ATLANTA, GA. – Those traveling through one of the busiest airports in the world will be able to view over 60 artworks from Southeastern Indigenous artists. The exhibit “This Land Calls Us Home: Indigenous Relationships with Southeastern Homelands,” opened Nov. 6 in the Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport in the gallery space in the T North concourse.
The exhibit is a collaboration between the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church and their Native American Comprehensive Plan with the ATL Airport Art Program. The project lead for the exhibit is Rev. Chebon Kernell (Seminole/Mvskoke). It features 26 Indigenous Southeastern artists working in painting, sculpture, textile, and photography.
The initial spark of inspiration for the exhibit came from a reaction Kernell had to an exhibit on the history of Atlanta at the airport. He felt that it minimized the history of Indigenous people who called the surrounding area home, including the Mvskoke. He stated,
“It burst from my reaction to some of the exhibits that were already in the Atlanta airport… To give you the exact example, in the bottom of the airport is a history exhibit called “A Walk Through the History of the City of Atlanta.” And on one panel they included Native American people, which I was actually excited about, ‘Hey, you actually included Native people within this exhibit.’ But when I looked closer, they put 13,000 years of history in one panel while the rest of the exhibit was 240 years of history and it didn’t even compare to our history. It didn’t sit well with me.”
Kernell began to process his reaction with those around him. When a colleague brought up having a meeting with the airport director, Kernell agreed that was a place to start. He explained, “During that conversation, they talked about putting in a proposal to have a more in-depth exhibit that talks about our contemporary presence as Indigenous people and even our relationship with our homelands. And so, fast forward five years and that’s when we have the exhibit, ‘This Land Calls Us Home.’”
Kernell, who works as the Executive Director of the Native American Compressive Plan at the United Methodist Church, formed partnerships with museum professionals and American Indian scholars to develop the concept. With the help of exhibit content developer, Jeff Donaldson, the resulting exhibit seeks to convey not only the deep history of Native people in the southeast, but also their continuing presence.
Kernell explained how the exhibit materialized once a team was established. He wanted to assert that Native Americans, specifically Mvskokvlke, are still alive and well today.
“I shared with our curators what my hopes were in the story that the exhibit would tell. And one of those was, number one, we are a contemporary people, present today. And number two, we do have hopes and desires for a renewed kindling of the relationship with our homeland between us and the local community” Kernell said.
Identity, Community and Ancestors
Tony A. Tiger (Sac and Fox/Mvskoke/Seminole), an Oklahoma-based artist, curator, and teacher has been featured in several shows across the southeastern homelands. His piece titled, “The Influence of Ancestors” weaves themes of identity, community, and ancestral connections. The mixed media on paper highlights three separate images of men placed among a backdrop of inverted triangles. “It’s about identity, about knowing who you are and how important it is that ancestors play a role in who you are now…what’s at the heart of Indigenous culture is our Native communities and taking care of them,” Tiger stated.
Tiger explained the alternating triangle pattern is commonly used among Southeastern people. He first saw the design on a bandolier bag dating from the mid 1850s. To him it represents men and women in the community. He stated, “… men and women shoulder to shoulder in community holding it together. So that’s what that represents. And I just kind of took it and utilized it, thinking that this is what it reminds me of, or what it instilled in my own creative thought, this design that kind of represented men and women to me.”
Dustin Illetewahke Mater (Chickasaw/Choctaw/Mvskoke) also utilizes Southeastern design and iconography in his work. Mater, who has previously exhibited works in the homelands through the traveling exhibit, “Visual Voices” recalled how the places and spaces of the homelands became part of his artistic work. He shared, “Growing up, I had all these amazing stories that I got from my grandmother, all different relatives, but I had no visuals, they could never provide a visual context of what was ours or what was really Southeastern… When I was in school in Los Angeles, that’s when I saw those designs for the first time. And it’s like, it’s scratched an itch that that was just that it’s building up my whole life. And, you know, almost like the seed that my grandmother planted in my mind, they just started blooming… stories of where these are from, that creative well that I drink from, that other Southeastern artists drink from, is just so vast and wide, there’s room for all of us.”
Evoking pop culture and Indigenous futurism, his sculpture “Cosmic Warrior VII” fuses traditional Southeastern design and science fiction. Mater explained, “Just kind of putting traditional accoutrement, tattoos, markings, and beads and putting a sci-fi twist on it. But kind of placing it how a warrior’s headdress would have looked so it’s kind of a riff on the effigy pots that they find in the homeland. It’s a little tongue-in-cheek of that.”
Southeastern cultural reach
The ATL Airport Art program has been around since 1996 when public art installations were commissioned for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. Due to the popularity and success of the installations at the airport, the Airport Art program was created to maintain the works and expand their presence.
The program’s main goal is to combine art with the everyday commute for airport passengers and employees. It commissions, produces, curates, and manages the exhibits and programming. The ATL Airport is one of the largest and busiest airports in the world, which means the ATL Airport Art program is one of the largest public art sites not just within the Southeast, but globally as well.
Asked about knowing that his work will have such a large reach, Mater said, “I hope that when people come up, that they see the depth and they break any preconceived notions of what Native or Southeastern art is, and that they appreciate that they’re standing on the precipice of a giant, vast body of water of work, and they’re willing to stick their toes in, they’re gonna just be floored with amazing items…I want them to grow in their perception of what Southeastern art is. The more we can share our culture and the more we can make people aware and how alive that it is, we make the ancestors alive and they see what we’re doing.”
Mvskoke artists also featured in the show include Brittney Cuevas, Johnnie Lee Diacon, Jimmie Carole Fife, Phyllis Fife, Madison Hye Long, Robin Fife Jenkins, Shelley Patrick, Melinda Schwakhofer, Maya Stewart, Tony A. Tiger, and Sandy Fife Wilson.
“This Land Calls Us Home,” can be seen at the ATL International Airport T North concourse until Nov 2024. Not flying through Atlanta? View the full collection at This Land Calls Us Home.