Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 23, 2022
Exposure: Native Art and Political Ecology Exh. cat. Santa Fe, NM: IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts and Radius Books, 2021. 240 pp.; 160 ills. Cloth $60.00 (9781942185901)
Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Santa Fe, NM, August 20, 2021–Sun, January 23, 2022
Exposure: Native Art and Political Ecology, installation view, IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Santa Fe, NM, 2021 (photograph by the author)

August 2021 saw the opening of Exposure: Native Art and Political Ecology at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico—a leading art venue in the global contemporary Native art scene. The show was an unprecedented response by fifty-four Indigenous artists (twenty of them in the APY Art Collective, an Australian Indigenous group) to the impact on Native peoples and the environment of the nearly seventy-six years of the Atomic Age. The 3,500-square-foot exhibition, spread out over four galleries, is an interdisciplinary mixture of forms and genres, and includes sculpture, video installation, photography, collage, glasswork, metalwork, fiber, paintings, and virtual-reality (VR) experiences. 

Exposure concentrates on the impacts of nuclear technologies on Indigenous lands and peoples. It is a container of Indigenous intellectual knowledges, scientific explanations, materials, metaphors, and perspectives from Australia, Canada, Greenland, Japan, the Pacific Islands, and the United States. As such, it is a valuable visual archive about the complexity of the nuclear revolution. Each of the works in the show presents a site of cultural fascination with violence and contradiction because it carries displaced historic ambivalences about alterity and power. From the Indigenous perspectives presented here, nuclear testing, nuclear accidents, and uranium mining are not just about the effects and affects for Native peoples and the environment that we can see but also about an ongoing, interplanetary deep space of fallout.

Knowing ahead of time that the exhibition involved fifty-four artists, six cocurators, and thirty-eight works of art, I honestly did not think that I was going to like it. My hesitation had two main rationales. One was that group shows of this size often have what one might call “haphazardly presented and confused art-fair vibes” that cause me to feel irritated by their mixtures of frames and burdened by unrelenting labels. The second reason for my doubts was the show’s multitribal presentation. I was prepared for an over-generalized collision between multiculturalism and a familiar decolonization platform. Instead, Exposure feels productive and uncompromised by its size. It is well researched, eloquently curated, and specific about the legacy of uranium, nuclear testing, and toxic waste, which has had detrimental impacts on Indigenous communities.

Exposure opened during the annual Santa Fe Indian Market—a gathering of Native art and artists in the United States that is unparalleled in both size and prestige. Since I was in town for Indian Market, I walked into MoCNA intending to do a casual first-impression walk-through by which I would suppress the urge to analyze. In other words, I wanted to experience the show during its opening and then return for a more in-depth review. Then I saw Kulata Tjuta (Many Spears)—a stunner. A collaborative installation created by artists from across the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands in South Australia, it pulled me in and I stood in awe of 550 suspended wooden spears hovering above an installation of hand-carved piti (coolamons/bowls). Internally lit by a single source, it casts intense shadow lines across the walls, floor, and ceiling, totally encompassing the space and representing atomic-weapons testing in Aṉangu country over sixty years ago. The shadows—as much a part of the piece as the physical sculpture itself—allude to the explosions’ “black mist” that caused illness and death among many. Kulata Tjuta is a poetic transformation of material that is both physical and conceptual. I have not seen a work of such elegance since Cornelia Parker’s Hanging Fire (Suspected Arson) of 1999. I only caught a fragment of the accompanying six-channel video installation with sound, but even without the film, Kulata Tjuta is a transformative piece of art.

After the first visit, the exhibition drew me back three times. Some works in particular, among the thirty-eight on view, have stayed with me. The 2017 piece Poise/end by Klee Benally (Diné) is part VR film experience and part sculpture. Placed on a white pedestal, Benally’s VR headset sits on top of a Cold War–style respirator mask connected by a tube to a metal shovel. Painted black and yellow, the surface of the piece is depicted as radioactive. When wearing the VR headset like a protective mask, the viewer sees—through Benally’s immersive, cinematic, 360-degree video—lands in the Navajo Nation that have been contaminated by over a thousand abandoned uranium mines, while hearing the voices of people who have been impacted by nuclear colonialism.

