Friday, August 30, 2013

Momentary Change of Pace: Hakim Bellamy, Sherwin Bitsui, and Lucy Tapahonso at 516 in Honor or LaDonna Harris

Air, Land and Seed Catalog Cover

Last night we enjoyed yet another in a long series of literary evenings since we moved to New Mexico nearly a year ago now. Some of the same artists were part of it, but the focus was quite different.

In some ways, I was reminded of some of the events we presented at our theater-cum-gallery space in Sacramento back in the day. But last night's event was ultimately intimately an aspect of the culture clash that lies at the heart of the social, political and economic reality of where we are now.

Albuquerque is far and away the Big City in New Mexico; size-wise no place else is even remotely like it. Yet by standards of California, Texas or even Arizona, for that matter, Albuquerque is still a pretty small town, with a Metro population of under a million. From my perspective and the perspective of more than a few environmentalists, that's still too many, for the water resources are so slender, that many people is about twice as many as can comfortably be accommodated for very long. Some of the experts will say that far more than twice as many live in the Abq Metro area as should do so. At some point, who knows when, but probably not so far in the future, the population will have to be reduced. Significantly.

That dark vision was part of what came to mind as I checked out the exhibit at the 516 ARTS gallery called Air, Land and Seed (pdf). It's a traveling show, in a sense, in that it debuted at the 2013 Venice Biennale before being installed at the 516. Or at least that's how I understand it. Luci Tapahonso, as Poet Laureate of the Navajo Nation, got a gondola of her own, according to Sherwin Bitsui, who went to Venice for his second Biennale, a gondola in which she was swanned around the canals of Venice, perhaps becoming for a moment... someone else.

The exhibit is a collaborative show by eight or nine contemporary Native American artists, who, according to the catalog, are exploring
 "global tensions between home and exile,drawing from the unique perspectives of the Indigenous peoples of Native North America and selected others to explore these themes."
That's just the broadest context of the exhibit. The most striking work to me was Marwin Begaye's bison triptych, prints created partially through the explosion of black powder on the paper. It was striking and horrifying and strangely appropriate to consider just what was being depicted here. The American bison were wiped out using just this material, and yet here was their image, left behind and glaring at the observer, appearing almost human, accusing, purposeful, mad, sad. A disturbing and compelling image to say the least.

Certainly one of many appalling reminders of how we got where we are, and yet surprisingly compassionate for it all, as if to say, "You know, it could have been so much better. It might still be..."

Compassion is one of the hallmarks of "the Indian," something that rarely makes it into the commonplace Anglo concept of Indian-ness. Compassion, wholeness, generosity, laughter, all these qualities and more are at the foundation of so many Indian societies and culture, and yet from the scary images of them -- as warriors spiritual and temporal more than anything else -- held  onto by Anglos to this day, you'd never know it.

Indians, very often in the Anglo conception, are akin to witches. And sometimes, for fun -- or for something else -- Indians will play to the audience. How well I know.

Air, Land and Seed is not a monumental show, in fact it's quite a modest one, mostly of works on paper, many of them thumbtacked -- yes, thumbtacked, though they are no doubt museum quality thumbtacks -- to the walls of the gallery.  All of the works are rather stridently contemporary, with barely a hint of "traditional" Indian arts and artistry. Indian society and culture never have been static; they have always been dynamic and adaptable, filled with creative energy, and ever ready to meet the challenges of the moment. Anglos so often want to categorize Indians as "one thing" forever and always, unchangeable and unchanging, fundamentally "Primitive." No. That's simply wrong and wrong-headed, too. There is nothing particularly "primitive" about Indians or Indian culture and there never was. Contemporary Indian arts are as "advanced" (it's just the wrong conceptual terminology) as anything being done by any artists today regardless of gender or ethnicity -- or that old debbil, race.

After that long and rather circuitous -- some might say tortuous -- introduction, it is time to say a little bit about the evening's doings, what with LaDonna Harris being honored and all.

