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Celebrating Native American Art: 'First Peoples' Exhibition Showcases Wide-Ranging Indigenous Works

Erica Friend, "Las Muertas De Juarez" (primary)
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Corina Roberts (Osage, Cherokee), "Dancing with the Ancestors"
Corina Roberts (Osage, Cherokee), "Dancing with the Ancestors."

On a side wall at the San Fernando Valley Arts and Cultural Center, deep inside "First Peoples: A Celebration of Native Artists in Southern California," a 29-artist exhibition, Rowan D. Harrison's pottery is an immediate attention-grabber. In "Reservation Plates," the Fullerton-based artist places three earthenware clay plates, each one hand-painted with an intricate pattern, as a symbol of life on a reservation. In "Flowers," 25 small plates are arranged on a display board, their flowers inspired by desert flora. Meanwhile, two untitled vases draw upon Pueblo tradition. 

Born in Albuquerque and raised in Southern California, ceramicist Rowan Harrison found inspiration in his own Native American heritage. He's Navajo on his father's side and Pueblo of Isleta on his mother's side. "The Pueblo people, we have a very, very rich history in pottery making and working with the natural earth, working with the elements of the natural earth in creating pueblo [structures] for functional purposes, religious purposes and so forth like that," says Harrison. He grew up surrounded by his parents' own pottery collection and it was his grandmother who taught him how to work with clay. Today, Harrison works with commercial clay to create vases and plates that he arranges into installation-type pieces. 

Rowan D. Harrison pottery at "First Peoples: A Celebration of Native Artists in Southern California"
Rowan D. Harrison (Pueblo of Isleta, Navajo) pottery on display at exhibition "First Peoples: A Celebration of Native Artists in Southern California." | Courtesy of Walter Meyer and the San Fernando Valley Arts and Cultural Center

"First Peoples: A Celebration of Native Artists in Southern California," which runs at the San Fernando Valley Arts and Cultural Center through April 22, is a large and diverse exhibition of artists from people indigenous to the Americas. Overall, the 29 participating artists contributed a total of 100 pieces of art for an event designed to be a cross between a gallery show and a museum exhibition. 

As at an art gallery, much of the work was for sale. But, curator Walter Meyer wanted to also incorporate museum-style educational elements as well. Meyer worked with the participants to prepare artist statements and descriptions of their art that also explained the cultural references that they held. The curator and artists collaborated by phone and email — "even snail mail," Meyer adds in a phone conversation prior to the opening gala — to accomplish this. In the end, Meyer considers the labels to be half of the content for this show. 

"I wound up doing a tremendous amount of independent research on my own to get further background for some of the Native American references they were making," says Meyer. "Once I put together a combination of what they had provided, what I had researched and what I had in some ways expanded on what they had written, everything went back to the artist for their approval."

Meyer references the questions asked in the exhibition's opening statement, "What is a native artist? What does it mean to be a native artist?" The answer to that, though, is multifaceted and highly personal.

Ernesto Yerena, "We The Resilient"
Ernesto Yerena (Xicanx, Yaqui), "We The Resilient."

For Matthew WhiteBear McMasters, art and spirituality are intertwined. The Lancaster-based artist, whose heritage includes Cherokee and Creek roots, was a teenager when his grandfather taught him how to carve gourds. He started out making rattles, but, over the years, the gourds have taken on different shapes.

"Gourds started out as utensils. They were necessities. You would use them as bowls, water carriers. You would use them also in ceremonies and things," he explains. McMasters adds that, after he began researching gourds, he started to see how they could be used in art as well. 

McMasters has several pieces in "First Peoples." Amongst them are two replicas of feathers with symbols representing Native American spirituality. He also included two decorative masks from a series of pieces he made based on warriors. In addition, he had a bowl made from a gourd, part of his council series, that depicts monument people. He used 19 colors of paint to recall the look of sandstone. McMasters improvises his designs and his work is fueled by his spirituality. He prays when he works on a project.  

"I follow a more traditional way of living," he says. "Everything has a spirit so you have to treat it in that way and honor it. So, even the gourds, they're dried and done now, but that spirit is still there from being planted and grown."

Matthew WhiteBear McMasters, "Feathers Sun Rosette"
Matthew WhiteBear McMasters (Cherokee, Creek), "Feathers Sun Rosette."

In Moreno Valley, one married couple is reviving musical instruments that could have been lost to time. Marvin and Jonette Yazzie are instrumental in bringing back near-extinct styles of Native American flutes. Marvin makes them with Jonette's help. Meanwhile, Jonette plays them and both have been teaching a course on the subject since 1999 at the Idyllwild Arts Foundation. 

"It started when I was young," says Marvin, who grew up in Arizona, on his introduction to flutes. "We were at a fire dance, so the flute played. This was a ceremonial flute, like a whistle, and I had never heard it before. I was always curious about it."

At "First Peoples," Jonette demonstrates how to play their three flutes on display. One is played in the key of E, producing a deep, forlorn sound. There's a bison horn flute, which they teach intermediate students to make. It's built using a "grandfather" method of hole placement, a traditional way of making flutes that are designed for the user instead of relying on mathematical placement. There's also an elderberry flute, a difficult instrument to play with a very soft sound. It's based on century-old flutes found at the Riverside Metropolitan Museum. Musician Ernest Siva commissioned them to build replicas of the flute so that he could learn to play it and teach others to do the same. The Yazzies spent time studying the instruments in order to recreate them. 

Marvin and Jonette Yazzie work at exhibition "First Peoples: A Celebration of Native Artists in Southern California"
Flutes by Marvin Yazzie (Navajo (Diné)) on display at exhibition "First Peoples: A Celebration of Native Artists in Southern California." | Liz Ohanesian

Where the Yazzies work to revive instruments that were nearly lost to time, one L.A.-based artist is capturing history as it happens. Valena Broussard Dismukes, who is of African-American and Choctaw heritage, makes art that is documentarian in nature. She's the author of "The Red-Black Connection: African-Native Americans and Their Stories of Dual Identity," a series that started out as a solo photography exhibition and has photographed people across the globe. For "First Peoples," she showed four archival images, which included two images from Big Mountain in Arizona, circa 1980, during a time of protest. Another photo was taken during a demonstration at Point Conception. "The state wanted to have a liquid natural gas plant on one of the rockiest, most turbulent areas in Southern California, so there was an encampment that my son and I went to and stayed at for a week or two to support [protesters] in their endeavor," she explains. 

For more than 40 years, she has used her camera to explore various cultures. Recently, she traveled to Cuba, where she photographed locals. In a few months, she'll be heading to Russia and nearby countries.

She says, "When someone opens up their home, their culture, their land to me, it's a real treat and I try to be as respectful as I possibly can and I celebrate that."

"First Peoples: A Celebration of Native Artists in Southern California" runs through April 22 at the San Fernando Valley Arts and Cultural Center in Tarzana.

"First Peoples: A Celebration of Native Artists in Southern California"
Cheyenne Phoenix (Dine, Northern Paiute) performs during the opening reception of "First Peoples: A Celebration of Native Artists in Southern California." | Courtesy of Walter Meyer and the San Fernando Valley Arts and Cultural Center
"First Peoples: A Celebration of Native Artists in Southern California"
Installation view of Joel "" Garcia's (Xicano, Huichol, Northern Plains) artwork at exhibition "First Peoples: A Celebration of Native Artists in Southern California." | Courtesy of Walter Meyer and the San Fernando Valley Arts and Cultural Center

Top image: Erica Friend (Chicana), "Las Muertas de Juarez."

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