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Contemporary Chickasaw: ‘Visual Voices’ exhibit features emerging and established artists

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — “Visual Voices” traces the art of the Chickasaw Nation rooted cultural traditions and flowering into contemporary art.

Opening at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, “Visual Voices: Contemporary Chickasaw Art” marks the first time the museum has explored the works of this Oklahoma-based tribe. The Chickasaw people originally lived in the Southeast in areas of Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky. In 1832, they migrated to Oklahoma after being forced to sell their land to the United States government.

The show features more than 45 pieces produced by 15 emerging and established artists.

Dustin Mater, “Cosmic Warrior II,” 2015, mixed-media, acrylic on molded plastic, rabbit fur, deer antler, blackslip oyster shell, canvas.

“Most of our audience is not familiar with Chickasaw artists,” curator Manuela Well-Off-Man said. “So many of them are overlooked talents.”

Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby wanted more tribal representation in Native art shows, so he formed a board of five artists.

“They contacted me,” Well-Off-Man said.

Many of the artists explore oral histories, transforming the stories into contemporary art.

Jewelry artist Kristen Dorsey was inspired by the stories of Panther Woman.

According to oral tradition, the Panther Woman is a heroine whose leadership defended her village. She was a communicator, strategist and woman warrior.

Kristen Dorsey, “What Fuels Leadership?” 2017 series of two gorgets. Fine silver, copper, black rhodium plate, solar panel, leather, plastic, LED lights, batteries, 18-inch cord.

“They actually had women fighting alongside the men,” Well-Off-Man said. “They had to defeat (Hernando) de Soto in the 1540s. She became known for her courage.

Dorsey’s gorgets, or breastplates, reflect more contemporary issues.

“The Chickasaw had gorgets before the Europeans ever arrived,” Well-Off-Man said.

Gorgets indicate both protection and the high rank associated with leadership.

One of Dorsey’s gorgets resembles the dark drips of an oil spill; the other flashes a solar panel.

“She criticizes the leadership,” Well-Off-Man said, ” – the tribal leaders who work with the oil companies.”

Bill Hensley, “Young Chickasaw Man,” 2014, acrylic on canvas. ( Courtesy of The IAIA Museum Of Contemporary Native Arts)

Bill Hensley’s painting “Young Chickasaw Man” melds a photograph with geometric designs inspired by family members.

Dustin Mater’s “Cosmic Warrior II” “Star Wars” stormtrooper helmet with deer antlers weaves the traditional with pop art.

“It looks like something from an anime story,” Well-Off-Man said. “He does it on purpose to attract tribal members’ kids.”

Mater also created wooden Ninja Turtles wearing traditional Chickasaw dress.

Tyra Shackleford finger-wove a white shawl symbolizing “The Lady,” a female Chickasaw leader from the 16th century.

Tyra Shackleford (Chickasaw), “The Lady,” 2017, soy silk yarn.

“Most people are familiar with their hand-woven sashes,” Well-Off-Man said. “They push the boundaries of their technique. It’s almost like lace,” she continued.

The work’s large size (10 feet by 6 feet) and delicate, complex weaving pattern hints at the important role of women in Chickasaw culture and society. The shawl seems large enough to symbolically cover and “protect” several people.

The title refers to The Lady of Cofitachequi, a powerful Muskogean-speaking female chief whom de Soto and his army encountered in 1540.

Shackleford was especially inspired by the description in De Soto’s chronicles, “When the expedition first viewed this female ruler, she was carried on a litter covered with a white cloth. When I read the description of this woman I imagined how revered and respected she was by her people. De Soto forced her to go with him on his raids for gold; however, she managed to flee.

“She is the symbol of resistance,” Well-Off-Man said.

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