If a statue offered you a slice of watermelon, would you take it? Normally, my answer would be no—yelping in fear and running away would be far more likely—but after my latest visit to Boise Art Museum, I have to say I'd make an exception for Randall Chitto's Koshare Turtle Storyteller. It's a charming black-and-white striped turtle figure standing on two legs, with its mouth open as though in song and two corn husk tufts festooning its head. Smaller turtles cling to it, and it's holding aloft a plate of bright red watermelon, offering up a slice to the viewer. Accepting politely seems the best (and only) option.
- Ada Suina, Storyteller, n.d., natural clay and slip, 10.5" x 8.5" x 9", Gift of Joan H. and John B. Carley, Boise Art Museum Permanent Collection.
Chitto's turtle is one of a half-dozen clay storyteller sculptures in the new BAM exhibition Ceramics and Textiles from the Southwest, made up of more than 65 art pieces from Native American artists across the Southwest that were donated by Boiseans Joan H. and John B. Carley from their personal collection. The exhibition opened May 4 and will run through Sunday, May 10, 2020. Along with the storyteller statues and those of other figures and animals, it includes ceramic vases and jars, and textiles like woven rugs. The Apache, Choctaw, Hopi, Navajo, Pueblo, Tohono O'odham and Wyandot tribes are all represented.
Though many of the pieces in Ceramics and Textiles from the Southwest were beautiful—one, a clay and slip vessel crafted by Acoma Pueblo artist Dorothy Torivio and called simply Jar, featured a hand-painted black-and-white design that was particularly stunning—none caught my imagination quite like the storytellers. They were represented across multiple tribes, each with its own color scheme and style. All of them featured a large central figure with smaller creatures—sometimes children, sometimes animals—gathered in their arms or perched on their laps.
- Snowflake Flower, Storyteller, n.d., natural clay and slip, 7.5" x 5" x 4", Gift of Joan H. and John B. Carley, Boise Art Museum Permanent Collection.
"People with the Cochiti Pueblo traditionally speak a dialect of Keres, a language with no written component," read a sign under storytellers molded by artists Juanita Inez Ortiz, Snowflake Flower and Ada Suina, all of the Cochiti Pueblo tribe and working with the color scheme of off-white, orange and black. "Storytelling is a significant part of Cochiti culture, and ceramic storyteller sculptures like these represent elders partaking in this custom while younger Cochiti members listen, Storytellers often take the form of humans, and can also be depicted as animals, including frogs, owls and turtles."
Chitto, whose sculpture held the oh-so-tempting watermelon in a display case nearby, is partial to turtles.
"The turtle is Randy's primary subject, for turtles have always been considered the Choctaw's story keepers and storytellers," his website reads. "The turtle keeps narratives shielded and protected under its shell until it is ready to share them."
- Nanette Loretto, Jemez Pueblo, Polychrome Jar, late 20th-early 21st century, natural hand-harvested clay and slip, 7” x 8.5” diameter, Gift of Joan H. and John B. Carley, Boise Art Museum Permanent Collection.
In an adjacent set of galleries hung another exhibition of Native American-focused art with a more somber tone. Before coming to rest in front of the storyteller statues, I'd walked through Cowgirls and Indians, an exhibition by artist Sarah Sense that will be on display through Sunday, Nov. 3. Sense is of Choctaw and Chitimacha descent, and her exhibition blends photographs of the Bayou Teche (a sacred wetland running through the Chitimacha reservation in Louisiana) with movie posters, historical etchings, actor shots from Wild West flicks and her Choctaw grandmother's memoirs. Those elements are literally woven together using traditional Chitimacha and Choctaw basket-making techniques, leaving them commingled and partially obscured. Sense said the merging is both an exploration of family history—she told me later that she sees her Texan grandmother Rita as the cowgirl, and her Choctaw grandmother, Chillie, as the Indian princess—and a critique of stereotypes perpetuated by everything from colonialist rhetoric to Hollywood.
Speaking to me from Bristol, England, where she's working on a fellowship, Sense said, "I think the imagery is really simple to grasp. It's stereotypes of cowgirls, of Indians, it's stereotypes of women, it's stereotypes of Native women, and I'm trying to break that down and take it apart."
- Sarah Sense, Cowgirl and Clint Eastwood with Guns, 2018, woven archival inkjet print on bamboo and rice paper, wax, and tape, 32” x 48”, courtesy of the artist.
Photographs of cowgirls in tiny shorts with smoking guns are juxtaposed with solemn-faced Native American women; depictions of Custer, Tanto and the Lone Ranger, and Sitting Bull; and shots of celebrities like Gary Cooper, Kevin Costner and Marilyn Monroe. The most powerful work was a large tapestry called Melancholy Fate, made from a serene, woven photograph of the bayou overlaid by this quote: "The melancholy fate which has befallen the Indian race, and which overhangs the remnant of these victims to our power."
The quote came from an article published in The Quarterly Review in the 1800s, at a time when a group of Native Americans had been brought to London and forced to perform in the Piccadilly Circus. "They're either disgusting or they're interesting," Sense said of the mindset regarding Native American "savages" at the time, adding that she found The Quarterly Review's critique of colonialism powerful in contrast.
For a long moment at BAM, I stood frozen in front of Melancholy Fate, peering into the bayou's dark water with a new sense of foreboding. It was a feeling that pervaded Sense's whole exhibition—no doubt purposefully.
While Sense has been working on this type of art since 2004, she said it feels particularly relevant in today's political climate, which gives certain voices air time and silences others. In her work, she advocates for indigenous rights, women's rights and land rights.
"Is it relevant right now? Absolutely. Was it relevant 15 years ago? Yes, it was. But there's a different urgency that is being realized right now," she said.