Vignettes from A Divided Landscape

By August 11, 2022
five video screens in a horizontal line in a dark room, the reflections of the environmental scenes depicted on each screen reflect off of the shiny floor
Brian Jungen, Modest Livelihood, 2011; five-channel video installation. Courtesy the artist and Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver. Photograph of still from film installation by Jared Sorrells.

1. Earthdiver

In one creation myth, the Wyandot chief’s daughter falls from her home in the sky after digging near the roots of a wild apple tree. Plummeting into a limitless expanse of water, she is saved by a flock of swans. Big Turtle calls out for animals to dive to the bottom of the water and retrieve pieces of fallen land. The “earth divers” sacrifice themselves in their search for the seeds of the continent that will form on Big Turtle’s back.[1]

Andrea Carlson, Earthdiver, 2021; digital print on nylon. Courtesy of the artist.
Installation view of Andrea Carlson, Earthdiver, 2021 at the Momentary in Bentonville. Courtesy of the artist. Photograph by Jared Sorrells.

2. “A Place is a Story Happening Many Times.”[2]


     -Kwaikiutl Saying

All of the pathways constituting the Trail of Tears cross Arkansas at some point. The territory was formed by lines exiling its Indigenous population, and the young state profited from government contracts organizing the forced relocation of Native American tribes in the years following the 1830 Indian Removal Act.[3]

3. The Aliveness of History

A Divided Landscape, a group exhibition at the Momentary in Bentonville, Arkansas, acknowledges the pernicious (and ultimately self-destructive) mythologizing of America that accompanied settler colonialism and the genocide it engendered. The exhibition is staged as a dialogue between contemporary works of art by Matthew Barney, Andrea Carlson, Nicholas Galanin, Brian Jungen, Lucy Raven, Xaviera Simmons, and Kara Walker and nineteenth-century works on loan from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art that depict mores of settler colonialism, by artists such as Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, George Catlin, and Jasper Francis Cropsey.

Representing Indigenous origin stories are Andrea Carlson’s vibrant Earthdivers  (2021), also displayed on the museum’s grounds as part of the Momentary’s rotating flag project, and Brian Jungen’s Tombstone (2019), which also references the Turtle Island creation story, albeit through the aesthetics of late capitalism. A skeletal hull of compressed plastic stools sits atop a plinth of file cabinets, suggesting decay, the draining of resources, and the bureaucratic means that proprietary governments used to facilitate fraudulent land cessions and removal treaties in the early nineteenth century.

Lucy Raven, Demolition of a Wall (Album 2), 2022; color video, quadraphonic sound, 15 minutes, 31 seconds; looped. Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery. Photograph of still from film installation by Jared Sorrells.
Lucy Raven, Demolition of a Wall (Album 2), 2022; color video, quadraphonic sound, 15 minutes, 31 seconds; looped. Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery. Photograph of still from film installation by Jared Sorrells.

Lucy Raven’s video installation Demolition of a Wall (2022) presents the artist’s recreation of audio and chromatic imprints produced at bomb testing sites in New Mexico; the footage abstracts the landscape into an unnatural substrate like TV static or apocalyptic snow, while the shockwaves of ballistic remnants are captured on large format film for her shadowgrams. Across the gallery, the landscape is again distilled into barren tones in the stark drawings selected from Andrea Carlson’s O Cursed Lust of Gold, Vaster Ink Empire, and Forked Tongue Series (2014), alluding to the aesthetics of sci-fi, comic books, and Indigenous Futurism.

Images of the hunted—and fixations on power—are prominent in nineteenth-century works such as A Tight Fix—Bear Hunting, Early Winter [The Life of a Hunter: A Tight Fix] (1856) by Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait. Like his contemporary George Catlin, Tait painted the hunting scene during a period of violent conflict between pro-slavery and anti-slavery guerilla forces. Catlin’s lithograph, Prarie Wolfes Attacking a Buffalo Bull (1865), created at the end of the Civil War, is part of a controversial body of work that preserves yet exploits portraits of Indigenous people.[4]

Kara Walker’s video installation, Prince McVeigh and the Turner Blasphemies (2021), features her distinctive cut-out aesthetic in stop-motion renderings of capture and domination. The video references the 1998 lynching of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings, and The Turner Diaries (1978), a violent, dystopic text labeled “the bible of the racist right” by the FBI. Through the use of the dichotomous imagery of hunter and hunted—and in a country where shockwaves of white supremacist terror continue to constitute daily life—the referenced chapters of violence don’t feel closed.

