The first gallery of the contemporary Wabanaki art exhibition includes a birchbark canoe from the Penobscot Nation, a Maliseet man’s costume, and colorful two-dimensional pieces by Alan Syliboy, left, and Susan Sacobie. Photo by Bob Keyes

WATERVILLE — There is nothing old or tired about the art on view as part of a new Wabanaki exhibition at the Colby College Museum of Art. There are no arrowheads, yellowing documents or other reminders of the wars and broken treaties that have defined Indian life in Maine and across North America since the arrival of Europeans.

“Usually we are relegated to the anthropology museum,” said Penobscot artist James Francis. “I am honored that my art is being featured in an art museum. It’s art for art’s sake.”

The exhibition, “Wíwənikan … the beauty we carry,” is billed as the first major exhibition of contemporary Wabanaki art in an art museum setting, and it includes a range of material from Native American artists working today in Maine and the Canadian Maritimes. Visitors will see colorful and innovative baskets made from ash, canoes made from birch, woodcarvings, paintings, beadwork, clothing, costumes and accoutrements, as well as multimedia installations. Other exhibitions featuring native art have focused on artifacts from the past, the work of elders or various aspects of cultural history, said Theresa Secord of Farmington, a Penobscot basketmaker and 2016 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow and curatorial adviser for the exhibition.

James Eric Francis Sr., an artist from Indian Island, is showing an untitled acrylic painting at the Colby College Museum of Art. Image courtesy of Colby College Museum of Art

This show focuses solely on contemporary artists who, as co-curator Jennifer Neptune writes, are “bearing the beauty of their ancestors, their traditions, and the Wabanaki people into the future.” Two of the artists died while this exhibition was being put together. Otherwise, all the artists are living and working in Maine or Canada.

Wabanaki refers to the People of the Dawn, who represent the tribes of the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and Abenaki. Artists from all those tribes are included in this exhibition, which opened in July and is on view into January. Some are established artists known on a national scale, and that list includes Secord, brothers Jeremy and Gabriel Frey, Sarah Sockbeson, and others who have won national awards at Indian art fairs. Others, like the recently deceased master carver Pete Moore of Indian Township, are well known in their communities but not beyond them and, until this exhibition, have not been part of the art world.

Recognizing its lack of expertise on the subject and a dearth of Native American art in its collection, Colby turned to outside curators and consultants to assemble the exhibition. Neptune, a Penobscot basketmaker and beadworker, and also a registered Maine guide, co-curated the exhibition with Kathleen Mundell, a longtime Maine folklorist who has been working on indigenous art initiatives in Maine for decades. Secord and Gretchen Faulkner, director of the Hudson Museum of the University of Maine, consulted, as did tribal advisers.

Joe “Hugga” Dana carved birch “Snout Club” from 2002. Image courtesy of Colby College Museum of Art

The exhibition is told by contemporary native voices in content, message and tone. For Secord and other artists who have worked decades to transform Indian basketry from craft to art through their work with the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance and elsewhere, “Wíwənikan … the beauty we carry” represents a triumph of self-expression and cultural self-control.

“When I was director of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance, we visited Colby maybe a decade ago to explore the possibility of a basket exhibition at that time. They weren’t ready, and I would say that the basketmakers weren’t ready yet either, in terms of the some of the innovation and contemporary work you are seeing in this exhibition itself. Some of that work didn’t exist a decade or so ago,” she said.

It’s “a lifelong dream,” she said, “to have baskets in a major exhibition in a major art museum. This is really a first.”

Neptune, manager of the Penobscot Nation Museum and current director of the basketmakers alliance, agreed that “Wíwənikan” is a watershed moment for Wabanaki art and culture. “We’ve been trying for a long time to build momentum, and it’s happening. It’s great to see,” she said.

It’s been an evolution. The Portland Museum of Art included four Indian basketmakers in the PMA Biennial in 2015, and other museums across Maine – the Hudson at UMaine, the Abbe in Bar Harbor and the Maine Historical Society in Portland, in particular – have included contemporary Indian art in their exhibitions.

To be sure, “Wíwənikan” is much more than baskets. The dominant image in the exhibition is the canoe, and the overriding theme is a culture based on water, mobility and adaptability.

“Wíwənikan” is the Penobscot word for “portage,” or the act of carrying a canoe and its contents over land. Throughout history, Indian people have portaged around cultural obstacles, and the art on view at Colby represents the ideals and values that Wabanaki artists have carried with them over time, said Francis, a Penobscot photographer, filmmaker and graphic artist who focuses on the relationship between indigenous people in Maine and landscape.