As nuclear exposure and uranium mining on tribal lands in the United States is widespread, experiences of radioactive colonization and the politics of nuclear waste are nothing new to tribal communities. Considering its discourse, Exposure’s opening in Santa Fe seems appropriate, as New Mexico produced half of the country’s supply of uranium from the 1940s to the 1980s, providing the raw material for the US nuclear weapons designed at Los Alamos, forty miles from Santa Fe. In fact, US government policies opened tribal land to uranium mining and then used Native bodies for the construction of Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the first atomic bomb was designed and built. The artists and curatorial team of Exposure show us that tribal lands are the sites of much atomic history and nuclear colonialism, and that the fallout continues to impact Indigenous communities in the forms of cancer, kidney damage, reproductive problems, asthma, lung disease, and birth defects.

From the beginning of the nuclear age, atomic tests were also widespread in Oceania. Dan Taulapapa McMullin’s (Sāmoa) photo collage Te Mau Ata: Clouds (2021) makes a strong showing among the massive sculptural and installation pieces that surround it. It includes images of Tahitian poet Henri Hiro, who led one of the first protests against nuclear testing in French Polynesia and fought for the enrichment of Polynesian culture during the 1970s and 1980s. The collage teems with activity: Hiro is positioned alongside images of the Bikini Atoll community that was forced to migrate in 1946 and an archival photo from the same year of an atomic-bomb-shaped cake being served in Washington, DC, to mark the disbanding of a task force that oversaw the first postwar atomic tests in the Pacific. Orange and gray clouds applied by hand in acrylic paint weave the images of popular culture together. The United States detonated an enormous number of weapons in the South Pacific. In an essay contributed to the exhibition catalog, MoCNA Chief Curator Manuela Well-Off-Man says that from 1946 to 1958 the United States conducted sixty-seven nuclear tests within the Marshall Islands, including at the Bikini Atoll. It is no wonder then, as McMullin elaborates in the label alongside the piece, that “many Polynesian translations, metaphorical interpretations including clouds, signal erasure of peoples as well as their environments.”  

Adjacent to this work is a 1990 etching by the late printmaker Carl Beam (Ojibway) titled Sitting Bull and Einstein. In it, three archival images of Sitting Bull are placed above a strip of six photographs of the physicist Albert Einstein. Stuart Hall’s model of encoding and decoding is useful here for understanding how contrasting “signs” derive meaning from their juxtaposed mixing of cultural binaries, such as Beam’s elements of Western systems of knowledge (Einstein) and Indigenous ways of knowing (Sitting Bull). The opposition and contrast between Einstein and Sitting Bull create an important comparison. With this in mind, Beam’s work is an Indigenous artistic strategy of juxtaposition. For an exhibit as ambitious as Exposure, it is difficult to take in every piece. The two works by McMullin and Beam discussed here may be unintentionally missed because of their smaller scale and two-dimensionality, but they are descriptive remixes of master narratives and stereotypes. Each of them constructs images of Indigeneity outside those shaped by US history and popular culture. As such, they assert Indigenous continuance and survival.

The Exposure exhibition is a cultural production that establishes meaningful acts of self-determination and social justice. Following calls by Native studies scholars Joanne Barker (Native Acts Law, Recognition, and Cultural Authenticity; Duke University Press, 2011) and Waziyatawin and Michael Yellow Bird (For Indigenous Eyes Only: A Decolonization Handbook; School of American Research, 2005) to establish strong foundations for the ideological decolonization of Indigenous peoples and lands, the curators of Exposure and the Indigenous artists represented therein are using art in experimental ways to create visual scholarship within a framework of social justice.

Each piece in Exposure offers a recognition of the sometimes brutal history that must be understood in order to prevent both the minimization and obfuscation of violence and power, and its consequences and misrepresentations that obscure historical truths. The hardcover catalog provides additional context. It is a complete resource of the exhibition with artist statements and colorful photographs of the work. The catalog also includes five interviews that address the history and impacts of uranium mining and exposure on the Indigenous population in New Mexico. The interviewees include museum professional Melanie LaBorwit, curator of Atomic Histories at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe, and Manny Pino, president of the Laguna-Acoma Coalition for a Safe Environment. In addition, there are essays that offer hemispheric studies on the impacts of nuclear testing, nuclear accidents, and uranium mining on Indigenous peoples and the environment by cocurators, art historians, scientists, and activists—interdisciplinary voices that offer insightful resources for teaching and learning.

The thirty-eight pieces in the show create a cultural critique of a violent political ecology that renders the human connection to destructive technologies invisible. Exposure is an affirmation that Indigenous art is a transformative platform for intellectual discourse and knowledge, creating a site of communality and global exchange.

Marcella Ernest
Department of Art History, University of New Mexico