When artist Carly Feddersen graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe last year, the university encouraged her class to wear traditional regalia for the commencement ceremony. Feddersen, a Colville Tribe member who grew up in Wenatchee, had nothing meaningful to wear.
“I had to just wear the cap and gown. It was kind of heart-breaking,” Feddersen said. “Afterwards I thought, if I don’t get to carry on a passed-on tradition, how can I invent one for myself?”
The dress she created is a fusion of elements from the artist’s indigenous past and her current artistic innovations. Her wearable art will debut as part of a new exhibit, “Reservation X: Three Plateau Artists,” opening Thursday at the Richmond Art Gallery.
The exhibit will be part of citywide collaboration, “SATURATE,” organized by the nonprofit Spokane Arts. SATURATE seeks to shine a spotlight on Spokane’s diverse, yet under-recognized, artists of color during the month of February.
“Reservation X” will also feature the works of two other emerging, contemporary Native American artists from the Columbia River Plateau: Ryan Feddersen and Lee Sekaquaptewa. (Carly and Ryan Feddersen are sisters, and nieces of internationally renowned Native American artist Joe Feddersen.)
“Reservation X … is the ambiguous zone that artists freely cross between urban communities and reservations,” wrote Gerald McMaster, a First Nations artist and scholar. McMaster curated the original “Reservation X: The Power of Place” exhibit in 2000, which broke new ground for Native American artists grappling with the reservation as both sanctuary and prison. The reservation, McMaster observed, is not a static place, but always changing, and can be a source for those in search of “a dialogue with identity and community.”
The Richmond’s “Reservation X” exhibit will also explore the changing nature of Indian communities and the resulting liminality such spaces represent, said gallery co-founder Anne-Claire Mitchell. But this exhibit is more local, focusing on the viewpoints of three artists from the Columbia River Plateau. Tribal affiliations of the Plateau native peoples encompass the Spokane Tribe, the Kalispels, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, the Yakamas, and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, among others.
“This has been an artistically and culturally underrepresented group,” Mitchell said. “The whole idea of the show is to explore the gray area that contemporary indigenous artists are facing.”
That gray area has to do with dueling cultural contexts. Typically, a Native American artist is identified as either a “traditional Native artist” or as a “contemporary artist” operating within a Western contemporary art model, who just happens to be Native.
“So people like (Carly and Ryan Feddersen and Sekaquaptewa) and a host of others are demonstrating that you can exist (in both worlds) successfully, and that there really isn’t a definitive boundary between those categories,” Mitchell said.
For example, the dress Carly Feddersen created is an outward manifestation of the traditional and contemporary landscapes that define her “Indian-ness.” She cut the garment to mimic traditional Plateau style, but she adorned it with hundreds of smashed pennies that she has collected as souvenirs over the years from her own travels.
The dress is rife with cultural references to her traditional Native American background and to her own personal life. “I was able to transform a kitschy, souvenir object into a historical map of myself and where I’ve been,” Carly Feddersen said. “I found an app that could track where every coin came from.”
She noted that the invention used to smash souvenir pennies was introduced at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. That World’s Fair also happens to be where the “Peoples of the Americas” were on display for the first time. This attention-grabbing exhibit was of actual tribal people, who could be observed by curious passers-by, grinding corn and making baskets.
“The penny smashing machine was first used at the birthplace of cultural tourism,” Carly Feddersen said.
Smashed pennies may be a nontraditional material for a Native dress, but the element copper is commonly found in native art in this region. “The way the pennies move are like traditional jingle dresses that reflect light when you move your body,” Carly Feddersen said. “And a wedding dress would have been made with the best materials to show the bride’s worth.”
Ryan Feddersen, who is based in Seattle, is known for her work with a tongue in cheek humor, accompanied by interactivity to invite the viewer to engage with the irrationalities and hypocrisies of contemporary American culture. A recent project she created to contribute to the movement to halt the construction of an oil pipeline at Standing Rock was a set of snow globes with cracks in the acrylic, causing the black glitter inside the globes to leak out.
Ryan Feddersen has also created several large-scale interactive installations, including pieces for the Tacoma Art Museum, Bumbershoot and the Henry Gala. Two years ago, Spokane Arts commissioned Feddersen to lead a community-enacted temporary mural, “900 Horses,” at the Tribal Gathering Place at Huntington Park in Spokane.
Her piece for “Reservation X” is a large triptych, using vibrantly colored acrylic and swaths of vinyl. The work will reference, among other things, the coyote figure, the mass slaughter of the buffaloes, and structures used when tearing down houses to move people out. Gentrification, displacement and cultural destruction are prominent themes.
The coyote is the most hopeful figure. “The coyote is a trickster, who makes mistakes for us, so he can model consequences to help us learn from his errors,” Ryan Feddersen said.
In Plateau lore and epic stories, the coyote often dies and is reborn, but the fox brings him back to life by jumping over his bones three times. “I’m working with the idea of the coyote’s bones and creativity being intertwined,” Ryan Feddersen said. “And with the idea that we can bring coyote back through our creative endeavors.”
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