IAIA’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Santa Fe
August 16, 2018-January 27, 2019
“Anything or anyone you care for creates a responsibility for you,” reads a museum plaque beside Holly Wilson’s Guardian and Guide, one of six of the artist’s works currently on display at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts. In the piece, a small bronze-cast woman perches on the slope of a branch, surrounded by sterling silver fish. Her arms are positioned as if she has just landed, or is soon to take flight—her facial expression somewhere between confident duty and tentative concern. These silver fish, carving their own paths around the woman’s wooden island, are precious things, Wilson tells her viewers. Their value is inherent in their materiality: miniature silver bodies, like priceless earrings bobbing at sea.
Wilson’s (Delaware Tribe of Western Oklahoma/Cherokee) exhibition, On Turtle’s Back, draws its title from the Delaware Nation’s creation story: rains poured incessantly until the People asked their Creator for safety, and they were instructed to climb onto a hill. Just as the water reached their ankles, the hill began to shake and lift, revealing itself to be a giant, ancient turtle, or Taakox.
Each of Wilson’s sculptures depict the weight of caring for an entity that is fragile, yet simultaneously trusting in its ability to survive on its own. We Need a Hero spans the entirety of one of the exhibition’s walls, radiating outward like a bull’s-eye from its center, where a toy-sized child stands, chest puffed with a charade of toughness, on the wings of a bronze-cast paper airplane. Outward from the wall protrude other tiny planes, some crisp and others ragged and burnt at their edges. Among the outgoing airplanes fly incoming bombs, the size of small thumbs. “The blue bombs are just for practice and have no explosives, while the white ones with a yellow ring indicate that they are highly explosive,” writes Wilson. The child at the work’s center was sculpted from a reference image of Wilson’s son, and as a viewer, it’s impossible not to inherit both concern and pride for the small boy, his hands forming bee-sized fists at either side of his body, ready to take on the world without foresight of the immense dangers flying his way.
Another work, Bloodline, consists of dozens of bronze figures, inspired by a Native American story told to the artist by her mother when she was a child. This story, of “Stick People” who ran through the night and called her name, parallels Wilson’s own experience tracing her lineage and family back through history via birth and death records, in order to prove the quantum amount of blood required to be “on the rolls” as an American Indian. The wall-spanning sculpture is made up as much of the figures as it is of their shadows cast against the wall behind them, transforming the crowd into a seemingly endless and receding army. Leading the line are five short figures: Wilson’s two kids, as well as her three children who did not survive. The work holds souls past and present in a single breath, emphasizing the collaboration of ancestors and offspring in constructing a family.
On Turtle’s Back is an exhibition tasked with recognizing the downpour of rain, climbing the hill to safety, and lifting the People out of the flood, all at once. The cast miniatures that populate Wilson’s work allow us to enter these narratives with the curiosity of a child yet quickly remind us of the seriousness of loss, fear, responsibility, and, above all else, love.