Totem poles, turquoise jewelry, and clay pottery — these are the stereotypes of Native American art, but that’s not what you’ll find at the traveling exhibit We the People of Kituhwa. Instead you’ll encounter a series of photographs that document landscapes, landmarks, and Native American people, curated by Zara Ellis Sadler, the director of North Carolina’s Inter-Tribal Center for Social Change.
Thirty small-scale photographs (16″ x 20″) are divided into six categories: These Truths, Four Corners, Highway 441, New Beginnings, Sunshine on a Rainy Day, and the 25th Anniversary of the Red Earth Festival. Within each category are two to five photographs, most of them landscapes and portraits.
In “Our Day to Play,” a group of bare-chested men are caught playing an athletic game. Collapsed in a heap of arms and legs in the middle of a dried-out field, the men are oblivious to the new construction in the background. The sweaty, muscular men amid this deserted development emphasize the historical displacement of Native Americans. In “Miss Red Earth 1985,” a woman in tribal dress stands in a half-filled auditorium. We see her from behind with her head down, isolated in a room full of people. The close-cropped image creates a sensation of intimacy.
The strongest photographs in the series contain people, but unfortunately, there are not enough of them. Instead, photos of buildings, bus stops, and statues are plentiful, but uninspiring. Two mixed-media watercolors by Silvia Williams seem out of place. Abstract collages made from tissue and watercolors, “Soft Landscapes” and “Wrapped in Beauty,” are vibrant and full of movement, but they just don’t fit in, and they hang in the corner like uninvited guests.
When done well, art hung on the walls of a business can stop you in your tracks — MUSC’s Children’s Hospital is a great example of a hallway gallery where engaging art leaps off the walls. This venue, part of the North Charleston Convention Center, does not help this fledgling exhibit. Calling it a “gallery” is generous. In reality, it’s a hallway. Hours are posted as 9-5, yet when we arrived, no one was behind the desk, and the limited signage had people walking right by the exhibit. The simple frames and queasy sea-green matting don’t help either.
The North Charleston City Gallery has a long way to go if they want to attract art lovers from the downtown galleries. The abundance of opportunities for viewing art in neighboring communities should make them rise to the challenge with powerful exhibits. At the very least, the competition should justify a space that looks and feels like an actual gallery instead of a hotel lobby.
This is the fourth annual Native American Art Showcase presented by Sadler, a.k.a. QBIART1789 — and it will be her last in North Charleston, according to Arts Coordinator Ann Simmons. Simmons was recently made aware of a 2011 Cherokee One Feather article that states that Sadler was banished from tribal lands. She has been accused of claiming false affiliations with tribal artists and entities. Sadler couldn’t be reached for comment.