Transformer: Native Art in the Digital Era

We Will Again Open This Container of Wisdom That has Been Left in Our Care), 2006, video still. Digital video projection with sound. Collection of the National Museum of the American Indian.

Transformer – Native Art in Light and Sound, the wonderful new exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian, forcefully makes the case that Native art didn’t stop at the 19th century, but rather continued to move and develop through to the present, when Native artists are employing contemporary materials such as light, sound  and computers to convey beliefs and customs across time.  Through their use of technology and electronic media, the artists in this show demonstrate how tradition and transformation combine to create art that remains culturally authentic, thereby challenging pre-conceived notions of what “Native art” should be.

Still Life #3, Raven Chacon, 2015, Sound and light installation with text. Voice and translation by Melvatha Chee. Collection of the artist.

When you enter the room housing  Raven Chacon’s Still Life #3, you may at first be captivated by the walls, which are bathed throughout the day in the glowing light of one of the four sacred colors:  white (dawn), blue (midday), yellow (dusk), and black/red (night).  As you move around the room to read the wall panels containing excerpts from the Diné creation story in both English and Navajo,  you’ll hear a voice, projected from row of speakers suspended from the ceiling, reciting other excerpts from that story. The speakers have a sound delay, which serves to dimensionalize the sound, moving it through both time and space. Chacon has combined the temporal and spatial aspects of both light and sound to give us a sense of his Diné ancestors moving from one world to another.

Four Generations, Jon Corbett, 2015, Single-channel video. Collection of the artist.

Jon Corbett is pursuing his doctorate, with the goal of indigenizing computer code based on the Cree language and concepts.  In Four Generations,  we have an idea of what this could mean.  Corbett has electronically created portraits of himself, his grandmother, his father and his son.  The images are created pixel by pixel, not in the usual grid pattern, but in a spiral, starting with the sitter’s right eye – think digital beading.  Once complete, the image begins to unwind and a new one begins to be created, connecting each of the sitters through a kind of digital DNA.  I especially appreciated this work, because one of the hardest things to do in cross-stitch embroidery is to create curved lines, since you’re stitching on a grid.

Aosamia’jij-Too Much Too Little, Jordan Bennett, 2017. Installation with commercial speakers, black ash, sweetgrass, medium-density fiberboard. Collection of the artist.

Jordan Bennett learned weaving from his aunties a few years ago.  His audio installation, Aosamia’jij-Too Much Too Little, features five speakers he built from scratch with the help of members of the Mi’kmaq people in his home community of Newfoundland, Canada.  Take a look a the speaker grills, which Bennett wove from split black ash and sweet grass, as well as white ribbons from his grandmother – they each have a  different pattern.  Against the opposite wall are black and white photos taken by anthropologist Frederick Johnson in 1931 on the Conne River reserve in Newfoundland.  As you look at the photos, listen – the speakers are playing the sound of the landscape in the images. 

detail, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Kevin McKenzie, 2015. Cast Polyurethane, acrylic, neon. Collection of the artist.

Kevin McKenzie’s Father, Son and Holy Ghost derives from his upbringing.  McKenzie was raised a Catholic, but in his teens, he started to embrace his indigenous culture and spirituality. Through his choice of objects and their lighting, his installation evokes a chapel and a honky-tonk.  He explained that the buffalo skull is a sacred object, the center of ceremony and tradition; these are made from super high-tech materials,  including liquid plastic and carbon fibre mesh cog (the neon is custom made).  McKenzie sees his work as being about aesthetics, both high-tech and ancient, but for me it reckons with two different religious traditions, and how they collide. 

still from Our future is in the land: if we listen to it, Julie Nagam, 2017, installation with digital video projection, sound, paint. Collection of the artist.

Julie Nagam’s installation, Our future is in the land: if we listen to it, wraps around the room.  Different segments of a landscape are highlighted, then individual inhabitants, such as a bird, a dragonfly or a wolf appear.  Sometimes you’ll hear nature sounds or music in the background; at other times, a voice talking about the trees.

The Harbinger of Catastrophe, Marianne Nicolson, 2017, Glass, wood, halogen-bulb mechanism. Collection of the artist.

You may want to spend some time with Marianne Nicolson’s ingenious installation, The Harbinger of Catastrophe.  In the center of the room is a glass bentwood-style box with carved pictographs that are projected on all four walls, rising and falling as the light  inside the box moves, bringing to mind stories of great floods.

There’s lot’s more to see in this exhibit, including the videos by Nicholas Galanin  of a hip-hop dancer moving to traditional music, and a traditional dancer in traditional dress performing a Raven dance to electronic music (photo at top of this story)

I really enjoyed this exhibit.  The Museum has staged several fabulous shows in the last few years that have expanded our understanding of what Native art is, and how Native artists continue to honor their traditions and culture while also being part of the larger contemporary  world.

Transformer – Native Art in Light & Sound  will be open until January 6th, but don’t wait ‘til then to see it at the Museum of the American Indian, One Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan.

Tinker Labs

Inspired by the artists and artwork in “Transformer,” visitors can explore the intersection of art, science and technology through hands-on, experimental activities in a tinkering and workshop environment. “Tinker Lab: Exploring Art + Technology” projects change each month and focus on a different artist and their work in the exhibition. The program begins in January 2018 and runs through June 2018 on the first and third Saturdays of the month. Admission is free, but an RSVP will be required; recommend for ages 9 and up. For exact dates and registration, visit

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