SANTA FE — “What is most exciting about the exhibition is the experimentation that each graduate student took on,” says Dakota Mace, who is an Artist Mentor at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). Beyond Mastery, continuing through June 30, features work by the inaugural Master of Fine Arts in Studio Arts (MFASA) cohort at the IAIA, exhibited off campus at the Coe Center and the Container gallery. Mace called this exhibition the first of its kind because it challenges Western colonial approaches to art-making, education, and its hierarchical structure. Many of these artists produced work on different scales and using mediums they had not considered previously. The program’s Indigenous pedagogical aims and methods allowed each artist to push their conceptual practice beyond, resulting in a stunning and thought-provoking show.
Beyond Mastery collaboratively interrogates the idea of gaining “mastery” and an MFA from an Indigenous perspective. This two-year program, “provides a professional degree in Studio Arts while allowing students to live at home and continue participating in work, family, and community,” and includes intensive summer and winter residencies on the IAIA campus in Santa Fe. Director Dr. Mario A. Caro states that the program centers mentorship, supporting individualized study plans and art practices, along with expanding community relations. Because of this Indigenous pedagogical framework and mission, the Artist Mentors enthusiastically signed on to participate, while maintaining their own practices and careers in their communities. Artist Mentor Tanya Lukin Linklater shared, “In my experience and understanding of Indigenous practices, we are continuously learning over our lifetimes.” Centering an Indigenous lifelong perspective provides space to take risks and produce innovative thesis work.
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“Where else can you say all your mentors are Indigenous?” asks artist and graduate student Margarita Paz-Pedro. Many students applied to IAIA because of this radical and unique representation within academia and arts institutions. Even with all Indigenous mentors, though, it is essential to highlight the diversity of their tribal affiliations, histories, homelands, and interdisciplinary art practices and methods. Student Carmen Selam shared, “What I love about IAIA is that you don’t have to do the whole ‘Indigenous 101,’ because there’s already a context for Indigeneity, so you’re able to really focus on the work and growth.” Many of the artists came into the MFA program with decades of experience and developed practices, yet every artist undertook a new interdisciplinary work.
Dr. Caro notes, “The first year is all experimental; we try to break people out of their discipline […] and encourage them to play, make mistakes … [and] grow as artists.” Academic disciplines usually function as a system of rules within a field, but at IAIA there’s a commitment to foster unstructured creative inquiry. Pulitzer Prize recipient and Artist Mentor Raven Chacon wants students to know, “It’s okay to make things that you don’t know exactly the outcome. And you may fail. Because that is what an experiment is.” Many students identify the mistakes, along with creative explorations, as part of the growth process; this approach provides the possibility for transformation beyond one’s practice. For instance, Shane Hendren entered the program with more than 30 years of experience as a metalsmith and jewelry maker, but during his first year, he turned his attention to filmmaking, working with Artist Mentors like Chacon and Anna Hoover. Hendren’s films document intergenerational historical, personal, and environmental storytelling. “Matanza” presents a pig butchering to honor the life of Larry Ortiz while contextualizing Genízaros, descendants of Native American captives, in New Mexico. Collaborating with his family and Navajo community, the films “Grandma Said” and “Grandma Says Diné” impart knowledge exchanged through oral and active listening, while “Sunup to Sundown” is a montage film of his meditative practice of watching sunrises and sunsets and is projected in a round stock tank filled with water.
At the Coe Center, all the artists utilize innovative installation techniques. Margarita Paz-Pedro shifted from production pottery to a multidisciplinary conceptual practice. “Parts of the Whole” is a large installation that interrogates how knowledge is produced and shared through history, land, structures, and relationships. Traditional pottery designs are painted directly on walls as monumental murals and adobe bricks that serve as abodes or habitats for her ceramic pottery, and shards.
Dominick Porras said that working with Artist Mentor Jackson Polys helped form his concept of “memory deposits,” or individual/community cultural story building (i.e., dreams, mythologies, lived experience), as valid forms of research. Porras’s interactive installation work, “p’Akenmamm,” includes a large-scale net that hangs from the ceiling, inviting the public to interact with and touch it, which triggers a video projection of fish. His films “Culture Confidential: Talking Stones” and “Simulation: Voladores” employ digital 3D sculpting/animation and investigate Mesoamerican cosmovision/cosmology and environmental consciousness. Interdisciplinary artist Nika Feldman is interested in making visible the unseen exploitation of land labor in textile and fashion production. Her haunting hanging installation of white t-shirts, titled “Kriah and the Hungry Ghosts,” explores Jewish tradition, in which holes are cut in clothing, to illustrate grief/grieving. “Footnotes of Atrocity” is another part of a larger trilogy, titled Unmaking a Coded Call, and all these works explore her concepts of sartorial sabotage, schmatte prowess, and feminist chutzpah.
Carmen Selam’s interdisciplinary installation “Switch Dance” flows in a circular movement, much like powwow or dance, and welcomes the public to engage with that flow. She offers “new mourning protocols,” emerging from lived experience. They include large photographs and videos, along with seed bead buckskin bags — “23 Tamish” and “The Black Pearl.” As a Queer Indigenous past pageant queen who grew up on the reservation, she’s reevaluated her visibility and positionality in the arts, which she defines as “revolutionary,” and continues to highlight with her work.
Joseph (wahalatsu) Seymour, Jr., whose work is on display at the Container Gallery, states, “I work with whatever medium I can to preserve Coast Salish culture […] and mentors like Sara Siestreem took me to task on moving beyond a static image.” Because his traditional language’s alphabet is only about 50 years old, Seymour explained how important it was to include the language in his image making, as in “Enjoy Beautiful bastiqiyu.” In his paper weavings, like “Mesa in the Valley,” he deconstructs two archival documents and weaves a new image representing Salish agency. Angélica M. Garcia’s installation “El Altar Olvidado” includes some of her ventures in paper-making, sound, and film. Her work centers her maternal grandmother, Teofila Peña, who died on a coffee plantation in El Salvador. She intertwines personal histories with the violent realities and impacts of global capitalism. On opening night, Garcia performed a live serenade offrenda, or offering, which further activated the altar space.
Another artist working with paper, Susanna Mireles-Mankus expanded her painting practice by exploring larger-scale works incorporating text and bookmaking. She looks at the materiality of seeds and their symbolic cyclical potentiality. “Memories of Heat” is an accordion book incorporating watercolor, photo collage, ink, and poetics from her dreams and lived experience. The work journeys through land, dreamscapes, and potential futures.
Madelynn Boyiddle-Schoel, aka Madboy, placed her work outside the gallery space at Container. “Whole Bison Mindset” is a sculpture of an ear made from a butterfly chair frame, wire fence, packing foam, and other repurposed materials. Boyiddle-Schoel credits her environmental research findings and program mentors like Sara Siestreem for prompting her to “educate the already established educators,” with diverse methods of making rooted in sustainable arts pedagogical practice. Her art production has inspired her daughter to recycle and reimagine what kinds of things can be considered art supplies.
This cohort of students pursued their education and art practice during the pre-vaccine COVID-19 pandemic and completed their first year completely online. During their first semester, the cohort tragically lost their friend and colleague DeAnna Autumn Leaf Suazo. At their hooding graduation, her family was given an honorary certificate of recognition and a scholarship was established in her memory.
Beyond Mastery showcases the powerful creative openness of “continuous learning” in IAIA’s first MFASA cohort. Much of the public discourse around Indigenous traditions and history sets up stereotyped expectations of “Native art.” This exhibition instead illustrates how the IAIA is liberating and expanding truly beyond those expectations in and out of the art community.