At the Nerman: Voices and Visions from the ‘Path of the Butterfly’

Sprawling “Monarchs” Exhibit Features Contemporary Commentary by Brown and Native Artists

Few creatures spark unconditional joy like the butterfly. One of its most regal and familiar species, the monarch, annually appears sailing along the stiff winds of the Great Plains. Their 3,000-mile migration route stretches from the fir forests of Michoacán, Mexico, all the way to Canada and back. The monarch’s body is a fuzzy black while its distinctive wing design combines panels of orange outlined in thick black and brown lines with white spots decorating the perimeters of each wing — a polychromatic wonder.

If we consider the immense range of the monarch’s migratory path it becomes a potent metaphor for the Indigenous, Brown and mixed-race artists who dwell in this vast bioregion of the American continent. The dizzying array of more than 40 artists comprising the traveling exhibition “Monarchs: Brown and Native Contemporary Artists in the Path of the Butterfly” illustrates how these underrepresented voices and visions persist below, above and in between the country’s white settler culture.

Organized by Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, the exhibit fills the Nerman Museum’s first-floor exhibition galleries, the Kansas Focus Gallery and the New Media Gallery. Chicago-based curator Risa Puleo earnestly selected artists that reorient America as an ancient contiguous land mass, inhabited for thousands of generations, indivisible by artificial geographic political designations or reductive racial categories. Emergent themes burst forth from “Monarchs”: cultural memory and place identity, ritual, hybridity and migration. The exhibition consciously challenges the exclusivity of the art market and the institutional biases of the museum by pulling the cultural periphery toward an aesthetic center that respects the heterogeneous contemporary artistic practices on display.

In the Kansas Focus Gallery, Norman Akers paints the contradictions of land stewardship versus ownership with wry humor and bitter pain. In the large oil painting “Interference and a Tiny Spot of Hope,” his layered mythical landscape calls attention to the ongoing human incursions that privilege the exploitation of natural resources over the grateful interdependence of all species.

His signature majestic elk, inverted in the foreground of the composition, appears buffeted aloft by tornadic winds of change. The elk bears witness to the destructive cost of wind turbines and barbed wire fences. Butterfly silhouettes hover over a landscape scarred by clear-cut tree stumps and littered with bones. The artist challenges us to locate that spot of hope.

Though monarchs serve as an organizing principle of this exhibition, Margarita Cabrera’s “The Craft of Resistance” really delivers the butterflies. Dozens upon dozens of them, hammered out of copper using traditional Mexican metalsmithing techniques, animatedly wrap around the entrance to the first-floor exhibition galleries to welcome the visitor into a crowded, conceptually dense and contested space.

“Michoacánx” is an intimate exercise in altar-making that is linked to the same forested Mexican state that is home to numerous monarch sanctuaries. Rodolfo Marron III lovingly alters generations of family photographs to create a work that feels deeply personal and profoundly spiritual in the syncretic sense of ancestor worship veiled with colonial Catholic symbolism. The artist employs cutting, drawing, sewing, appliqué and assemblage to create a glittering mixed-media kaleidoscope embedded with family narratives of memory and migration.

Ancestral storytelling permeates Natalie Ball’s painted textile installation “June 12 & 13, 1872.” The floor-to-ceiling work was inspired by an act of resistance led by the artist’s Modoc ancestors against government removal from their native lands. The rough-hewn quilt, suspended between two lodge poles, stands defiantly off the wall. It functions as a family crazy quilt, painted canvas and battle flag. It memorializes historic events while activating reverence in the present.

Numerous artists in “Monarchs” have a time-traveling dimension in their work, bringing forth deep cultural memories into the present and speculating on their future survival. Sky Hopinka’s poetic videos combine elements of performance, non-linear narratives and experimental film techniques to explore the transmission of cultural knowledge across generations through Indigenous language, song and dance.

Josh Rios and Anthony Romero present an intriguing example of archival recovery and collaborative exhibition making in “Is Our Future a Thing of the Past?” The small display case of zines, early computer games, novels and embroidered patches reveals the little-known genre of Borderlands science-fiction. The books and cartoon drawings of Chicano author Ernest Hogan stand out in projecting futuristic scenarios of Brown people navigating a contested U.S.-Mexico border region while retaining cultural identity with humor and imagination.

Despite the extraordinarily rich thematic content on display, several works succeed on a purely formal level. The sparse lines and folds of Mary Valverde’s wall and floor installations or Truman Lowe’s masterful “Waterfall” of cascading pine splints or william cordova’s minimalist sculptures of wire and feathers remind us that Brown and Native artists have expanded the vocabulary of contemporary art from sovereign sources far beyond the history of art. Not all art is just about other art.

Carlos Rosales-Silva’s eye-popping painted and stucco panels and Ronny Quevedo’s “The History of the rules and measures” reference specific building trades as an influence, honoring the learned skills of manual labor, passed from generation to generation. Holly Wilson’s installation of palm-sized female figures, sculpted out of a full Crayola box, points to an inherent spectrum of color within all of us.

“Monarchs: Brown and Native Contemporary Artists in the Path of the Butterfly” continues through June 2 at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, www.nermanmuseum.org or 913.469-8500.

Brian Hearn

Brian Hearn is an art advisor, appraiser, curator and writer interested in all things art, cave painting to contemporary.

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