For those who don't know her, LaDonna Harris has long been a central figure in Indian Country starting back when God was a boy during the Lyndon Johnson administration. She, too, had her AIM Period, of course, even as the wife of Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma. Her activism has been focused primarily on self-determination, civil rights, and providing opportunities for Indians -- and now for indigenous peoples in general -- to more fully participate in the broader society and economy while maintaining their distinct culture. She was one of the highest profile figures and personalities during the early days of Indian activism, and so we thought it appropriate to say "Hey" before all of that passes into the mists of time.

I've mentioned Luci Tapahonso in previous posts. Sherwin Bitsui is a highly regarded Navajo poet -- among his other talents -- who is often mocked and chided by his good friend Sherman Alexie with whom he sometimes appears.

An excerpt from his Flood Song epic dream poem is featured in the catalog of the exhibit, to wit:

A red-tail hawk scrapes the sandstone wall with its beak.
A shower of sparks skate across the morning sky.
You think this bottle will open a canyon wall
and light a trail
trampled by gloved hands
as you inhale earth, wind, water,
through the gasoline nozzle
at trail’s end,
a flint spear driven into the key switch.
You think you can return to that place
where your mother held her sleeves above the rising tides
saying, “We are here again
on the road covered with television snow;
we are here again
the song has thudded.”
Sherwin Bitsui
I cannot recommend the work highly enough. Sherwin read a goodly fragment of this piece last night, and though I had been exposed to the tiny quote above, I was not prepared for the extraordinary vision of the fragments he read of the whole. It's strange and glorious, compelling and inspiring. A dream to be sure, but much more than that. An epic ride into, around and out of another world.

Well, I liked that!

Luci welcomed her family members to the evening's festivities, and she read poems that focused on family. Family is one of her consistent themes, and in her family's honor -- and also to keep from being scolded by the other Navajos there, she said -- she read her well-known poem Hills Brothers Coffee which I will post here in full:

My uncle is a small man.
In Navajo, we call him, "shidá'í,"

my mother's brother.
He doesn't know English,
but his name in the white way is Tom Jim.
He lives about a mile or so
down the road from our house.
One morning he sat in the kitchen,
drinking coffee.

I just came over, he said,
The store is where I'm going to.
He tells me about how my mother seems to be gone
every time he comes over.

Maybe she sees me coming
then runs and jumps in her car
and speeds away!
he says smiling.
We both laugh - just to think of my mother
jumping in her car and speeding.
I pour him more coffee
and he spoons in sugar and cream
until it looks almost like a chocolate shake.
Then he sees the coffee can.

Oh, that's that coffee with the man in a dress,
like a church man.
Ah-h, that's the one that does it for me.
Very good coffee.
I sit down again and he tells me,
Some coffee has no kick.
But this one is the one.
It does it good for me.
I pour us both a cup
and while we wait for my mother,
his eyes crinkle with the smile and he says,

Yes, ah yes. This is the very one
(putting in more sugar and cream).
So I usually buy Hills Brothers Coffee.
Once or sometimes twice a day,
I drink a hot coffee and

it sure does it for me.
Who can argue with that? I ask you.

And I was so happy she read her sestina, the untitled one she wrote up in Taos in July -- we'd first heard it at a previous literary evening, shortly after she had returned from Taos. To hear it again last night was a treat. Of course I would have to hear it several more times and see it in print to be more than superficial about it. It's a sestina, after all, one of her favorite forms, and one of the most difficult to wrangle, too.

Hakim Bellamy is the Poet Laureate of Albuquerque, and he served as the energetic MC for evening, telling stories about his encounters with the honorees and his experiences since arriving in New Mexico eight years ago.

One of the others involved in last night's event was 516's board president, Arturo Sandoval, one of the leading figures pondering the Future of the Southwest. The video linked at his name brings us full circle. The Future is not at all what we might have imagined it would be, and whatever the Future might be in the end could well be discovered right here in the Southwest.

We live on the edge of forever, in what's been called "The Faraway Nearby." For a little while last night, Albuquerque felt like a small town again, as perhaps seventy five or a hundred friends and family gathered together to pay respect to one of their own, LaDonna Harris.

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