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The Denver Art Museum’s Latest Features a Collaboration From Contemporary Indigenous Artists

Cannupa Hanska Luger and Marie Watt work together—and with you—to create a profound exhibition on community and contemporary art.

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As prominent indigenous artists known to weave community engagement into their creations, Cannupa Hanska Luger and Marie Watt have both carved out separate, compelling spaces in the contemporary art world. And lucky for Denverites, these collaborative forces have collided for the first time ever at Each/Other: Marie Watt and Cannupa Hanska Luger, which opens May 23 at Denver Art Museum. The new exhibition marks the first time the two will have shown their multidisciplinary works together. Perhaps even more meaningful than their partnership, however, is Each/Other’s collaboration with us—i.e., society.

“There’s a romantic idea of artists existing as an individual, but as human beings we’ve almost never done anything alone,” says Luger, 42, a New Mexico–based multidisciplinary artist whose work addresses issues of migration, environmental justice, and gender violence. “We don’t celebrate that in this country, so we said, ‘Let’s build an exhibition around the works that we’ve created in collaboration with communities, the land, and any other nonhuman species.’”

Watt is a member of the Seneca Nation, and Luger is Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, and Lakota identified. Both artists are known for producing large-scale works through social engagement.

Luger, for example, has used platforms like Instagram and Facebook to invite individuals from across the globe to contribute the ceramics that produce some of his well-known installations. For Luger, it’s about making the audience an active participant in art. Your participation—whether it’s making beads or stitching bandanas—moves you from ally to accomplice. “Even if it’s minimal, I recognize you give a shit beyond the usual signing a check or a petition,” he says. “I want your time. I want your effort, and I want you to have empathy.”

 

Watt’s primary mode of engagement has been to convene community members into sewing circles, producing fabrics and eventually tapestries that merge traditional craft with a pop art aesthetic. According to 54-year-old Watt, these sewing circles are a place to spark dialogue about social issues, foster community, and challenge assumptions. She describes them as “public events by which anyone with time and interest can participate, and in which the fellowship and storytelling around the table can be more important than the resulting object.”

Each/Other includes 26 previous works by the artists and a new one made together (and from which the exhibition takes its name). The pandemic forced a pivot away from in-person gatherings, so Watt leaned into Luger’s strategy of social collaboration to complete the piece. In September 2020, they broadcast a video callout on Instagram and Facebook requesting bandanas embroidered with messages. “We asked people to embroider their feelings in a moment when we were forced to reduce our community to just a household,” Luger says. The culminating centerpiece of Each/Other—a large-scale sculpture of a she-wolf—was crafted from these handkerchiefs.

The figure of the canine, along with other mammals, has featured prominently in the work of both Watt and Luger. Watt says that partly comes from a Seneca belief that animals are our first teachers, but she also saw it as an opportunity for non-Native people who don’t always think of themselves as related to animals as a way to reflect on their connection to the land. “Our first understanding of shelter as a mammal is the breast of your mother,” says Luger. “We thought what better way to talk about relationships than an indigenous model of kinship, which has space for more than human species.”

Nevertheless, Each/Other seeks to move its audience beyond identity politics and outdated notions of what it means to be an indigenous artist. “This is not an exhibition filled with beads and feathers, which play up to the stereotypes people have about indigenous art,” says Dr. John Lukavic, the head of the Native arts department at the DAM.

Take Watt’s piece “Companion Series,” which combines language related to 20th century social movements, such as lyrics from Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” with Iroquois teachings, all sewn together in a lavish pink tapestry.

Then there’s Luger’s installation “Every One,” a curtain made of more than 4,000 individually handmade ceramic beads collected from Native communities across North America. The image represents a collective portrait of missing or murdered indigenous women, girls, and queer victims of gender violence.

“Marie and Cannupa use indigenous ideas to push the conversation into terms that are needed today,” says Lukavic. “To think about our neighbors, how society should actually operate, and realize it’s harmful to even think of ourselves as separate from those around us.”

If you go: Each/Other is on view at the Denver Art Museum until August 22. Find tickets and more information online

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