Substance of Stars at the Heard Museum in Phoenix elevates the sky knowledge and origin stories of four Indigenous peoples.
Substance of Stars
November 6, 2022–ongoing
Heard Museum, Phoenix
Numerous Indigenous knowledge holders, guest co-curators Sean Mooney and Chuna McIntyre (Central Yup’ik), and the Heard Museum collaborated to create the new permanent exhibition Substance of Stars, which centers public-facing elements of origin stories and sky knowledge for the Haudenosaunee, Yup’ik, Diné, and O’odham peoples.
The exhibition primarily includes pieces drawn from the museum’s collection, with new works commissioned for this show. Museum materials note that the title suggests ways Indigenous stories and knowledge provide “the inspiration, logic, and wisdom underlying all Native American art.”
Visitors first enter a new gallery called the Sky Dome, where constellations that shift with the seasons are mapped overhead and videos filmed on the lands of each community play, one after another, on four walls. Together, they allude to themes that recur throughout the exhibition, including the relationship between Mother Earth and Native knowledge.
Afterward, viewers traverse gallery spaces organized primarily according to tribal community, where they encounter traditional and contemporary artworks in multiple media such as baskets, carvings, masks, paintings, textiles, vessels, and videos. Artworks and text panels effectively draw visitors into specific cosmologies central to particular communities.
Ernest Smith’s (Tonawanda Seneca, Heron Clan) 1936 painting Sky Woman, for example, references the first ancestor of the Haudenosaunee peoples, who brought humans to Turtle Island (North America). Thomas “Breeze” Marcus’s (Tohono O’odham) painting Stars Over Ce:dagi Wahia (2022) references Jewed Makai (Earth Medicine Man), a supernatural being and creator of the stars in O’odham cosmologies.
By showing works from various communities that reveal both common threads, such as human connections to the land, and differences in origin stories, the museum signals the vast diversity of Indigenous cultures, countering the myth of Indigenous homogeneity.
While magnifying intersections of storytelling, traditional knowledge, and materials inherent in Indigenous artworks across geographies and periods of time, whether through a string of wampum beads from the early 17th century or seashells etched with fermented Saguaro fruit in 2021, the exhibition collaborators succeed in illustrating the foundational connections between Indigenous cosmologies, art, and identity.