The interplay between the contemporary artworks on display and those from the mid-nineteenth century expose fault lines in the “Land of the Free” — it’s America’s original violence against Indigenous tribal nations, their land, and the descendants of enslaved Africans that echoes in the current panorama of brutality and environmental ravage in the United States. The aliveness of history—its continual impact on living bodies—is made clear in the current-day horrors. The origin of the U.S. is not a narrative that can be neatly put to rest: transgenerational traumas are resewn into our DNA and are perpetuated through structural racism across generations. The past inhabits our bodies and language.

4. Kara Walker, Book of Hours (Self and Other)

Kara Walker, Book of Hours (Self and other), 2021; graphite, watercolor, gouache, and sumi-e ink on paper, 11 3/10 by 15 1/10 inches. Courtesy the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

In Kara Walker’s suite of eleven drawings, Book of Hours (Self and Other) from 2021, grief-stricken silhouettes meld into each other amidst smoky washes of watercolor and sumi-e ink. Unconfined by normal boundaries, these figures spill out of themselves through deep gashes, dismemberment, and decapitation. Some figures are ghoul-like and hollow, bored through like dead trees. One silhouette reaches up with back arched as if jolted by an electrical shock. Outstretched hands in surrender, the legs of someone knocked off their feet, all surround a knot of lines and a face with eyes fixed in the distance. Suggesting a continual stream of violence shared by the living and deceased, a drawing labeled the “The Empath” depicts a tangle of bodies with a central pale nude astride the figure of a woman who examines the face pulled off her skull. In the background, a question looms over the pale figure: “What else do you want me to feel for you?”

5. Myth-making

Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, A Tight Fix—Bear Hunting, Early Winter [The Life of a Hunter: A Tight Fix], 1856; oil on canvas. Courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

The ancient Greeks personified nature as the feminine goddess Gaea, and while popular culture might refer to “Mother Earth” or “Mother Nature,” the European personification of the Earth as feminine speaks to darker outcomes.

In Dialectic of Enlightenment, cultural critics Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer sourced the European concept of the individual—via the lens of Homer’s Odyssey—as being formed through his domination over the natural world.[5] Paradoxically, by projecting himself as a subject through the dynamic of domination over nature, the individual loses his connection to nature, the world, and ultimately severs his connection to himself.

One of the textual anchors of the exhibition A Divided Landscape is a quote from contemporary cultural critic Richard Slotkin displayed on a gallery wall: “The first colonists saw in America an opportunity to regenerate their fortunes, their spirits, and the power of their church and nation: but the means to that regeneration ultimately became the means of violence, and the myth of regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor of the American experience.”

History will always find you and wrap you / in its thousand arms.

Fantasies of manifest destiny, of personal freedom that supersedes any notions of collective well-being or even survival, of the rugged male defined and glorified through the power dynamic of conquering and conquered—these are all perpetuated through channels of American violence, whether that destruction is environmental, economic, psychological, or discharged through the barrel of a gun.

The split consciousness that perpetuated settler colonialism—in which genocide was the means to the ends of the beautiful declaration that all men are equally endowed with the right to pursue a life of dignity and joy—continues to be at play in America’s current political landscape. Still, in our current period of history, pursuits of individual “freedom” don’t stop at the border of another’s attempt to live a decent life, or to live at all. We have to continually question who gets to be a subject in America, and who is considered an element of nature—uncivilized, primitive, nonhuman—to be mastered. The operative concept of the American individual in our era of late capitalism continues to be rooted in domination, which requires the body of another to be treated as an object. Thus, the divided landscape is also internal—existing in the minds of those who can conceive of some humans as subjects and others as objects.

