Skin: There’s More Beneath the Surface at New York City’s Heye Center

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In New York City, a new exhibition at the American Indian Museum's George Gustav Heye  Center, is intriguingly entitled, "HIDE: Skin as Material and Metaphor."

In the show, "Skin" is both that of human and animal flesh and proves not only to be subject matter, but as animal hide, it becomes the material or canvas for the works. And finally, skin also serves as an allegory for the hardships and the struggles—and the ability to overcome them—in native communities both past and present.

"For Native people," writes curator Kathleen Ash-Milby, in the online exhibition, "our own skin functions as a canvas that we can inscribe with messages about our identity or use as a shield to protect and hide our secrets. As a material, animal skin or hide has had a long history within Native culture. It is a symbolic reminder of historical misrepresentation, exploitation, and racial politics."

The pieces in the show are a challenge and ring with a brutal honesty that leaves the viewer with an unsettled feeling and an intellectual quest for more.  Part I of this two part show features the mixed media works of native artists Sonya Kelliher-Combs and Nadia Myre. Both women document their own personal battles with unflinching detail.

Alaskan-born Sonya Kelliher-Combs creates sculptural pieces made from animal fur, hides and the sinew and tissue of internal organs, materials held sacred to the lifestyles of the Arctic and Sub-Arctic tribes. In her portion of the show, entitled "Skin Secrets," the Inupiaq/Athabaskan artist uses both organic and man-made media in her exploration of the exterior and the interior.  In one piece, a small army of empty pouches made from sheep and reindeer rawhide, line up in regimental form. They are shaped as if they once held something but they are empty containers, according to the exhibition text, where the artist wrestles with "secrets that are unspeakable or forced into hiding."

A woven beaded work from "Scarscrapes" by Nadia Myre

Nadia Myre's presentation "Scar Tissue," confronts hidden trauma and redefines the scar as a symbol of healing and strength rather than disfigurement and loss. A series of her works, called "Scarscarpes" combine bold, graphic imagery with loom-woven beaded works and prints of her Anishinaabe heritage to create a decorative, historical and personal celebration of overcoming injury. In these pieces ugly scars are rendered beautiful, part of an overarching landscape and matrix of experience and personal growth.

These two woman tell stories of hardship, isolation and stunning personal strength. In their hands, a new beauty arises against the clichéd  cosmetic quest for wrinkle free, poreless and flawless skin—and packs more meaning into an an old maxim, "beauty is only skin deep."

HIDE: Skin as Material and Metaphor, Part 1 is open now at the George Gutav Heye Center.  Part II, featuring the art of Michael Belmore, Arthur Renwick, KC Adams, Terrance Houle, Rosalie Favell, and Sarah Sense, opens September 4.

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