Santa Fe, N.M. — In the bright, airy upstairs space at form & concept gallery, three young Indigenous artists visited with guests before their artist talk on the gallery’s exhibition of their work, which hung along with that of other young artists from the Soul of Nations organization’s Brea Foley Art Program. The artists were Bailey Pete (Navajo), Maiyah King (Navajo/Acoma), and Christine Garcia (Kewa). It was the week of SWAIA Indian Market, one of the Indian art world’s biggest stages, and the artists were eager to speak about their art and their experience.
Founded in 2015, Soul of Nations is a “for-purpose” organization “established to uplift the vast amounts of displaced Indigenous communities throughout the Americas” and now, Australia, according to their mission statement. The organization “envisions a world where tribal peoples are respected as contemporary societies and are treated equally.” To that end, Soul of Nations encourages Indigenous youth through various academic, social, and artistic programs. The organization’s Brea Foley Art Program takes on 12 to 15 student artists from reservations and encourages their expression through various mediums via mentorship programs. This year, they worked with artists including Choctaw/Cherokee painter Jeffrey Gibson and Diné/Xicana artist Nani Chacon.
The top artists participate in a residency with New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, which includes visits to the major museums of NYC. The show at form & concept during Indian Market week was another chance for the young artists to experience the wider art world — and to practice what they’d learned about presenting themselves and their work in a professional setting.
Soul of Nations founder and director Ernest Hill said form & concept was a deliberate choice for the exhibition.
“I saw the gallery last year when I came to Indian Market for the first time, and I pretty much fell in love with the mission of the organization,” he said. “I saw how they’re representing Native cultures in a right way, letting them be the vehicles of their own narrative, and that’s what we’re all about as an organization. … They’re really, really supportive of Native arts and culture and contemporary Native artists, so, I thought this will be a good place for the students to show their work as a first commercial gallery show.”
The theme for this year’s Soul of Nations exhibition was “Honor the Earth,” and it was reflected in a wide variety of painting and drawing styles, from graphic novel-style depictions of origin stories to abstract paintings that included ancient symbols.
Pete’s grandfather is a trader, so she grew up around Indian art, but she is the first in her family to be an artist. She said she usually draws portraits, but the program caused her to expand her style.
“All my life, I was raised around the marketing side of art, seeing different things from different areas and knowing what was worth what, and for me to actually have this talent where I can create it and produce something my style, something that I wanted, instead of something I was looking at…I just felt like a little piece of power,” she said. “It was really empowering for me, and this program, Soul of Nations, is something that pulled me closer to my culture as an artist. … Getting me to pull something out and actually enjoying the symbolism in my piece. From the point [when I painted that first piece for Soul of Nations]on, I’ve been painting things that have a little more meaning to both sides of my culture.”
King said she began drawing as a young child, and she began to paint in middle school. She said the ability to travel and see artwork up close was valuable to her as an artist.
“I never really got to see a lot of other people’s art, especially like what we saw in New York,” she said. “It was really awesome. it has inspired me to add more to my art. It’s been a really great experience.”
Garcia agreed that the travel component of the program is eye-opening, “especially when you’re from a small community.” She said the program also helped her understand that she could convey big ideas through art. During the presentation, she described how one of her paintings, “Unity,” came about.
“There are a lot of artists in my family, from silversmiths to jewelers like my dad,” she said. “They were constantly telling me, ‘Go with what you think it is, go with what your heart is telling you,’ so I listened to them, and whenever the traditional dances would be going on, the corn dances, the buffalo dances, harvest dances, I would listen to the music and it would inspire me because I knew it was my story and what we came together as a community to do. That’s why I named my painting ‘Unity,’ because I like how everything comes together to make up the earth and how nothing is just one thing. By that I mean people see it as ‘It’s just corn. you eat it.’ No. It’s blessings or an offering we give, so it’s something that we hold dear to us. That’s why I put a woman in the middle of a cornfield with her teepee, which is her home, and her home is with her land. The funny part about the woman is that without even thinking about it, I kind of drew my mom. It’s funny, but it’s symbolic in a way because my mom is my caretaker. She’s the person I look to when I need guidance, her and my grandma. I thought it was really important to put a woman there … because I know that women want to become more empowered now, and I think that’s vital because of what they give children and whatnot. She’s releasing a butterfly, which means that new beginnings are coming forth and good things are coming.”
Hill is African-American. He got to know Indigenous people when he traveled with his father, a missionary, to the Four Corners area every summer as a youth. He said seeing the difference between his life in Denver (he now resides in Washington, DC) and the lives of his summer friends made him determined to work for more equal opportunities.
“I think that being a minority and helping out another minority group, I understand a lot of their plight,” said Hill. “I graduated from an all African-American institution, Howard University, so I’ve just done a lot of research on the oppression of minority peoples in America, and I just feel like there’s not enough African-Americans or other minority groups helping out with a cause that’s similar, that’s so close to home. I think that other people of diverse groups can do the same thing, and it’ll just be that much more inspiring.”
Hill said that art is one avenue of expression that helps people – especially young people – gain essential inner strength.
All of the artists said that their time with Soul of Nations helped them see their own artistic impulse as a strength. Garcia explained that the program also showed her how to be strong as an artist.
“Throughout life, you go through hardships,” said Garcia. “I think it’s a battle for everyone to find the strength in themselves to provide the dedication to move forward and create so much more in the world but also hold onto the gentleness that is going to keep the pencil on that paper from breaking.”
For more on Soul of Nations, visit their website.