While examining myths in the search for new insights, we must be wary of setting up any false dichotomies like “the pure and mystical native” versus “the rational and enlightened European” and acknowledge the complexity of historical narratives, such as the fact that some tribal nations enslaved Africans and their descendants whilst displacing other tribes as all were pushed westward by white settlers.[6] The treatment of African people as property led Europeans to consider some tribes to be more “civilized” than others[7], bringing to mind the aphorism of another Frankfurt School cultural critic, Walter Benjamin, who wrote “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”[8]

6. Thousand-armed

Excerpts from the exhibition’s guiding texts are prominently displayed on the walls of the Momentary, including the following line from “Break My Heart” by former U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo: “History will always find you and wrap you / in its thousand arms.” Curator Kaitlin Garcia-Maestas described how the arrangement of paintings and prints from the 1800s, contemporary works and site-specific installations, and texts from Indigenous leaders creates the space to allow reflection on our ancestral history, “reminding us all that the realities of settler colonialism are still something that we are all dealing with, specifically BIPOC people are still dealing with and feeling in their everyday lives.”

7. Erasure

“Grandma Morris,” Photograph of my grandfather’s (Benny Stickley’s) grandmother from my grandparents’ photo album. Name unconfirmed, though it is possibly Vanie Morris; tribe unknown. Courtesy the author.

While flipping through photo albums with my grandparents a few weeks ago, they told me that my great-great-grandmother’s family walked the Trail of Tears from Florida to Arkansas and settled down near the Boston Mountains. They cannot remember the name of her tribe, and her family’s name was apparently lost to marriage and cultural assimilation. I asked them to inquire with any remaining relatives, and they found that her name may be Vanie Morris (after marriage). “They didn’t talk about it,” my grandparents said, referring to their grandparents’ relationship to this history. I can only speculate on why her lineage would be so quickly buried and reflect on the terror and internalized shame required to entomb one’s identity. There’s no one alive who can tell me her story.

8. The Land is A Woman

Photograph of Matthew Barney’s sculpture on site at the Momentary in Bentonville.

Matthew Barney’s monumental sculpture is housed in the former waste receptacle of the Tyson Chicken Plant in Bentonville. The sculpture’s forms reference fallen trees, a nineteenth-century rifle, and wolf hide. Its site was filled with green wastewater before the Momentary began adding new ground to the receptacle as a sculptural support.

In the continent’s Indigenous, animistic myths, humans know themselves in connection to the aliveness of nature, as part of nature, organized in sometimes matrilineal societies. In American society, nature is perceived as a backdrop for human recreation and business. Nature is acted upon as an inanimate object, a ground from which to extract the fuel for self-aggrandizing affairs of commerce, an entity to be dominated, in relation to which individuals can know themselves as conquerors. Who is considered to be part of nature—a ground from which to extract resources and labor, capable of being erased—and who gets to be a subject in history?

9. Xaviera Simmons, Molecular

Installation view of Xaviera Simmons, Composition One for Score A. Courtesy the artist and
David Castillo Gallery. Photograph by Jared Sorrells.

Xaviera Simmons’s installation Molecular (2022) stands as a small protective environment where viewers can peek through narrow slots to view video footage of the artist potting plants, pared-down animations referencing a therapist’s room, and texts rupturing reductive and marginalizing historical narratives. The words painted on the outside of the room point to a poiesis for moving forward and the idea that breaking down dominant myths also requires breaking down the dominant language and images that bolster malignant ideologies.

“Undo, Unravel, Admit, Amend

Abolish, Redress, Repair, Return”

[1] “Creation of the World (Wyandot).” Essay. In Native American Myths and Legends, 77–79. Arcturus, n.d. 

[2] From the wall text at A Divided Landscape

[3] “Indian Removal,” Encyclopedia of Arkansas, October 13, 2020,

[4] Smithsonian Magazine. “George Catlin’s Obsession.” Smithsonian Institution, December 1, 2002.

[5] “Myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology.” From Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, and Edmund Jephcott. “Preface (1944 and 1947)” in Dialectic of Enlightenment, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2020), xviii.

[6] I also want to acknowledge the limits in my own writing. I’m not an expert in any of these subjects, and this piece is a snapshot of my thinking in a lifelong and flawed process of seeking to understand my culture.

[7] Philip Deloria. “When Tribal Nations Expel Their Black Members.” The New Yorker, July 14, 2022.

[8] Walter Benjamin. “Walter Benjamin: On the Concept of History.” Simon Fraser University, n.d.

A Divided Landscape is on view at the Momentary in Bentonville, Arkansas through September 25, 2022.

This essay is part of our yearlong series Invasive Species.

Find out more about the three themes guiding the magazine’s publishing activities for the remainder of 202here.

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