Land of Extremes: National exhibit inspires local stories

A guest critiques a series of experimental films by artist Shelley Niro (Mohawk). COURTESY PHOTO

On Nov. 10, the nationally-toured exhibit “Our People, Our Land, Our Images” opened at the Imperial Valley Desert Museum. This collection, featuring works dating to across the 20th and 21st centuries, chronicles the histories, legacies, and perspectives of indigenous peoples from around the world. For the last seven weeks, its 60 photos and videos have entertained and challenged residents and visitors to the Imperial Valley. Their response has been tremendous — new and returning guests have found personal connections in the presented art, and several sought us out afterward to share and discuss their engagement.

Now in its final days, the museum looks back to those successes, controversy, and inspired stories of “Our People, Our Land, Our Images.”

Deep engagement

Oscar Wilde once said, “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” Across its run, “Our People, Our Land, Our Images” has connected with visitors from a wide range of backgrounds and personal experiences. Imperial Valley residents, San Diegans, school field trips, and snow birds from across North America have all come, enjoyed, and found some meaning in the presented images and video.

For the Museum’s own Education Coordinator, Marcie Landeros, the exhibit recalls her grandmother and her family’s own history.

“My great-grandmother didn’t talk a lot about her past, but whenever we would go visit her, she would ask us about school. As we would talk, she would talk to us about her time in “Indian School” back in Oklahoma. It was the only time I ever heard her talk about a time before she left the reservation. It wasn’t until years later, when I was writing a paper on my family history, that I discovered the school was the Cherokee Female Seminary School in Oklahoma. This information has been my only real tie to who my great-grandmother was. She passed away when I was 13 years old, and no one in our family had any more information on her. Almost 20 years later, “Our People, Our Land, Our Images” came to the Imperial Valley Desert Museum, and among all the photographs, a simple black and white photograph would touch my heart every time I see it. It is a photograph of the Cherokee Female Seminary School in Oklahoma. After all these years, it feels good to have some connection to her.”

Controversy?

When the Museum first received the contract to host this exhibit, we were given a weighty information prep packet. Alongside how-to guides for press releases, inventory checklists, and emergency contacts was an oddly specific sheet: How to Deal with Controversy. And that is an interesting thing to consider. “Our People, Our Land, Our Images” is an exhibit designed to smash stereotypes and preconceptions: it tells the story of underrepresented families, tribes, and whole peoples through their eyes. It challenges conventional ways of thinking about cultures and societies, and their place in the world. Why wouldn’t that be a controversial topic? In fact, it’s what we wanted: to shake things up, and leave our visitors thinking.

And it worked. Although far and few, we did have a number of guests come forward during their visit to discuss the exhibit. Not everyone was happy. Some thought it was purposefully divisive. Others thought it misrepresented the subject matter. One person disagreed with it in principle, disliking both the stories and perspectives featured within. But, across the board, they wanted to discuss it.

Their opinions belong to a greater, national and global conversation. In this age of partisanship, it is important to provide a space which encourages the exchange of opinions over differing perspectives. The museum does not assume a single right or wrong answer in the exhibit’s presentation, only instead the importance of its inclusion. Conclusions about its interpretation we leave to the audience.

A limited shelf life

“Our People, Our Land, Our Images” is a program of ExhibitsUSA, a national division of Mid-America Arts Alliance and the National Endowment for the Arts. It remains at the Imperial Valley Museum until Sunday. Don’t miss your chance to catch this unique, engaging art series and cultural statement.

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