“When you get to a portage, you make a choice: What are you going to bring forward, what are you going to leave behind,” said Francis, who is married to Neptune. “This is what we choose to carry forward, which is why the portage is such an apt metaphor.”

The first thing visitors encounter upon entering the gallery is an 18-foot birchbark canoe, built by many hands. Barry Dana, former chief of the Penobscot Nation, helped reintroduce the art of traditional birchbark canoe-making on Indian Island in the early 2000s. The canoe in this exhibition came out of that effort, which lasted several years and resulted in four canoes and the revitalization of birchbark canoe-building across Wabanaki lands.

Neptune and Mundell situated the canoe close to the ground, so visitors can walk around it and absorb the details of its construction, with the birchbark and cedar stripes sewn together with spruce roots, the texture of the material and general authenticity. They placed baskets inside, conveying the idea that the boat is not a sacred artifact.

“What I like about the canoe being there, you can see where people have been stepping into it. That canoe has been used,” Dana said. “That canoe is so much more than a nice thing. It’s beautiful, but it’s symbolic of thousands of years of living in Maine.”

He appreciates that the canoe is center stage in the exhibition – as it should be, he insists. “Birchbark, by all accounts, is the most important material in Wabanaki culture. So many thing depend on it – for shelter, for clothing, food, medicine, for transportation, for baskets. The birch tree is the one tree of the Wabanaki that produces so much,” he said.

Dana also built a wigwam for the exhibition, constructing it on a patio outside the museum, lugging poles and many sheets of bark up two flights of stairs. He’s built them in various locations over the years, including on an island in the Penobscot River that was accessible only by boat. “It was so cool to do one in the traditional environment,” he said. “This one is about as far as away from the traditional environment as you could get. It was a challenge.”

Dana credits the museum staff for allowing the curators to tell the story from the inside out. “They listened. They actually listened. The Wabanaki voice comes through in a high-level art museum format. It’s a grand slam,” he said.

Dana also appreciates the contemporary nature of the exhibition. “Back in the day, I didn’t like walking into a museum and seeing native artifacts behind glass and signs that said, ‘Do not touch – this is what the Indians used to do.’ Everything was past tense. We deserve our place in history, but we deserve present-day recognition too.”

This exhibition does precisely that. It is full of work by artists who are pushing traditions, like Bangor designer Jason K. Brown who, with his wife Donna DeContie-Brown, creates jewelry and fashion that draws on Penobscot heritage. Among other items, Brown is showing what he calls a “Basket Inlay Cuff,” in which he presents a tiny brown ash basket atop an argentium silver bracelet that also includes deer antler, turquoise, granite and other material.

The artist Niskapisuwin, who formerly was known as Geo Soctomah Neptune, is showing a brilliantly dyed basket with a bird woven into its top to tell the story of blinding of the sun bird, which created lightness and darkness. The basket offers a prism of colors, moving from shades of light and dark blue at the bottom through to reds and yellows at the top.

“Apikcilu Binds the Sun,” an ash basket by Niskapisuwin, at the Colby College Museum of Art. Image courtesy of Colby College Museum of Art

Jeremy Frey is showing what he is calling his “Color in Winter” basket, an oblong-shaped basket dyed in red and black and topped with birchbark lid decorated with an image of cardinal perched on a branch.

A detail from Jeremy Frey’s “Color in Winter” basket, from 2019. Frey made it with black ash, sweetgrass, birchbark, porcupine quills and dye. Image courtesy of Colby College Museum of Art

In an essay for the exhibition catalog, Frey writes about the challenges of trying new things when coming from a culture that is steeped in generations of tradition. Basketmakers of his generation learned from a group of 10 to 12 weavers, and those dozen teachers were taught by their elders, and so on. “Me, I don’t know if I’d say I got into trouble, but I used to get talked to by my elders about changes to the design, about how I was wasting my time overworking the material, or how what I was doing wasn’t traditional,” he writes. “So I had to fight against that.”

At the opening in early July, Colby recruited Canadian musician and Juno Award winner Jeremy Dutcher to perform. Dutcher, who lives in Toronto, is a member of the Maliseet nation of New Brunswick. He won a Juno for his record, “Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa,” which is based on archival recording of traditional Maliseet songs. His brother, Shane Perley-Dutcher, is from New Brunswick and has art in the exhibition.

Diana Tuite, curator of modern and contemporary art for Colby who worked with the curators, consultants and advisers on the exhibition, expects Colby will build on the momentum and goodwill generated by the early days of the show. Her personal reaction to some of the artwork: “This is unlike anything I have seen anywhere, and why I am not seeing this more?”

We will see more of it in the future, she said. “It is very much our intent to continue to talk with and work with the communities that we have been introduced to through this exhibition and to continue to involve them with the museum and our programs.”


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