Vertical Disintegration, a moving installation by Lakota-born, Omaha artist Sarah Rowe, closed last weekend with a ritual burning of visitors’ notes of prayers and wishes that were part of the month-long exhibit.
Vertical Disintegration highlighted critical and current dilemmas in today’s society—the growing economic divide between the rich and struggling people, as well as the encroaching environmental catastrophes we need to face and act upon before it’s too late.
Rowe’s exhibit was a worthy call to arms using her heritage as well as history to demonstrate conflicting attitudes toward Nature, race and class. Rowe used art objects, dance and ceremonies performed at various events held during the exhibit at the site, including a community potluck dinner with attendees writing on the walls their hopes for a more unified community and better future, as well as a Ghost Dance, which Rowe performed at another event.
The art exhibit itself was a large and carefully arranged display of cut logs of varying sizes, fit into a tight-fitting wood mosaic. Each cut piece bears one of two symbols, either a star pointing in the traditional four directions long used in Native American symbology, or simple black images of a person, faced in various directions, which would remind one of the Indian Head nickel minted by the United States Government long ago.
The reference to the minting of the Indian Head nickel suggests that the anonymous side views of this generic head falls woefully short in being able to express the richness and variety of the Native American traditions found in our country.
One would hope that this important exhibit would find other venues for many to see and appreciate. Rowe’s use of both traditional symbols and artistic presentation results in a subtle, yet contemporary power which could accomplish much in expressing the need for our society to look again at what we value as important against the balance of pending social and economic catastrophe in America’s next few decades.
The art objects hanging on the wall over the log arrangement consisted of five rectangular shapes painted in colors symbolizing the four directions and four tribes of people in the world, centered by a neutral gray shape with a circle design, which refered to the artist herself.
There was a nuanced beauty in these shapes. Made of plaster casts of Rowe’s body, they were beautifully uneven in both shape and color finish, which increased each piece’s beauty—elegantly and subtly finishing that part of the display—an aesthetically pleasing completion of the 3D work.
Hanging from each of the body casts were carefully constructed “spirit ties,” long used traditionally to prepare participants for a vision quest or other cleansing ceremony. Being small in size, the ties contributed a gestalt, or completion, both to their compositional finish and the extension down toward the logs, unifying the presentation.
Rowe’s goals in this exhibit were and are profound. The reference to the United States’ minting of the Indian Head nickel is calling for us, via storytelling and traditional imagery, to look again at how people are being dehumanized with today’s cultural spending habits and ignorance of the need for change. She is also calling for us to become caregivers of our precious lands, not allowing corporate greed to strip away what is essential to our survival.
Born and raised in Omaha, Rowe began as a youth painting scenery at the Omaha Community Playhouse and work in ceramics. She earned a BA in Studio Art at Webster University in St. Louis, traveling both to Vienna and the British Isles during college.
After graduation, Rowe returned to this area to live and work. She has worked here in art since 2004, and is featured in Joslyn Art Museum’s Art Seen exhibit, as well as honored for her solo exhibit at RNG Gallery in Council Bluffs. She is co-founder of Benson’s Sweat Shop Gallery