Each/Other at the Denver Art Museum spotlights a large-scale collaboration between Marie Watt and Cannupa Hanska Luger, artists long invested in community-sourced artmaking.
Each/Other: Marie Watt and Cannupa Hanska Luger
May 23–August 22, 2021
Denver Art Museum
Even though prominent Indigenous artists Marie Watt and Cannupa Hanska Luger are the headliners of Each/Other at the Denver Art Museum, it’s really the hundreds of collaborators from across the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, and Japan who merit equal attention. Their contributions of time, work, creativity, and emotional connection—in amounts large and small—shine through in several of the large-scale mixed-media works.
For Watt (Seneca, Scottish, German) and Luger (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota, European), it’s an approach to art-making that’s intentionally dependent on community outreach and shared creation, or ensuring that “art is a verb,” as they phrase it. The credo is wonderfully manifested in the work from which the show takes its title: Each/Other is a nine-foot-high structure in the shape of a she-wolf, blanketed with embroidered bandanas of many colors. The bandanas came to the artists by the hundreds, sent from a cross-section of people of various ages and ethnicities.
The exhibition as a whole consists of twenty-six mixed-media sculptures, wall hangings, and large-scale installations. The title work is tucked in a corner but commands attention whether viewed from a distance or up-close—the she-wolf’s glowing ceramic eyes notwithstanding.
Viewers are easily drawn to the individual bandanas, which are unique to their creators by way of texts and decorations. Altogether they reinforce the idea that whoever designed a particular bandana was passionate about art as not only a creative outlet but also a kind of activism, a bearer of messages.
Love, kindness, equality, and respect for the earth are common themes. Messages here and there are in Native languages. For instance, above the eyes is a bandana embroidered with “Hózhó,” the Navajo expression for beauty and harmony. Lower down, a red bandana displays “MMIW,” calling attention to missing and murdered Indigenous women. A white bandana with pink stitching proclaims “Dismantle All Colonial Systems Now.” Some messages reference the pandemic, as in “I Miss Your Embrace.” The wolf imagery is important, too, as it reflects the idea of kinship with animals inherent in Indigenous beliefs.
Inviting such large-scale collaboration means capitalizing on social media’s power to spread the word. Both Watt and Luger have large online followings, and the artists together made a short instructional video that garnered thousands of views on Instagram and Facebook.
Many of the bandanas were coordinated through Sttlmnt: An Indigenous Digital World Wide Occupation, conceived in Plymouth, England and originally developed as a month-long Indigenous encampment that pivoted to a virtual format due to COVID-19 considerations. Also contributing several handkerchiefs were students from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and—as the Denver Art Museum began organizing the show—local residents attending sewing circles. The pandemic forced many participants into Zoom meetings, but that didn’t stop conversations from flowing. It also led to families in isolation creating decorated handkerchiefs together.
Much of the coordination of gathering the completed bandanas, creating a steel armature for the she-wolf, and sewing pieces into a “pelt” took place at Camp Colton in Oregon, an affiliate of Stelo Arts & Culture Foundation in Portland. Luger was an artist-in-residence there in 2019 and 2020, and Watt is Portland-based, making it easier for the two artists to collaborate in the same space.
Interestingly, almost all of the approximately 800 bandanas are documented individually in photos as part of a forty-minute video on display next to Each/Other.
Radiating out from the she-wolf’s corner are several works each from Watt and Luger, representing several years of their own projects based on community collaboration. This is the first exhibition to feature their work together. Luger, for instance, is well-known for the Mirror Shield Project (2016) surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline. Here, viewers will find several of the mirror shields created by community members as well as a video documenting the day of mass protest.
Another stand-out social collaboration is Every One (2018), a re-creation of a 2016 photograph calling attention to the murders and disappearances of Indigenous women and LGBTQ people in the U.S. and Canada. Strings of more than 4,000 ceramic beads—made by community members and sent to Luger—make up the monumental piece.
One of the most commanding artworks by Watt is Blanket Stories, a stack several feet high of donated blankets, neatly folded and bearing hand-written tags sharing the significance of the blanket in the owner’s life. Also on display is Butterfly (2015), which Watt created with the help of sewing circles while an artist-in-residence at DAM. Featuring reclaimed wool blankets and tin jingles, it evokes the sights and sounds of powwow dancers.
Colorful enlarged text blocks on gallery walls get to the heart of why community participation matters and why it’s a necessary counterpart to the frequent perception of elitism in the art world. One text is especially telling, when Watt and Luger state, “You are now an accomplice. You are now a collaborator. You are now invested. That creates an empathy path, a way for us to embrace one another.”
After spending time with the exhibition, art makers and viewers alike are compelled to feel connected to each other despite different life experiences, maybe even to heal broken bonds, and to know it’s possible to create something larger than ourselves.
Each/Other: Marie Watt and Cannupa Hanska Luger continues through August 22, 2021 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 W 14th Avenue Parkway.