The Heard Museum presents a new, permanent exhibition entitled Substance of Stars, on view now. The project is the culmination of a three-year collaboration with four Indigenous communities, thanks to a grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., which fosters the study of world religions. The exhibition examines the collection of the Heard Museum from Indigenous perspectives, across a wide variety of media and time periods. It incorporates Indigenous languages, sky knowledge, and spiritual values, and includes elements of the origin stories that form Native identities.
Substance of Stars is a presentation by four Indigenous communities, two from the Southwest region, and two from farther apart. It includes 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, we include the Central Yup’ik of Alaska and other Arctic cultures, and looking Northeast, we include the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy), with emphasis on the Seneca, who live in what is now New York State.
To represent each Native Nation included in Substance of Stars, at least two indigenous curators and historians representing each group have collaborated on the exhibition. They include elders, artists, scholars, linguists and traditional knowledge-keepers. Their names are listed below.
Reflecting the sacred relationship between Native Knowledge and Mother Earth, Substance of Stars includes a special video installation which prioritizes this profound interaction. In a large gallery we refer to as the Sky-Dome, the visitor will enter an immersive environment in which images and sounds from the natural landscape surround them. The visitor will 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 have been commissioned to create the images, so that they would decide what features and locations within their homelands should be 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 the sublime, of human wonder in the land and sky, and orientates us toward the spiritual basis of cultures, preserved by elders since time immemorial.
The title Substance of Stars suggests the fundamental origin stories and sky knowledge which provides the inspiration, logic and wisdom underlying all Native American art. While we are careful not to reveal any sacred knowledge in the context of the exhibition, certain themes are explored where ceremony and traditional expressions of meaning are shared publicly. For example, the Haudenosaunee creation story of Sky Woman, which describes the creation of Turtle Island (aka North America), is neatly narrated throughout the Seneca presentation, with objects of art, craft and beauty demonstrating their relationship to moments in the Sky Woman story. We also present examples of how the Diné Holy Beings such as Ma’ii (Coyote) and Asdzáá Nádleehé (Changing Woman) remain a fundamental presence in the knowledge and process of traditional Diné weaving and iconography.
New works by contemporary indigenous artists have been commissioned for the exhibition and are featured prominently. These include works 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. Giving an ongoing changing life to the presentation are a variety of key works being lent to the Heard from other partner institutions: the Fenimore Museum; the Honolulu Museum of Art; the Rochester Museum of Science and Culture; Rock Foundation; and several private collections from across Turtle Island.
A companion series can also be viewed in Amangiri Utah, USA. Just as Amangiri itself is a celebration of the beauty of the surrounding land, Steven J. Yazzie’s work is a meditation on the intersections of technology, culture, and nature, exploring how these elements shape our understanding of the world.
Participants in creating Substance of Stars include:
Sean Mooney – Co-curator and project coordinator, catalogue author
Chuna McIntyre (Central Yup’ik) – Co-curator, participating artist, catalogue author
Michael Galban (Mono Lake Paiute/Washoe) – catalogue author
Jamie Jacobs (Tonawanda Seneca) – curator and catalogue author
Ansley Jemison (Seneca) – video contributor
Thomas Porter (Mohawk) – cultural advisor and catalogue author
Marie Watt (Seneca) – participating artist
Sr. Josephine Aloralrea (Cup’ik) – cultural advisor and catalogue author
Vernon Chimegalrea (Central Yup’ik) – linguistic advisor
Chuna McIntyre (Central Yup’ik) – co-curator, participating artist, catalogue author
Kiliii Yüyan (Nanai/Hèzhé) – video contributor
Velma Kee Craig (Diné) – curator
Manuelito Wheeler Jr. (Diné) – cultural advisor
Steven Yazzie (Diné) – participating artist & video contributor
Orlando White (Diné) – participating poet
Jacob Butler (Akimel O’odham) – participating artist, curator, cultural advisor
Gila River Broadcasting Company (Akimel O’odham) – collaborating video contributors
Barnaby V. Lewis (Akimel O’odham) – cultural advisor
Dwayne Manuel (Onk Akimel O’odham) – participating artist
Thomas “Breeze” Marcus (Tohono O’odham) – participating artist, cultural advisor
David Martinez (Akimel O’odham/Hia Ced O’odham/Mexican) – cultural advisor