New Exhibition Highlights Art Inspired by Standing Rock

Art as a lens to understand the protest

"Can Phones" Merritt Johnson
"Open Container" Merritt Johnson/Nicholas Galanin
"Container Trade Object" Merritt Johnson

When Fresno State’s Center for Creativity and the Arts started tapping artists to participate in its latest series of art exhibitions, the original intention was to showcase diverse works by Native artists, featuring multidisciplinary talent Merritt Johnson and a group of collaborators. But following the protests in Standing Rock, North Dakota, the January exhibition took a different turn.

“The exhibition was originally intended to highlight ideas on connection to community, as well as cultural diversity, appropriation, hybridity and stories of native peoples,” Cindy Urrutia, director of the Center for Creativity and the Arts, tells Donald Munro for the Fresno Bee. “However, due to the events that occurred at Standing Rock, it is now a focal point of the exhibition.”

Titled “This Is a Creation Story: Merritt Johnson and the Unnamed Collective,” the exhibition features a mix of multidisciplinary works created by Johnson, who is of mixed Kanienkehaka (Mohawk), Blackfoot, Irish and Swedish heritage, and members of her "Unnamed Collective." Together, they've created film, video installations, sound and performance works inspired by their time in Standing Rock during October and November, Munro reports.

One such sculpture, “Prayer Mask, Contemporary,” is an adaptation of a traditional basket mask, featuring optical lenses and a respirator, giving it the feel of a gas mask.

“Live performance can be off-putting for a lot of people in the same way that people don't visit museums and galleries,” Johnson told Victoria Hutter for the National Endowment for the Arts’ Art Works blog. “I like that the format [video-taped performance] is low resistance that people can try on. I love that people watch these videos that they wouldn’t see in a gallery but they can just find them on YouTube and get drawn in and there's all this subtext and layering of things that you wouldn't have expected to find there.”

The ongoing schedule of exhibitions also lends itself to a new artwork—a site-specific, outdoor sculpture by multidisciplinary artist Cannupa Hanska Luger of Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota, Austrian, and Norwegian descent, which will be unveiled on March 27. While both he and Johnson had been previously scheduled to show works at Fresno State, after their respective experiences at Standing Rock the two decided to turn their works into a conversation, Urrutia tells

This dialogue becomes more relevant than ever under the new administration. Just yesterday, President Trump signed an executive memorandum to push forward the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.

In a statement, Urrutia explains that the exhibition is intended to remind its audience that humans are "open containers." "Open containers can receive, hold and transmit knowledge, culture, connection and community," Urrutia says. "The caveat is that what flows through us as open containers can be good or bad, creative or destructive. We decide what type of containers we will become, what stories we will tell.”

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