October 2, 2023

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Native American artist Jeffrey Gibson is reuniting land, people and song

Native American artist Jeffrey Gibson is reuniting land, people and song

To Native American artist Jeffrey Gibson, land acknowledgments — the practice of paying tribute, in the Americas or Oceania, to the original dwellers of the place one is in — have never felt quite enough. “I believe in land acknowledgments,” he says, “but I’m also interested in the history of the land itself, beyond the indigenous history of the land, from a geologic perspective.”

Gibson’s exhibition, This Burning World, at the newly minted Institute of Contemporary Art in San Francisco (ICA SF), is a metaphorical form of geologic land acknowledgment. In a long gallery, video projections display a dazzling patchwork of natural imagery — leaves, blossom, fruit, rain on water, icy streams, rocky coastlines — shot over the changing seasons, mostly near Gibson’s home in New York’s Hudson Valley. At the foot of these projections, two long strips have been cut out of the concrete floor, uncovering the impoverished and dry earth on which the building rests.

The exposed soil looks depleted and arid. Much of Dogpatch, the formerly industrial, rapidly gentrifying area of eastern San Francisco which is home to the ICA SF, was built on landfill, and there are rumours about the toxicity of the soil. Ali Gass, the ICA SF’s founding director, says that there are strict ordinances about how much ground can be uncovered in a public space such as a gallery, given the possibility of contamination. A few streets away, Gibson’s intervention would not have been possible.

A stern-looking man wearing a black T-shirt and hat stands with his arms crossed in front of a tree
Jeffrey Gibson © Brian Barlow

“When we remove the cement, it’s like removing the lid of a box,” says Gibson. “The earth is grey, and not fertile, because it’s something living that has been suffocated.” He refers to indigenous world views where the natural environment and the beings that live in it are seen as materially and spiritually one and the same. Introducing his video images of a verdant wilderness, he says, “is like a family reunion with those who have been free”.

The ICA SF, as it is known, aspires to be a more thoughtful and socially conscious kind of institution than traditional museums. It was conceived during the national conversation about race and equity that grew louder during the pandemic. In the summer of 2021, Gass, then director of the nearby ICA San José, saw an opportunity for a new non-collecting art institution in the city of San Francisco.

She raised an initial $1mn cash commitment from Silicon Valley venture capitalist Andy Rappaport and his wife Deborah and took a 15-year lease on a former children’s gymnasium in Dogpatch. By September 2022, she had raised another $3mn, largely from local entrepreneurs including Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger and his wife Kaitlyn and venture capitalist David Hornik and his wife Pamela.

A long wall with video projections on it, such as a forest clearing and yellow leaves
‘This Burning World’ (2022) by Jeffrey Gibson tackles humans’ relationship to the Earth © Courtesy the artist/ICA SF. Photo: Impart Photography/Johnna Arnold

“We have the great privilege to start an institution from scratch, which is a really rare opportunity,” says Gass. Chief among the ambitions set out by the institution is a greater focus on social and economic equity, from artists to board members, from staff salaries to community engagement.

When Gass was discussing with curator Christine Koppes which artist might inaugurate their exhibition space, it took them “about two minutes”, Gass says, to hit on Gibson. “Jeffrey’s practice really embodies many of our values.”

Gibson, 50, who is of Mississippi Choctaw and Cherokee heritage, is one of today’s leading Native American artists. He was not raised in tribal society, however. Due to his father’s job working for the US Department of Defense he moved around frequently during his childhood, including periods in West Germany and South Korea. He is also gay; his layered identity manifests in his multivalent art. He has overlaid quotes from pop songs and poetry on to traditional glass beadwork or painted geometric abstractions. Perhaps his best-known pieces are beaded punchbags which hang from the ceiling, sometimes decorated with tassels or tin jingles produced for powwow regalia.

A rural landscape at dusk with a large inverted triangular photo of wheat inverted
A still from ‘This Burning World’ © Courtesy the artist

This Burning World, Gibson decided early on, was not going to be another display of his greatest hits. (He’s had plenty, including a 2018 retrospective originating at the Denver Art Museum.) His first question to Gass, when she approached him about the project, concerned the land on which the ICA SF would be situated.

Dogpatch used to serve the nearby shipyards. (Its name may derive from the dogfennel that once proliferated there.) Only in recent years, as demand for liveable space in San Francisco has soared, has it begun to be gentrified, notably with the establishment of an arts district centred on the Minnesota Street Project gallery and studio hub, also founded by the Rappaports.

Gibson wanted to reunite land, people and traditions in more than just an earthbound way. The installation’s soundtrack mixes natural recordings with vocalisation and percussion by the Tsalagi Cherokee drummer and singer Joan Henry, who Gibson recruited for his project. As a traditional song-carrier, Henry considers herself a channel for songs, stories and music passed to her from her ancestors.

A tree with roots and hardly any leaves hanging horizontally
‘The Future is Present’ (2011-22) displays a red maple hit by a drunk driver © Courtesy the artist/ICA SF. Photo: Impart Photography/Johnna Arnold
A low building with bright yellow frontage and multicoloured vinyl stickers on the window
‘The Trees Are Witnesses’ (2022) and ‘Speaking to the Sky and Kissing the Ground’ (2022) by Jeffrey Gibson are on the front of the ICA SF © Courtesy the artist/ICA SF. Photo: Impart Photography/Johnna Arnold

Henry’s voice fills an adjacent gallery, too, her song addressing a dying red maple tree. Gibson found the tree, which had been hit by a drunk driver and torn from the ground, to recreate a piece he first made in 2011 titled “The Future is Present”. Root ball intact, the tree hangs horizontally on wires, floating in front of a glowing abstract vinyl design on the gallery’s tall window.

Gibson’s dazzling vinyl prints also emblazon the front of the building. “The trees are witnesses,” declares one panel, while another reads, “Speaking to the sky and kissing the ground.”

At an event the evening before the ICA SF opened to the public on October 1, Henry led the well-heeled guests in an extended land acknowledgment. Entreating them to tell their names to the stars and to “mother earth”, she encouraged everyone to crouch down, close to the ground. As the roomful of donors took to its knees, the ICA SF seemed to be making good on its promise to be a very different kind of art institution.

To March 26 2023, icasf.org