“We Are All Related” exhibit brings Native American art back to Signal Hill


Courtesy of Greenly Art Space

Desert Composite IX by Gail Werner is being sold for $1,200

Greenly Art Space’s current exhibit is a testament to the beauty and perseverance of Indigenous art, and reminds those in Signal Hill and Long Beach that the land they stand on was taken from the Tongva people.

Twelve Native American artists belonging to the informal collective Neshkinukat are participating in the “We Are All Related,” exhibit. Neshkinukat was initially started in 2001 by Kat High, and regrouped again in 2013.

Gail Werner, an artist of Cupeño, Kumeyaay and Luiseño descent, joined the collective after a call for art was put out for a group show.

“We’re all from different tribes, but we share a common bond,” Werner said. “Our work is inspired by our culture in some way.”

Werner incorporates the artwork of past generations by using symbols found in Native American basketry and pictographs.

Bird Dreams XXXIII by Gail Werner (Courtesy of Greenly Art Space)

“They’ve long been recognized for these baskets. They’re very time consuming to make, and people still do make them but mostly the designs I’m including in my work are from older baskets,” Werner told the Signal Tribune.

The circular floral designs that appear in the four paintings Werner is exhibiting in “We Are All Related,” are reminiscent of the designs Indigenous Californians used in their weaving, and connect her art to that of past generations.

“Many of the basket designs are flowers, or other geometric shapes . I’m using them in my own way. Sometimes they can represent the moon or sun. My great-grandmother was a recognized basket maker and I think of her when I use the designs in my work,” Werner said.

Werner’s grandmother, Salvadora Valenzuela, and the rest of her village were forced out from their ancestral land by the government and onto a reservation in 1903. Valenzuela was of Cupeño and Kumeyaay heritage and living in the Cupeño village of Cupa when the land was grabbed using the well established removal policy of the United States.

After the American takeover of California, a white man named John Gately Downey was allowed to buy the Cupeño’s land and the Indigenous people were forcibly driven out despite attempting to fight the removal in court. According to a 2018 article in The Journal of San Diego History, this was in line with the same policy that justified such genocidal acts as the Trail of Tears.

“In 1903, the people, including her, were removed because of land– stealing the land basically. And they were put on to a reservation,” Werner said.

The adobe buildings once occupied by the Cupeño from Cupa remain to this day, and Werner still visits her grandmother’s old home. Cupa is located at what is now known as the northernmost part of San Diego County.

“She was a really strong woman,” Werner said of Valenzuela. “She went through so much– many, many hardships– but she always gave back to people. She was a teacher and at times took in children who needed a home. She made these incredibly beautiful baskets and was also a lace maker.”

Along with the floral and geometric symbols derived from traditional weaving designs, Werner also includes plants and birds in her paintings that carry cultural importance.

“Some of them are actually used for medicinal purposes and for food, but it’s not just that. I think most important is that in Native American cultures, plants and animals aren’t considered to be separate from people. They are our relatives. Even in our stories and songs they’re the characters. For example, the Cupeño creation story is full of animals and trees and they are called people. In my work, I’m trying to give a sense of their importance and spirit. That they’re not just plants,” Werner said.

The birds that appear throughout her work represent the Bird Songs sung by Native American tribes throughout California, which metaphorically speak about the migrations of the Indigenous people by telling the story of travelling birds.

Rock Wren VI by Gail Werner was made using oil paint and pencil on a wood panel and can be purchased for $1,500

While Greenly Art Space usually invites the community to an opening reception when it unveils a new exhibit, because of the pandemic the opening for “We Are All Related,” was recorded and uploaded onto Youtube instead.

Before interviews with Neshkinukat members, the video shows the preparation for the exhibit, as well as a land acknowledgment and blessing done within the gallery by Tina Calderon of the Gabrielino Tongva and Ventureño Chumash Nations.

Calderon began by acknowledging the ancestors before starting a prayer song. She later explained in English that the song was directed at the Creator, and expresses love and gratitude.

A collaborative art project where Neshkinukat artists and community members made a collage together was also posted on Youtube by Greenly Art Space.

Online discussions by participating artists are planned for Oct. 18, Nov. 8 and Nov. 15, on topics such as pottery and gourd art.

The exhibit can currently be visited by appointment only due to health restrictions, and visitors can call 562-533-4020 to arrange a time. “We Are All Related,” is open through Nov. 29.

“It’s a beautiful exhibit that has many different types of artwork,” Kimberly Hocking, Greenly Art Space curator, said. “There is mask making, quilting, beadwork, some beautiful pottery that’s amazing. There is a wide variety of media that are used in it as well. One of the masks has talons from a hawk, as well as deer toes. There’s another beautiful mask that has items from different cultures around the world. It’s neat to see the way that a lot of these artists interacted with this idea [that] we’re all related.”

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Greenly Art Space will hold the virtual opening for "We Are All Related: An Exhibition of Neshkinukat Artists" this Sunday, September 27th at 4pm on our YouTube channel. This exhibit will show the work of Neshkinukat, a collective of Native American artists, and will run until November 29th. In-person visits to the gallery must be made by appointment. Please call 562-533-4040 to arrange your appointment. Masking and social distancing will be observed. This activity is supported in part by the California Arts Council, a state agency. Learn more at www.arts.ca.gov. Any findings, opinions, or conclusions contained herein are not necessarily those of the California Arts Council. This activity is also supported in part by the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture. Learn more at www.lacountyarts.org. Any findings, opinions, or conclusions contained herein are not necessarily those of the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture. #GreenlyArtSpace #GreenlyArt #art #Neshkinukat #NativeAmericanArt #caarts #artsca #lbart #laartscene #supportingartists #CaliforniaArtsCouncil #LongBeach #signalhill

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