Surveys of contemporary American art aren’t uncommon, but it’s rare to see one solely focused on “people native to the Americas.” That’s one of the starting points of Monarchs: Brown and Native Contemporary Artists in the Path of the Butterfly, an exhibition currently on view at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, along with a geographical conceit: the middle of the United States merits closer attention. Monarchs mines these arguably underexplored premises and turns up capacious, invigorating results. Although the show isn’t didactic, its politics feel vitally relevant in a time of bald-faced white supremacy and discrimination.
The conceptual focus of the exhibition is the monarch, the only butterfly that migrates in two directions, as birds do. Monarchs (specifically eastern North American ones) travel between Canada or the northern U.S. and Mexico, where they spend the winter. A migration can cover up to 3,000 miles and takes three to four generations of butterflies to complete.
Monarchs traverse many parts of the US, but one of their primary pathways runs through the middle of the country, through so-called “flyover states” like Oklahoma, Nebraska (home of the Bemis Center), Minnesota, and the Dakotas—where the Standing Rock Reservation is located. When curator Risa Puleo conceived of the exhibition, in the summer of 2016, members of the Standing Rock Sioux and other water protectors were facing off against the builders of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Meanwhile, Donald Trump was on the campaign trail, talking about building a wall between the US and Mexico. Puleo saw these phenomena, despite their geographic distance, as “conceptually undergirded by a logic of occupation that has dictated policies managing and containing the lives of people indigenous to the Americas for the past 170 years,” she writes in her introduction to the catalogue for the show. When she traced a line between Standing Rock and the US–Mexico border, she found that it followed the path of the butterfly.
If this sounds like an overly elaborate conceptual premise for an art exhibition, well, it might be. Puleo has gathered works by 37 artists who are Native and Brown — her preferred terms for those of Native American and Latin American descent — and either come from or live in the monarch’s migration path. Those are salient identity factors, but not necessarily enough of a foundation on which to build a cohesive show. Instead, what holds together Monarchs — which fills all the Bemis’s galleries — are common themes among the artists’ work, some of which derive from traits that Puleo identifies in the butterfly.
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