Organizing Curator, High Visibility
Executive Director, Art of the Rural
Matthew Fluharty, Hannibal, MO, December 2015
“It is significant that the common image of the country is now an image of the past, and the common image of the city an image of the future. That leaves, if we isolate them, an undefined present.”
– Raymond Williams, The Country and the City
Across the last decade of my time with the Art of the Rural organization, I have often shared these two sentences by the Welsh writer and critic Raymond Williams. Like many others of his generation, he was born into a rural community but his vocation led him far afield – into cities, universities, and the social upheavals of the twentieth-century. And yet, alongside his legacy as one of the founders of cultural studies, The Country and the City lives on – taking new meanings as a document that acknowledges and anticipates an increasingly overwhelming urban-normativity that imposes definitions, situations, and limits to the cultures, peoples, and communities beyond its perceived center.
In our moment of tumultuous political division, occurring in the midst of an isolating and devastating pandemic, perhaps one of the least contentious assertions one could make is that we live in “an undefined present.” And perhaps equally uncontentious: that the 2016 Presidential Election was a catalyst for how we understand the cultural contours of that condition. In the subsequent years since that vote, communities beyond urban areas have been represented, documented, and invoked in both nostalgic and derogatory ways – depending on one’s orientation to this present tense. It’s a kind of logic that reduces a deeply complicated and diverse geography to “Trump Country,” either as a damning critique or a sentimental celebration.
As all of these forces continue to unfold, High Visibility: On Location in Rural America and Indian Country welcomes into Plains Art Museum artists and culture bearers who trouble such an easy, reductive understanding of urban, rural, and Indian Country. Though their creative vision is richly varied, there’s a shared continuum in what I have loosely called “local practice,” how materials, relationships, and images become physical, visible methods resonant with the frequencies of lived experience and cultural tradition. Against the erasure and stereotypes of this present moment, this work communicates the singularity of individual experience and the interdependence of community, and, when welcomed together, we find moments of difference, contradiction, and startling adjacency.
Across work as divergent as that of Raven Chacon and Su Legatt, we come to understand the past and the future as entwined states of knowledge and experience – a circularity that invites, and implicates, all of us in the room. Whether through the embodied presence of southern Black hymn singing shared by Spiritual Technologies Project, the long-term relationship building of Xavier Tavera with migrant farmworker communities, or Jovan C. Speller’s multidisciplinary meditations on Black Land and community, we find sustenance, power, and a guidebook in multigenerational knowledge.
The survival and visioning present in Cannupa Hanska Luger’s Future Ancestral Technologies, and his upbringing on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, leads us to consider the place of the Oceti Sakowin Camp within the arc of recent years. Established in 2016, in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline’s incursion into the unceded land of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, the Oceti Sakowin Camp maintains a steady presence within this exhibition. As Nick Estes of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe writes in Our History is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance:
“The encampments were about more than stopping a pipeline. Scattered and separated during invasion, the long-awaited reunification of all seven nations of Dakota-, Nakota-, and Lakota-speaking peoples hadn’t occurred in more than a hundred years, or at least seven generations . . . Only in stories had I heard about the Oceti Sakowin uniting, its fire lit, and the seven tipis or lodges – each representing a nation – arranged in the shape of a buffalo horn.”
The generative space of what Estes calls “Indigenous notions of time,” how “an alternative future is also determined by our understanding of our past,” is a way to understand the profound significance of this gathering and its lasting influence. The solidarity between Native and non-Native peoples at the Oceti Sakowin Camp, and the exchange and learning that have emerged in the years since, provide a path through which individuals from many distinct cultural heritages have reconsidered their relationships and their intersecting futures. In the era of COVID-19, Marty Two Bulls Jr. carries forward such a defense of tribal sovereignty and ways of life, within the history of broken treaties, in his Lakota Quarantine Bandana.
And thus, when we dwell in the space of the exhibition, what emerges is not a preordained roadmap toward smooth commonalities between rural and Indian Country, but, instead, electric manifestations of difference. The work presented here goes great lengths to add contrast and depth to elements of the everyday landscape – as reflected by efforts such as the deer stands within Jason Vaughn’s photography, the Busch Light can shaped by the sculptural light of Karl Unnasch’s Husk, or a family’s history of dirt track racing compacted in Black Hornet #5 (Crush), by M12 Studio. While these efforts bring objects from rural life into the unlikely institutional space of an urban art museum, what lies underneath is a deeply complex questioning of inherent cultural legacies and the interior, emotional spaces we inhabit inside of them. And we see in the collaborative work of Shanai Matteson and Sara Pajunen, as with Chris Sauter, Athena LaTocha, and many others, how artists proceed from an intimacy with their own local and familial inheritance towards spaces of intercultural exchange.
The collaborative ethic we learned from these artists has extended to the organization of this exhibition and the public programming and media work to follow. High Visibility is collectively curated by myself and the Plains Art Museum staff: Andrew J. Maus, Director and CEO; Netha Cloeter, Director of Education & Social Engagement; Tasha Kubesh, Associate Curator of Collections & Exhibitions; and Joe Williams, Director of Community Education & Director of Native American Programs. We moved through this endeavor with an eye toward welcoming artists, artisans, and culture bearers whose work cultivated conversation, and correspondence, with each other. Infinitely more exhibitions, publications, and programs are needed to share the work created and the relationships stewarded across rural America and Indian Country; in that spirit, we resisted from the beginning the notion that High Visibility would serve as some kind of definitive survey. As these artists communicate so forcefully in this space, that kind of totalizing impulse is the very animus we must all compassionately reshape.
As the fall of 2020 gives way to the spring of 2021 and the May 30th closing of High Visibility, we are working with artists, culture bearers, and the organizations that support this work to share the content and spirit of these connections beyond the Plains Art Museum itself. This exhibition is the opening movement in a long-term partnership between the Plains Art Museum and Art of the Rural that seeks to join with many others in contributing toward the conditions for exchange and knowledge sharing across this region, and beyond. Please feel welcome to join us along this journey, and contribute to its progress in the months ahead by staying in touch online and in person at Plains Art Museum.