Substance of Stars is a presentation by four Indigenous communities that examines the collection of the Heard Museum from Indigenous perspectives, across a wide variety of media and time periods. The project is the culmination of a three year collaboration thanks to a grant from Lilly Endowment, Inc., which fosters the study of world religions. The exhibition incorporates Indigenous languages, sky knowledge, and spiritual values, and includes elements of the origin stories that form Native identities. Included are the O’odham, whose traditional lands include modern-day Phoenix, Arizona, where the Heard Museum sits; and the Diné (Navajo Nation), whose homeland (referred to as Dinétah) extends across what is today the states of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. To the far Northwest, included are the Central Yup’ik of Alaska and other Arctic cultures, and looking Northeast, the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy), with emphasis on the Seneca, who live in what is now New York State.
Substance of Stars contains a special video installation which prioritizes the profound interaction between Native knowledge and the Earth. In a large gallery called the Sky-Dome, visitors enter an immersive environment in which they are surrounded by images and sounds from the natural landscape. Visitors virtually enter the land of each community: the southwest desert, the arctic seascape, the woodlands, mountains and hills, at different seasons and times of day. Indigenous photographers and videographers were commissioned to create the images and decide what features and locations within their homelands are presented. These places include essential markers of community: images of stars in the night sky, mountain sites associated with spiritual ancestors, animals that feature prominently in origin stories and clan symbols, or sky images suggesting the foundational entrance of creators who fell to Earth. In the Sky-Dome, Substance of Stars offers a sensation of human wonder in the land and sky, and orientates us toward the spiritual basis of cultures, preserved by elders since time immemorial.
New works by contemporary Indigenous artists were commissioned for the exhibition and are featured prominently. These are by Marie Watt (Seneca), Thomas “Breeze” Marcus (Tohono O’odham), Dwayne Manuel (Onk Akimel O’odham), and Steven Yazzie (Diné), as well as a range of contemporary and traditional arts drawn from the Heard’s permanent collection.