SANTA FE – California stars: Huivanius Pütsiv, currently at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, is an impactful exhibition of works by 14 prominent First California artists, including Kara Romero (Chemehuevi), Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannuck), Rick Bartow (Mad River Band of the Wiyot Tribe) and Jacob Meaders (Mechoopda Indian Tribe of Chico Rancheria/Maidu). The show creates a platform for the visibility and representation of California’s indigenous communities and artists—communities that have undertaken a long and sustained struggle for recognition—while highlighting Wheelwright’s history of collaboration with California artists, including early exhibitions of works by Fritz Scholder (Luiseño) , Harry Fonseca (Nisenan/Maidu/Native Hawaiian/Portuguese) and James Luna (Luiseño/Puyukitchum/Ipai/Mexican).
As exhibition curator Andrea Hanley (Dine) said. Hyperallergicthe show is titled after an unrecorded Woody Guthrie song, California stars, which was brought to life with music composed and recorded by Billy Bragg and Wilco in 1998 for their joint album Mermaid Avenue. The previously unreleased score was written by Guthrie just before he penned his iconic “This Land Is Your Land” in 1940. The song and its lyrics are equal parts dreamy and melancholy, opening with the lines “I wanna lay my heavy head tonight, on a bed of California stars’, signaling times of hardship as well as calm, respite and hope.
the subtitle, Huivanius Putsive, which translates as “stars with us/around us” from Chemehuevi’s language, grounds the idea of beauty, strength and constancy in the show and its artists. “I feel like when people think about what this means in terms of the stars with us or around us and First California in [the title] California Stars,” commented Hanley, “I really began to see the light and inspiration these artists have provided to the Native American contemporary art field for over six decades.”
The exhibit itself, which occupies multiple gallery spaces, feels precise, pointed, and complex, providing a broad survey of First California artists while illuminating the diversity of cultures within California’s tribal communities. A photo by Kara Romero points directly to the lived realities some tribal communities face: Two women wearing Chemehuevi dress tiptoe through a landscape littered with money, tribal ID cards and gambling chips, all littered with shells and local baskets. As the women wade through this colonial detritus, they hold hands, embracing their culture and identity as they carry it into the future, an amber-orange glow emanating behind them.
Towards the end of the exhibition is an entire gallery dedicated to the work of the late James Luna, anchored by the artist’s iconic photograph Half Indian/Half Mexican (1991). The triptych presents Luna in three frames. To the left he is seen in profile with long hair cascading down his back; to right, also in profile, with cropped hair and moustache; and in the central image he faces the camera, revealing in his bifurcated visage two aspects of his identity – distilled into an essentialized version of himself based on dominant cultural binaries that do not allow for fluidity and intersectionality.
The exhibition succeeds in illuminating the history of contributions to the shaping of contemporary art in the United States and abroad that have long been ignored and excluded from the standard Euro-American canon. “I’m trying to study the impact of multiple generations of them [First California] artists,” Hanley shared. “It’s important that audiences leave knowing how many significant First California artists there are who have made such an impact on the field.”
California Stars: Huivanius Puetsiv continues at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian (704 Camino Lejo, Santa Fe, NM) through January 14, 2024. The exhibition was curated by Andrea Hanley.