It’s very easy to forget how influential Omaha has been regarding major social changes in the United States. You probably know of Malcolm X, but few people know about author/poet John Trudell, who, like Malcolm X, was born in Omaha. Trudell, a Santee Dakota activist, engaged with the influential American Indian Movement that successfully fought against Indigenous oppression and substantially improved the lives of Native communities.
A current and enlightening art exhibition at Generator Space strives to enhance that perception. Comprised of Native artists working in the Omaha metro area, The People, The Human Beings at this Vinton Street venue derives its title from a quote by Trudell: “We’re too busy trying to protect the idea of a Native American or an Indian – but we’re not Indians and we’re not Native Americans. We’re older than both concepts. We’re the people. We’re the human beings.”
The collective takes from this quote a Pan-Indigenous approach to contemporary Native art and investigates diverse themes like personal family history and Indigenous symbology. In total, this exhibition features established artists, Nathaniel Ruleaux, Steven Tamayo and Sarah Rowe and student artist Lyla Rowe and Elliana SittingEagle. The many chosen artistic mediums are just as varied as the themes, with ceramic sculpture, painting, silverpoint drawing, assemblage and even performance.
One of the three organizers of the exhibition, Ruleaux, communicates topics like inheritance and ancestral memory in his art. To say it succinctly: his work is personal. Among his paintings and sculptures in the exhibition, he depicts his recent ancestors, like Nicholas Ruleau, as a way to remember and honor their lives. Though, what makes his work poignant is the inclusion of his own son as a subject, and as a collaborator. In this way, Ruleaux comes full circle in recognizing the past and celebrating the present.
“Lakȟótiya Wóglaka Po” is a particularly moving work in Ruleaux’s oeuvre that both speaks to his own personal background as an Oglala Lakota man and the collective experience of Native Americans. It literally depicts Ruleaux and his son on his shoulders while he pets a bison. They are all superimposed over a ghostly landscape with Lakota words written in the background.
As a father and student, Ruleaux is at a point where he is learning and teaching the Lakota language to himself and his son. The title of the work, “Lakȟótiya Wóglaka Po”, is actually a series of textbooks and audio guides designed for children to learn the Lakota language. This is not a unique experience, considering the English language is the de facto means of communications in the United States. The work’s message is broad enough that many non-English speaking Americans are able to relate.
Alongside Ruleaux, Sarah Rowe presents the results of a performance related to her experience living in Omaha. In the galleries, viewers can see a headpiece covered in floral motif, a rabbit mask, and a plain shroud with the words “Fear Less / More Wašté” painted on, and images of Rowe in this regalia at Omaha’s four cardinal points.
Rowe asked a friend to capture four images of her posing at locations significant to her upbringing and life. North Omaha corresponds to her schooling near Ida Street; South Omaha to her relationships with her family, captured in front of pinatas; West Omaha to her daughter, who she would take to ride the Ferris Wheel at Scheels; and East Omaha as a celestial doorway at the Garden of the Zodiac. This is symbolic in two ways. For one, it references the medicine wheel but is also representative of the major racial and class divisions in Omaha.
Also on view in the space are many illustrations by her daughter Lyla Rowe, with a notable rendering of the renowned drag queen Trixie Mattel who has Ojibwe ancestry.
Steven Tamayo’s artwork is the most stylistically traditional in the exhibition, using time-honored materials and techniques, like Buffalo skulls, animal hides and furs, bird talons, and painting methods. Abstraction and an emphasis on color is favored over figurative representation, though, this doesn’t mean there isn’t deeper meaning within the work.
For example, “Not Forgotten”, is comprised of a buffalo skull painted in black and red, small white dots, and a red handprint. It references the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women human rights movement, and the fight to end violence against Native women. The red handprint symbolizes voices that were silenced. Among various tribes, red is the only color spirits can see, and it is hoped that by wearing red, the missing spirits of women, two spirit people, and children can be called back and laid to rest.
Tamayo also invited Elliana SittingEagle, a student of his, to present art in the exhibition. Like Lyla Rowe’s work, her illustrations are highly graphic and inspired by Japanese Manga, particularly emphasized by using the Japanese language within her work.
In its totally, the exhibition is a jumping off point for the Unceded Artist Collective, who organized this show. Indigenous artists are encouraged to engage with the Collective and further their practices in and around Omaha.
The People, The Human Beings is now on view from May 14-June 25 at the Generator Space, 1804 Vinton Street, by appointment only. Due to ongoing COVID-19 related public health concerns, viewings of will be limited to small groups of five or fewer. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or register through Eventbrite to schedule a visit. Face masks are required.