Wokiksuye: The Politics of Memory in Indigenous Art, Monuments, and Public Space

This year, I have fulfilled the requirements of my Masters degree program in Art, Culture and Technology, at the MIT School of Architecture and Planning. One of the requirements was to produce a thesis. Here is my thesis abstract:

The powers of creativity and symbolism that art draws upon have been used in the public realm to uplift and also to oppress. Within this context, art, from Indigenous perspectives, can positively influence the collective imaginations and wokiksuye (memory) of society. Indigenous intervention into the practice of public art can powerfully contribute to the process of decolonization and Indigenization in America. Considerations embedded in notions of public space within a settler colonial society, such as the attempted erasure of Indigenous peoples and histories, and the supplanting of Western doctrines over Indigenous cultures, influence the production and reception of this work. Erin Genia, a Dakota artist, analyzes the politics of memory in public space by scrutinizing monuments celebrating the American colonial project and describes the impacts of Western imperialism on Indigenous arts and cultures. By presenting her own artwork, as well as that of prominent Indigenous artists working in the public sphere, she shows how understandings of place and relationship underpin Dakota/Indigenous methods, and argues that public art is an arena where an evolution of thought and practice in approaches to the world can come to fruition.

I created the image above for the 2019 SA+P Thesis show. You can see information about this thesis, and other students theses here.

You can read more about my graduate work, including my thesis, here.


Earthling Mask

Earthling Mask 
acrylic and architectural model vegetation on canvas
Human understanding has come far away from the reality that we are not separate from the earth, we are the earth. How do our responsibilities to ourselves, each other and our world change if this reality was the basis of our collective thought and action?

The mask depicts an ecosystem from above consisting of lakes, streams, wetlands, fields and forests.

"The imminent and expected destruction of the life cycle of world ecology can be prevented by a radical shift in outlook from our present naive conception of this world as a testing ground of abstract morality to a more mature view of the universe as a comprehensive matrix of life forms."
- Vine Deloria, Jr. God is Red, 1973

Embodying transformation with the earthling mask and a water soundscape, March 2019


Sound Vessels

 Sage Burner Sound Vessel, glazed

Coalescing the materiality of sound with the life force of earthen forms

Sound Vessels is a series of ceramic sculptures that transmit sounds. Using sound as a material, this work explores how it can interact with objects, through the medium of earth, by experimenting with the interactions between various types of sounds and forms.

As installed at the February School, a month-long series of pedagogical experiments self-organized by ACT students at MIT, in the Wiesner Student Gallery
Listening, recording and crafting sound compositions has led to to the question: what kind of object could the composition emanate from? Earthen clay is a versatile and forgiving medium, which has allowed me to test the transmission of different kinds of sounds in many ways.

Crystalline Sound Vessel
Sounds that are clear, sounds with synth, with texture, the voice, each has a different interaction with vessels' shapes, surfaces, thicknesses and other hand-made aspects.

Sound Vessels, performed in December, 2018
In Dakota philosophy, all things exist within a continuum of life, and the foundational concept of mitakuye oyasin, that we are all related, extends not only to other people, but also to animals, plants minerals, electricity, air objects, and everything in existence. This piece illustrates this philosophy and concept by linking the material qualities sound to form.

The pieces come alive in a new way as they conduct sound vibrations. They begin to shake and move and speak.
Sound testing two types of ceramic vessels
With the sound vessels I've created so far, I have experimented with my heartbeat, a hand drum, a rattle, fire, a train, bubbling liquid, singing, explosions, insects chirping, wind instruments and spoken words in both Dakota and English languages.

Cicada Chirper Sound Vessel
The ceramic vessels are built to hold and transmit sound, rather than the usual use of clay vessels as containers for solids or liquids. Each vessel plays individual sound compositions of different timed lengths, as they play together, a randomized orchestra of objects is created.

Interacting with the array of Sound Vessels in the ACT Cube at MIT, December 2018
Sound Vessels is supported by a grant from the Council for the Arts at MIT, appearing at the Wiesner Gallery at the Stratton Student Center at MIT during the month of February, 2019.


