reaping the whirlwind

Every time I pop over to the MFA, they’ve made a little more progress bringing out more representative art and finding ways to thoughtfully juxtapose it with their vast “dead white men” collection. Since my last visit several weeks ago, they’ve hung a series of modern portraits of Washington by Alan Michelson, a Mohawk Member of Six Nations of the Grand River next to the gigantic Passage of the Delaware by Thomas Sully, depicting Washington looking regal on his white steed:

Michelson’s series is titled “Hanödaga:yas (Town Destroyer): Whirlwind Series, 2022,” and the placard reads: 

“The Haudenosaunee remember the Revolutionary War as a whirlwind. In its wake, we were dispossessed of our extensive homelands through pressure and fraud.” -Alan Michelson

What is George Washington’s legacy among Native Americans? To the Haudenosaunee (also called the Six Nations-Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora), he is known as Hanödaga:yas (Town Destroyer), a title inherited from his great-grandfather John Washington, who murdered five Native chiefs during a 1675 parley. George Washington earned the title for himself by ordering the brutal 1779 Sullivan-Clinton Campaign, which methodically devastated Haudenosaunee crops and forty villages that sided with the British during the Revolutionary War. Some historians have described this campaign as an attempted genocide. Michelson, a Mohawk member of Six Nations of the Grand River who was raised in Boston, projects imagery of this painful history onto a familiar bust of Washington: colonial maps, an historical marker commemorating the destruction, flickering flames, the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua between the United States and the Haudenosaunee, and finally, the George Washington wampum belt ratifying that treaty. In this final photograph, Washington almost disappears into the darkness, highlighting the significance of the wampum belt as a representation of Indigenous diplomacy, sovereignty, and survival.

It’s powerful, necessary and vital art and representation. The MFA is really doing important and long overdue work contextualizing their collection in light of history that’s been left out for too long.

Other efforts seem more gimmicky, like a frame without a picture elsewhere in the Arts of America wing with a placard that asks “who is missing?” from the gallery walls, and why? But if the aim is to acknowledge absence and to ask why whole categories of humans have been excluded from representation throughout epochs, it’s well worth the wall space. 

They’ve added and amplified the colonial Latin American art collection as well, which I hope they continue to build on. One if the first works you see when turning left from the entrance into the first floor Art of the Americas galleries is the Archangel Uriel, c.1725, from the School of the Master of Calamarca Bolivian:

Stylish, androgynous, and armed, this archangel is distinctive to colonial Latin American art, departing from European images of high-ranking angels. The long-barreled firearm, cradled in Uriel’s delicate hands, was a Spanish invention that did not exist in the Americas before contact. As conquistadores enforced the conversion of Indigenous peoples to the Catholic religion, paintings of militant angels could represent both the power of Spaniards over Native communities and the protection offered to Christians. However, Indigenous peoples remained influential even as they were being oppressed-the vibrant red and blue colors visible here, particularly in the plumes of the hat and the curved wings of the archangel, were sacred to the Inka.

Needless to say, I love everything about this. In addition to being vibrant art, it is such a rich artifact, a portal into layers of overlapping history and human experience, precisely the kind of art that draws in the inquiring mind and starts a conversation that can last a lifetime. It is heartening to see the gallery walls come alive with voices and stories like these. It’s a good start.

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