SANTA FE DREAMERS

The very first time I met with a group of forward-thinking Chickasaw artists later known as the Chickasaw Artist Board, we were gathered around a heavy oak table at Cafe Plaid in Norman, Oklahoma, to explore the idea of a touring art exhibition. Our discussion quickly turned as creative conversations do from casual dialogue to vigorous brainstorming. We laugh now remembering how little we knew then about creating an art exhibition, eagerly contemplating the possibilities connected to a large, single-tribe touring exhibit. Yet we zoomed full throttle with the ease of an Indian Thunderstroke engine outside the margins of first-time exhibit developers and dared to articulate our dreams:

First, to bring a Southeast tribal aesthetic and the ingress of Chickasaw culture onto the landscape of contemporary Native arts; and second, to exhibit in Santa Fe, New Mexico, during its annual Indian Market.

This year, this August, that five-year-long dream materialized. On Friday evening, Aug. 16, Visual Voices: Contemporary Chickasaw Art touring exhibition opened at IAIA Museum of Contemporary Arts (MoCNA) during the 2019 Santa Fe Indian Market. Together Chickasaw artists and others entered MoCNA’s freshly-installed galleries for the Visual Voices opening reception, engulfed in a space that can only be described as exhilaratingly beautiful, as overwhelmingly Chickasaw. The cool gray walls and warm wood floors were welcoming hosts to a dialogue of artworks—Billy Hensley’s multi-color-striped ancestral paintings, Joanna Underwood’s conceptual Prayers Rising and sacred fire at its center, Daniel Worcester’s dancing hatchets, and Paul C. Moore’s sculptures beckoning guests, “Come! Minti! Chikashsha Poya!”

More than 700 visitors flooded the galleries of MoCNA that evening, joining a Southeast soliloquy of artworks, such as Margaret Wheeler’s life-size “Leda,” or her towering crow’s beaded-and-silver, piercing gaze from “Murder of One,” and Brenda Kingery’s abstract narrative, “230 Pow Wow,” a slow-motion capture of dance and ribbon and sway. Numerous other artworks—Joshua Hinson’s generational portraiture, Maya Stewart’s high-fashion design, Norma Howard’s General Store, among others—were patient to tell their Chickasaw stories, too, each unique, but collectively diverse.

As awakened dreamers, we offer our profound gratitude to the incredible leadership and staff of MoCNA for hosting Visual Voices, and also to those who have exhibited Visual Voices so beautifully beforehand—the University of Oklahoma Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, Norman, and the Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson.

We give very special thanks to the Chickasaw Nation for their continued confidence in and support of this work, to the assistance of The American Indian Cultural Center and Museum, and to the Visual Voices profoundly talented co-curators, Manuela Well-Off-Man and Karen Whitecotton.

Although the Plaid Cafe closed its doors for business a few years ago, we hold those earliest moments, those formative dreams close alongside many others that birthed this exhibition. We were newbies, novices, barely know-nothings in the vastness of museology, but the artistic fervor of the Chickasaw Artist Board and the dedicated work of each and every Chickasaw artist, whether in this exhibition or working in other fields, make visible their love of Chickasaw art and self-determination for cultural continuance. It is our great joy to realize these dreams in Santa Fe at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Arts (MoCNA).

Chokma’shki!

—Laura Marshall Clark, (Muscogee Creek) Exhibition Program Manager and Forever Fan of Chickasaw art and artists

Photo credits: MoCNA, Holly Wilson, Visual Voices artists and supporters

Our Beginnings

Pictured from left: Laura Marshall Clark, exhibition program manager, Chickasaw artists Margaret Roach Wheeler, Dan Worcester, Brent Greenwood, Joanna Underwood Blackburn and Kristen Dorsey.

Pictured from left: Laura Marshall Clark, exhibition program manager, Chickasaw artists Margaret Roach Wheeler, Dan Worcester, Brent Greenwood, Joanna Underwood Blackburn and Kristen Dorsey.

We are proud that the Visual Voices: Contemporary Chickasaw Art exhibition was launched by an all-Chickasaw artist board with the goal of introducing our art, history, and culture to the world. As working Chickasaw artists, our real life experiences informed this mission.

To understand who we are as artists, you must first understand our tribal nation’s connection to it’s Homelands in the Southeast. Our ancestors lived on beautiful lands spanning from northern Mississippi, western Tennessee, and northern Alabama. We call this region the Homelands, and it was filled with diverse habitats ranging from aquatic forests to prairies filled with wildflowers. Our ancestors developed agriculture systems, scientific innovation, a robust economy and rich cultural practices. City centers rose up around great earthworks called mounds. Our artists crafted copper, shell, fiber, wood, stones and pearls into objects of beauty and meaning. Our culture was constantly transforming and evolving as we reached new heights in artistic excellence. 

Images from a recent Homeland tour in Mississippi

The center of the Chickasaw Nation now sits in south central Oklahoma where we were removed to on what we call the Longest Walk, or the Trail of Tears. The Removal period is a dark chapter of American history. Many of our people died on this brutal journey to what is now called Oklahoma. These events impacted generations of Chickasaws, however, our ancestors were resilient—because of their strength, we are thriving today. We are now reconnecting to our Homelands and are the architects of a bright future.The artists in Visual Voices are actively revitalizing pieces of our culture, from the pottery of Joanna Underwood, to the finger weaving of Tyra Shackleford, to the shell carving of Dustin Mater, our ancestors sing through each piece.  

So far Visual Voices has traveled to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, Norman, Okla., and the Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson. On August 16th it opens at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe. We invite you to join us for the opening festivities including the reception on the 16th at 5:00 pm and a special gallery talk with three artists at 9:00 a.m. on Saturday, the 17th. 


-Kristen Dorsey, 

Vice Chair, Visual Voices Board of Directors