California Stars: Huivaniūs Pütsiv, currently on view at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, an influential exhibition of works by 14 prominent First California artists including Cara Romero (Chemehuevi), Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock), Rick Bartow (Mad River Band of the Wiyot Tribe), and Jacob Meders (Mechoopda Indian Tribe of Chico Rancheria/Maidu). The show creates a platform of visibility and representation for Native communities and artists in California – communities that have made a long and continuous struggle for recognition – while simultaneously highlighting Wheelwright’s history in collaboration with California artists, including the first exhibitions of works by Fritz Scholder (Luiseño), Harry Fonseca (Nisenan/Maidu/Native Hawaiian/Portuguese), and James Luna (Luiseño/Puyukitchum/Ipai/Mexican).
As the curator of the exhibition, Andrea Hanley (Diné) said. Hyperallergicthe show is titled after Woody Guthrie’s unrecorded song, California Stars, brought to life by music composed and recorded by Billy Bragg and Wilco in 1998 for their joint album Mermaid Avenue. The previously unpublished music was written by Guthrie before writing his iconic “This Land Is Your Land” in 1940. The song and its lyrics are equal parts dreamy and melancholic, beginning with the lines ” I want to rest my heavy head. tonight, in a bed of California stars,” marking moments of hardship as well as calm, rest, and hope.
The subtitle, Huivaniūs Pütsiv, which translates as “stars with us / around us” from the Chemehuevi language, based the idea of beauty, power, and permanence on the show and its artists. “I feel like when people think about what the stars mean to us or around us, and First California in (the title) California Stars,” Hanley commented, “I’m really starting to see the light and inspiration that these artists have provided to the Native American contemporary art field for more than six decades.
The exhibition itself, with multiple gallery spaces, feels precise, focused, and complex, providing a broad survey of First California artists while at the same time illuminating the diversity of cultures within the Tribal community in California. A photograph by Cara Romero points directly to the lived realities faced by some Tribal communities: Two women in Chemehuevi dress tiptoe in a scene full of money, Tribal ID cards, and gambling tokens, all spilled from Native shells and baskets. As the women wade through this colonial detritus, they cling to each other, embracing their culture and identity as they carry it into the future, an amber-orange glow from behind them.
Near the end of the exhibition is a full gallery dedicated to the work of the late James Luna, anchored by the artist’s iconic photo “Half Indian/Half Mexican” (1991). The triptych shows Luna in three frames. On the left, she is seen in profile with her long hair flowing down her back; on the right, also in profile, he has close-cropped hair and a moustache; and in the central image, he faces the camera head on, revealing his bifurcated face in two parts of his being — distilled into an essential version of himself based on the dominant cultural binary that does not allow the fluidity and intersectionality.
The exhibition succeeds in illuminating a history of contributions to the formation of contemporary art in the United States, and abroad, that have long been ignored and excluded from the standard Euro-American canon. “I tried to explore the multi-generational impact of these (First California) artists,” Hanley shared. “It’s important for the audience to walk away with the knowledge of how important First California artists are, who have had such an impact on the field.”
California Stars: Huivaniūs Pütsiv continues at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian (704 Camino Lejo, Santa Fe, New Mexico) through January 14, 2024. The exhibit is curated by Andrea Hanley.