The Portland Art Museum’s Center for Contemporary Native Art is not a large space, but the curators always manage to squeeze a great deal of work into it, by working in multiple dimensions. This certainly holds true for the current Connecting Lines show, featuring Brenda Mallory (Cherokee Nation) and Luzene Hill (East Band Cherokee).
Up the stairs and around the corner, one finds a room blooming with sculpture and color. Luzene Hill’s Enate hangs on the wall, a bright garment dyed with cochineal. But the garment is more than what it appears— it is created from small silk figures, each representing one of the thousands of Native American women that are sexually assaulted each year. This detail hides within, as does the fact that this is only the number of women who report assault, and that this rate is triple that of other women in the United States.
Further details lurk in the gallery. At the back of the room, held in glass containers like biological samples, are cochineal themselves. These small insects played their own role in the history of colonization— the Spanish created a monopoly with this stark dye, fiercely guarding their lucrative secret that gave the world the color of Catholic cardinals’ robes, and the red of the British Red Coats.
In the rest of the room, Brenda Mallory’s Recurring Chapters in the Book of Inevitable Outcomes grows from the floor and ceiling, like another hidden facet of nature. Cloth coated in wax takes on an entirely different form, pierced by black steel, and assembled into bursting blooms and thick trunks. The sculptures extend below and above eye level, requiring the viewer to explore them each individually, or stand back in the small gallery in order to take them all in. At all levels, destruction and regrowth are equally represented.
The Center for Contemporary Native Art stands out because of its invitation to enter an area of work that might otherwise be overlooked, but presenting the visitor with work that cannot be overlooked. Inside the bright space, one finds Native artists visibly identified on the vinyl wall labels by their tribal heritage. And then, adjacent, artwork purposefully informed by these heritage, even as it constructed in contemporary media. It is not “Native art” in the sense that some galleries portray it— as artifacts of people now long gone. And yet it is work done by artists of that genealogy, who represent themselves and their work as more points in a history that will always lead directly back to the present.