Collaborating with AI: Jewelry

Side by side: AI-generated design and handmade necklace
This week, I had the opportunity to work with my colleague, Pinar Yanardag, who specializes in collaborating with artificial intelligence to create a variety of things. Among her most recent work, she has input thousands of pieces of data into algorithms to allow the AI to generate hundreds of ideas for pizza recipes, dresses, perfumes and now, jewelry. With this data, and the help of practitioners such as cooks, dressmakers, etc., Pinar narrows down the data, and uses it as a template for creating new things.

Check out Pinar's post on her site: "How to Generate (Almost) Anything," which discusses the process in detail, includes a video of our collaboration, and more images of the jewelry we created.

AI generated jewelry images
Pinar sent me hundreds of images which I culled in order to determine what would be the most feasible to make. After we decided on several striking pieces, she purchased beads, baubles and findings at the Grand Bazaar, in her home city of Istanbul. I combined them to create a few examples of necklaces, pins and earrings, in a collaboration with artificial intelligence.

AI-designed necklace Pinar will wear to a conference, along with an AI-designed dress

Using the imagery created by AI as inspiration for forms, many interpretations become possible.

Fish bauble, created from an AI design, using beads, including a nazar, or evil eye pendant, in the shape of a fish


Iȟpéya, Piyéȟpičašni

"Midnight Mine Goblet" glazed ceramic

Earth on Display/ Experiments in Pedagogy - MIT School of Architecture and Planning
November 4, 2018 at the Harvard Museum of Natural History

Dakota philosophy holds that humans are not separate from or greater than the earth and its processes. With this in mind, how can we approach drastically changed landscapes resulting from widespread human-caused environmental degradation?

Once the sought-after parts of the earth’s body are taken and processed into the essential elements that make modern living possible[1], what happens to the landscapes left behind? Using earth itself, in the form of clay, vessel-like representations explore these contours. 

vessel of Bingham Canyon mine on topographic map with copper-in-shale specimen
Using topographical maps, clay vessels molded in the form of mined earth, and specimens from the mineralogical collection of the Harvard Museum of Natural History, four sites of mining in the US are presented, opening a discussion around the ethics and implications of exploitative mining. 

USGS topographic maps of: Bingham Canyon mine in Salt Lake City, Utah,
Midnite mine on the Spokane reservation in Washington, Fort Knox
in Fairbanks, Alaska, and Twilight Mountain Top Removal Mine in
Lindytown, West Virginia.
Bingham Canyon mine in Utah, operated by Rio Tinto Kennecott is the largest open pit mine in the world and extracts copper, gold, silver, and molybdenum. Uranium from Midnite mine on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington, helped to fuel the Cold War and is now a Superfund site. Fort Knox gold mine is located near Fairbanks, Alaska, operated by Kinross Gold, uses cyanide leaching to extract gold from the rock, and has a huge energy and water use footprint. Twilight MTR (Mountain Top Removal) mine, operated by Massey Energy/ Alpha Natural Resources is located in the Blue Hills in Lindytown, West Virginia. Mountain Top Mining is a highly destructive method that removes “overburden”: rock, mountainsides, flora and fauna, in order to get to the coal beneath it.

Viewing the installation at the Harvard Natural History Museum
Climate Change Gallery
Around this table installation, viewers shared the commonality of interrelationships between all forms of existence. Iȟpéyá, means to discard/ throw away, and is used here to describe the increasing number of places on earth that are spent, trashed, contaminated, detonated, destroyed.

Mountain top removal mine vessel
Píyéhpíčášní means broken beyond repair/ unfixable, and in this context implicates Western philosophies of separation from nature and the hierarchy of man which, compounded over hundreds of years of dominance, have caused widespread ecological collapse and climate change.

Coal variety Jet, polished in part
Vernal, Utah

Native gold in Cambrian dolomite
Hidden Fortune Mine, Black Hills, South Dakota

Molybedenite with barite crystals
Jardinera no. 1 mine
Inca de Oro, Atacama, Chile

 We don’t have to look far to see the landscapes altered by modern living. What’s harder to see is the imperative of remembering our deep relationship to the land we live on/ land we are.

