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).
—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