ESMoA’s ‘Matriarchs’ explores the power of indigenous womanhood

By Christina Campodonico

Nanibah Chacon’s “Sky People” reflects Diné creation myths as it watches over the gallery

There are two sides to the Thanksgiving story.

In the traditional origin tale, the Pilgrims and Wampanoag people came together to share a meal in 1621.

For others, the holiday is a grim reminder of the first Thanksgiving proclaimed by Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop in 1637, celebrating a white settlers’ victory in a military campaign that killed or enslaved over 700 members of the native Pequot tribe. Today, some Native Americans honor those lives lost (and the many that followed) with a National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving.

With that in mind, ESMoA’s “Matriarchs” offers a timely opportunity for people of all backgrounds to pay tribute to Native American communities, especially the women who lead them. The exhibit exclusively features the work of 12 contemporary indigenous womxn artists — the “x” in “women” is inclusive of all female-identifying gender identities — and focuses on how these artisans are giving active voice to their communities on key sociopolitical issues.

“I see these artists … as being leaders of several movements,” says Kristen Dorsey, a local jewelry designer who makes work inspired by her Chickasaw heritage and has co-curated “Matriarchs” with Jaclyn Roessel, who is Diné (also known as Navajo).

Among them: an environmental movement to protect native lands from extraction of fossil fuels, the rise of a more visible LGBTQ+ movement within native communities, and a wave of activism to seek justice for murdered, missing and sexually assaulted indigenous womxn.

A basket with text from the now at-risk Violence Against Women Act woven into it, a traditional Chumash garb ornamented with plastic straws, and portraits of Native American figures swimming in pools tinged with an effluent hue (one photograph shows oil derricks in the background) are some of the pieces that tackle social or environmental issues head on.

“What I want this exhibit to teach people is that they can be active participants in these movements, like these artists,” says Dorsey, who explains that native womxn on remote reservations are especially vulnerable to sexual violence, often by non-native seasonal workers.

A 2016 National Institute of Justice Study found that more than a third of Native American women have been raped in their lifetime and a joint study by the University of Delaware and the University of North Carolina revealed that more than two-thirds of sexual assaults against indigenous women are committed by white and other non-Native American people.

The basket, woven by artist Shan Goshorn, “can teach you to call your representative,” continues Dorsey, “and the importance of reauthorizing [the Violence Against Women Act] and talking about murdered and missing indigenous womxn.”

A vibrant energy pulses through much of “Matriarchs,” which, true to its name, also celebrates the beauty and creativity of indigenous womxn, mothers and artists. A cradleboard sparkles with colorful beadwork and a playful “Baby on Board” sign, the image of a female nude with a vivid pink lotus concealing her womb pops off the wall, and a giant painting of a female figure from the world of Diné creation myths watches over the exhibit like a protective force.

To say “Matriarchs” has a motherly touch wouldn’t be going too far, as Dorsey and Roessel both gave birth during the course of putting the show together.

“I definitely think [motherhood] makes it so much more personal for me,” says Dorsey as she nurses her three-month-old daughter. “I want the audience to think about how they can become good ancestors to future generations.”

“I couldn’t think of a more timely moment to be in an all-womxn, all-indigenous exhibit,” adds participating Los Angeles artist Mercedes Dorame, whose environmentally-driven photographs and art installation meditate on her Tongva heritage. “I feel that all of those involved in the show are culture-bearers and fervent advocates for our cultures that refuse to be extinguished. We will continue to teach, pass down, explore and expand our visions as matriarchs.”

See “Matriarchs” between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Friday or Saturday (Nov. 23 and 24), or on most Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through Jan. 26 at ESMoA, 208 Main St., El Segundo. Admission is free. Visit esmoa.org for venue info.

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