[1] Rio Tinto http://www.kennecott.com/about-us “At Rio Tinto Kennecott, we mine essential elements that make modern living possible. Our products are used in cell phones, computers, CAT scans and hybrid electric cars. Nearly everything used today relies on materials we produce.”


Existing in the void/ unwell

Sculpture by Sam Genia
"Existing in the void/ unwell" appears on Unheard Records compilation 003, "Infinite In-Betweens."

Out now! Get the album on bandcamp.


Mitakuye Oyasin/ We Are All Related

A ceremonial performance at the US Pavilion, La Biennale di Venezia, November 2018
November 24, 2018
La Biennale di Venezia 

US Pavilion courtyard

Mitakuye Oyasin/ We Are All Related was a ceremonial performance centered on healing, finding lost cultural knowledge, and telling the story of climate change through the lens of the Dakota legend of the Wakinyan/ Thunderbirds and Unktehi/ Water Serpent spirits. The epic battle between these supernatural beings is a way of describing the catastrophic effects of climate change through Dakota knowledge.

Moment the sun, Anpa Wi, brings out a rainbow in the battle of Wakinyan/ Thundebirds and Unktehi/ Water Monsters
The power of Dakota language, oral tradition, dance, and creative and artistic processes–which have been obscured through centuries of US policies of genocide and assimilation of Indigenous people–were expressed to call for a profound shift in the evolution of humanity towards a creative, holistic consciousness.

Mitakuye Oyasin, in the context of the "Dimensions of Citizenship" exhibition at Venice Architecture Biennale, is powerful because the concept, which is the basis of Dakota philosophy, holds that we are relatives of not only our families and other people, but animals, plants, rocks, air, electricity, water - which is life itself - and everything in existence, connected by interrelationships in a continuum of life.
sage burner sound vessel

By connecting the concepts of body outward to the cosmos through the sound of the drum, movement, and burning medicines, the ancestors and spirit were invited to the space. My cousin, Adam Genia, an award-winning powwow singer and drummer provided a song which was played on a sound vessel with the sound of a heartbeat.

Pipestone Quarry, on the Coteau des Prairies by George Catlin, 1836-37, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Images of ancient glyphs were drawn on the site of this important US cultural embassy, using a small quantity of canupa/ pipestone pigment.

The Pipestone quarry, located at what is today known as Pipestone National Monument, is a sacred location in Dakota cosmology that is tied to our origin stories.

Photographs, MHS Collection, photoprint: 'Charles H. Bennett removed these rock panels showing pictographs from the Pipestone quarries at the foot of The Three Maidens in the 1880s.'
These petroglyphs from the Three Maidens, an important site at the Pipestone quarry in Minnesota were desecrated and removed in order to be shown in the St. Louis World's Fair. Seventeen of the original 79 petroglyphs made it back to the site, and are now on display at the Pipestone National Monument visitor center.

My daughter drawing petroglyph symbols on the courtyard
When I carve canupa, I save the dust that is a byproduct of the process, as it can be used as a pigment, and, it is so precious that it cannot be wasted. I used some of the pigment to create chalk which my twin daughters and I used to recreate the glyphs looted from Three Maidens on the US Pavilion courtyard site. The images brought indigenous Dakota presence to the site in an unbroken line, at a institution in the tradition of Worlds Fair-type expos, which have had a historically troubled legacy for Indigenous people.

Ancient symbols recreated in pipestone pigmented chalk

To conclude the ceremonial performance, the Wakiyan again took center stage. The Wakinyan love everything that is clean and pure, and they make their tipis by the tallest cedar trees, which is why we use cedar for purification purposes. Using "cedar" sprigs, the audience and I brushed the building in a symbolic act of cleansing the courtyard site of the US Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, to clear away old energies and make way for new kinds of creative visions to the space.

This piece is in dialogue with  "Acoustic Tipi," which was on site at the Lithuania Pavilion "Swamp Pavilion"

Acoustic Tipi depicts the battle between the Wakinyan and Unktehi, shown here at the closing of the Swamp Pavilion
This program was part of the Citizen Lab programming series and took place in the US Pavilion courtyard.
Check out the Art, Culture and Technology Program at MIT's news piece about the performance here.