Shining a Light on First California Artists

California Stars illuminates contributions to contemporary art that have been long ignored and excluded from the standard Euro-American canon.

Judith Lowry (Hammawi Band Pit River/ Mountain Maidu/ Washoe/ Scottish/ Irish/Australian), "Dao Lulelek" (2012), acrylic on canvas; loan from the artist (all photos Erin Joyce/Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

SANTA FE — California Stars: Huivaniūs Pütsiv, currently on view at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, is an impactful exhibition of works by 14 prominent First California artists including Cara Romero (Chemehuevi), Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock), Rick Bartow (Mad River Band of the Wiyot Tribe), and Jacob Meders (Mechoopda Indian Tribe of Chico Rancheria/Maidu). The show creates a platform of visibility and representation for Indigenous communities and artists in California — communities that have undertaken a long and sustained fight for recognition — while simultaneously highlighting the Wheelwright’s history of collaboration with California artists, including its early exhibitions of works by Fritz Scholder (Luiseño), Harry Fonseca (Nisenan/Maidu/Native Hawaiian/Portuguese), and James Luna (Luiseño/Puyukitchum/Ipai/Mexican).

As the exhibition’s curator, Andrea Hanley (Diné), told Hyperallergic, the show is titled after an unrecorded Woody Guthrie song, California Stars, which was brought to life with music composed and recorded by Billy Bragg and Wilco in 1998 for their joint album Mermaid Avenue.  The previously unpublished music was written by Guthrie just before penning his iconic “This Land Is Your Land”in 1940.  The song and its lyrics are equal parts dreamy and melancholic, kicking off with the lines “I’d like to rest my heavy head tonight, on a bed of California stars,” signaling moments of difficulty as well as calm, respite, and hope.

The subtitle, Huivaniūs Pütsiv, which translates as “stars with us/around us” from the Chemehuevi language, grounds the idea of beauty, power, and permanence in the show and its artists. “I feel like when people think about what that means in terms of stars with us or around us, and First California in [the title] California Stars,” commented Hanley, “I really started looking at the illumination and the inspiration that these artists have provided the Native American contemporary art field for more than six decades.”

Installation view of California Stars: Huivaniūs Pütsiv at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian (photo Addison Doty). Center, on mannequin: Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock, Wailaki, Okinawan), “Untitled (Top and Parfleche Leggings)” (2022), silk, cotton lining, and polyester; right: Rick Bartow (Mad River band of the Wiyot Tribe), “Deer Magic” (2013), acrylic and graphite on canvas

The exhibition itself, which takes up multiple gallery spaces, feels precise, pointed, and complex, providing an expansive survey of First California artists while at the same time illuminating the diversity of cultures within Tribal communities in California. A photograph by Cara Romero points directly at the lived realities faced by some Tribal communities: Two women wearing Chemehuevi dress tiptoe through a landscape littered with money, Tribal ID cards, and gambling tokens, all spilling out of shells and Indigenous basketry. As the women wade through this colonial detritus, they hold one another’s hands, embracing their culture and identity as they carry it into the future, an amber-orange glow radiating from behind them.

Near the end of the exhibition is an entire gallery devoted to the work of the late James Luna, anchored by the artist’s iconic photograph “Half Indian/Half Mexican” (1991). The triptych features Luna in three frames. On the left, he is seen in profile with his long hair cascading down his back; on the right, also in profile, he has cropped hair and a mustache; and in the central image, he confronts the camera head on, revealing in his bifurcated visage two facets of his identity — distilled into an essentialized version of himself based on dominant cultural binaries that don’t allow for fluidity and intersectionality.

The exhibition succeeds in illuminating a history of contributions to the shaping of contemporary art in the United States, and abroad, that has been long ignored and excluded from the standard Euro-American canon. “I am trying to explore the impact of multiple generations of these [First California] artists,” shared Hanley. “It’s important for the audience to walk away with knowledge of how many significant First California artists there are, who have made such an impact on the field.”

James Luna (Luiseño, Puyukitchum, Ipai, and Mexican), “Half Indian/Half Mexican (1991), gelatin silver print triptych, edition of 6, 2 artist’s proofs (loan and photo from Tia Collection, Santa Fe, courtesy the James Luna Estate and Garth Greenan Gallery)
Harry Fonseca (Nisenan/Maidu/Native Hawaiian/Portuguese), “Coyote Thirteen Lithographs and a Poem Series” (1984), lithograph, edition 28 of 30; Collection of Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian 
Frank LaPena (Nomtipom Wintu), “Untitled (Painting)” (1975), oil on board; Collection of Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian 
Cara Romero, (Chemehuevi), “NDN Summer” (2022), archival pigment print (© Cara Romero, courtesy the artist)
Harry Fonseca (Nisenan/Maidu/Native Hawaiian/Portuguese), “Saint Francis and Wild Ravens” (1996), mixed media on shipping crate; Collection of Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian 

California Stars: Huivaniūs Pütsiv continues at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian (704 Camino Lejo, Santa Fe, New Mexico) through January 7, 2024. The exhibition was curated by Andrea Hanley.


In a world so dark right now, we need light like this... xox Trace


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