'Azhwakwa: Contemporary Anishinaabe Art' Celebrates Potawatomi, Odawa, and Ojibwe Cultures in Fall Exhibition

  • NORMAN, Oklahoma
  • /
  • August 03, 2020

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Brilliant Colors of the Dawn by Dennis Esquivel (Grand Traverse Odawa/Ojibwe), acrylic, acrylic gel medium on burled wood panel, 19 × 12 in.

The Jacobson House Native Art Center opens its door this fall to showcase Azhwakwa: Contemporary Anishinaabe Art, a group art show celebrating the cultural survival of the largest collective Indigenous group north of the Rio Grande. The exhibition will run from August 22 through October 18, 2020 with an opening reception on Saturday, August 22 from 11:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. Online artist talks will carry the imagery and conversation to those who cannot attend in person, as well. The online discussion series will launch on Monday, August 24, at 7:00 pm CDT, with Neebinnaukzhik Southall presenting on “Anishinaabe Aesthetics” via Zoom.

Curated by America Meredith (Cherokee Nation), Norman-based publishing editor of First American Art Magazine, this group exhibition features Oklahoma Anishinaabe artists, such as Amber DuBoise-Shepheard (Prairie Band Potawatomi/Sac & Fox/Navajo) of Shawnee, Nicole Emmons (Citizen Potawatomi) of Oklahoma City, Matthew Bearden (Citizen Potawatomi/Kickapoo) of Tulsa, and several others. The show also includes Anishinaabe artists still living in historic Great Lakes homelands, such as Gordon Coons (Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe/Ottawa) of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Kelly Church (Gun Lake Potawatomi/Odawa/Ojibwe). Other artists live far beyond the Eastern Woodlands, such as Neebinnaukzhik Southall (Rama Chippewa), Cathy and Christopher Short (Citizen Potawatomi), and Dennis Esquivel (Grand Traverse Odawa/Ojibwe), who all live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Jodi Webster (Prairie Potawatomi/Ho-Chunk), of Phoenix, Arizona.

The Anishinaabeg encompasses several Great Lakes tribes from Canada and the United States, including the Three Fires Council — that is, the Potawatomi, Odawa, and Ojibwe — as well as the Algonquin and Oji-Cree of Canada. During Indian Removal in the 19th century, the U.S. federal government forced many Anishinaabeg from their homelands in the Northeast. These groups include the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and Ottawa Tribe of Oklahoma, both now headquartered in Oklahoma, and the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, now in Kansas.

The Potawatomi term Azhwakwa translates to “beyond the woods.” The exhibition’s title references how Anishinaabeg have retained their cultural connections despite living far from their historic homelands and Anishinaabe history continues to unfold on an expanded stage.


The artists included employ a vast range of techniques and materials. Some use culturally significant natural sources such as porcupine quills, sweetgrass, and black ash that predate European and African contact. For example, basket maker Kelly Church was declared a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts for her dedication in preserving the black ash tree, Fraxinus nigra, that is threatened with extinction by the invasive emerald ash borer insect. Known internationally for her exquisite baskets, Church also continues the ancient art of birchbark biting, in which she uses her

Who We Are by Neebinnaukzhik Southall (Rama Chippewa) digital art on paper, 24 × 18 in.

canine teeth to puncture designs into delicate sheets of bark. Conversely, Jodi Webster and Christopher Short both use computer-assisted design (CAD) in creating exquisite jewelry with Anishinaabe iconography, while Nicole Emmons, a graduate of California Institute of the Arts, is creating an installation with video projection for the exhibition.

Gordon Coons is exhibiting Cedar Smoke Spirit Dancer, a fumage piece on Annigoni watercolor paper. Fumage, a technique explored by early Surrealists, is smoke art. Coons burns cedar, a purifying plant revered throughout the Eastern Woodlands, and the image emerges as the smoke licks the surface of the paper. This work portrays the transformative relationship between a Raven and a human being.

Amber DuBoise-Shepherd will exhibit her mixed-media paintings that draw upon the graphic narrative styles of manga and American comics to express the oral histories and cosmologies of her intertribal family. Her mixed media piece Visit from the Wî te Kô (Owl) beautifully expresses how storytelling brings generations together while keeping ancient cultural knowledge alive through imagination and wonder.

Dennis Esquivel is known for his fine custom furniture-making skills. His deep understanding of exotic and native woods influences his painting. In his Brilliant Colors of the Dawn, the burls of his wooden panel interact with his many transparent layers of acrylic paint to create an atmospheric landscape of trees he observed in Chicago, on the southern edge of historic Anishinaabeg territories.

Neebinnaukzhik Southall, whose Ojibwe name translates to “Summer Evening,” combines quintessential Anishinaabe iconography in her digital cosmogram, Who We Are. The Thunderbird is an immortal from the Above World, while the Underwater Panther, portrays as a ridged-back lynx with an extraordinarily long tail, dwells the Below World, within the Great Lakes. Ojibwe floral designs celebrate the beauty and bounty of the middle realm, where humans reside.

Dancers by Gordon Coons (Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe/Ottawa), cedar fumage on Annigoni paper, 26 × 26 in.

The Jacobson House Native American Art Center is located in the historic Oscar B. Jacobson House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The nonprofit Oscar Jacobson Foundation, through the Jacobson House Native Art Center and legacy of the Kiowa Six artists and Professor Oscar Jacobson, engages the power of Native American art to create a cross-cultural bridge among diverse peoples through educational exhibitions, programs, and events celebrating Native American cultures. Azhwakwa is supported in part by First American Art Magazine, a quarterly print and digital journal covering art by Indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Please note: in keeping with University of Oklahoma and City of Norman policy, the Jacobson House Native American Art Center requires all visitors to social distance and wear facial masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Indoor audiences will be limited in size, and private tours can be arranged by emailing jacobsonhouse@gmail.com. The center will close if COVID-19 rates dramatically spike.

For more information about the exhibition, visit the show webpage, jacobsonhouse.art/exhibitions

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