

This spring, the Picker Art Gallery boasts an exciting new exhibit featuring multi-medium artwork by indigenous artists from the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada. The works express their makers’ often overlooked traditions and stories in our 21st century world. Their art aims to encourage discussion and allow for inward reflection on culture and community in celebration of generations of Native resilience. “Living Legends: The Indigenous Art of Storytelling” is an exhibition made up of diverse artists with many different messages, yet they all have one ultimate goal in common: To push against a presiding euro-centric narrative and address the lasting traumas of colonialism on indigenous communities. The exhibition also draws upon many pieces within the Longyear Museum of Anthropology’s permanent collection.

The exhibition includes art from traditional practitioners as well as contemporary artists, such as works in the style of the late Norval Morrisseau. Morrisseau, also referred to as Copper Thunderbird, is credited with pioneering the Woodlands movement, which mixes politically charged messages and personal experience into abstract, brightly colored prints and photo collages. As a member of the Ojibwa sect of the Anishinaabe people, his art expresses his spiritual journey and aspects of Anishinaabe culture, as well as his personal development. It reflects tensions between indigenous cultures and modern Christianity, shamanism, the interconnection between all living things and the importance of family and nature.

“My art speaks and will continue to speak, transcending barriers of nationality, language and other forces that may be divisive, fortifying the greatness of the spirit that has always been the foundation of the Ojibwa people,” Morrisseau recounted.

Through these artworks are stories from living elders of various identities who have kept the knowledge; stories passed down generation to generation and new, lived experiences inspire the work on display at the Picker Art Gallery. The exhibit honors not only those who have participated in their culture for their entire life but also the adults who revisit a once forgotten culture and share their newfound enthusiasm about new opportunities to use old ways. The exhibit also encourages the new generations of youth to acknowledge the responsibility of carrying indigenous cultures and identities into the future through arts and community.

“It is an exceptional collection of work discussing a range of topics among our connection to the land and community, the trauma of colonization and the resilience of indigenous communities and creativity despite those legacies. Student interns help with every aspect of the show, including getting the galleries ready for opening.  As a student intern, researching and speaking with the artists was by far the best and most rewarding experience of helping to curate the show. It is a privilege to be able to hear their stories and what sparks their creativity,” said senior Ellie Miller.

Algonquin artist Frank Polson promotes traditions and aims to build bridges between indigenous communities and other cultures. He often teaches the community’s youth, as he believes their contributions to society are greatly influenced by their formative experiences. The Longyear Museum of Anthropology holds one of Polson’s paintings in its permanent collection, and it currently sits within the “Living Legends: The Indigenous Art of Storytelling” exhibit.  

“Inspired by a library book on Norval Morrisseau, I began to create pictures, at first using house paint from the jail woodwork shop, and discarded jean jackets and torn bed sheets for canvas. Prison visitors started buying my work, and during a day-pass, I arranged for my first exhibition at the Thomas B. Maracle Gallery on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, where four works were sold,” Polson recounted in an interview with DaVic Gallery of Native Canadian Arts.

The “Living Legends: The Indigenous Art of Storytelling” exhibition is open for visiting through June 26 at the Picker Art Gallery on the second floor of Dana Arts Center. The exhibition is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m, and on Sundays from 12 p.m. until 5 p.m.