What is art, if not an expression of humanity, a form of activism, images amongst rhetoric? For Seattle-based artist RYAN! Feddersen, art is all of these things and more. “Resistance,” her current exhibit at the Missoula Art Museum, integrates elements of humor and brightly-colored felt into artistic narratives about Molotov cocktails and gentrification while lending a voice to Native peoples in contemporary American culture.
Feddersen, a mixed media installation artist and enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, is more than aware of the absurdities and duplicities woven into society. With protests continuing at Standing Rock, this exhibit speaks to a trajectory, as a history of genocide and colonialism has continued through the ongoing efforts to destroy, convert, gentrify, and expand, Feddersen said.
The first in a series of exhibits at the MAM dedicated to showcasing work by indigenous artists, “Resistance” speaks powerfully to issues that are typically anger-inducing and difficult to talk about.
“By pairing superficially lighthearted activities with underlying challenges to the status quo, the participants are enabled to have a non-threatening experience that invites personal introspection,” Feddersen explained.
“Coyote, Now!,”Feddersen’s interactive coloring installation, narrates the adventures of Coyote, a boisterous and curious character that traditionally symbolizes the trickster in Native stories. The character of Coyote also serves as a vehicle of knowledge that reinforces the importance of maintaining cultural identity in future generations. Crayons in the shape of coyote bones sit patiently next to the installation.
“I was surprised by how many adults were standing there coloring. I think it gives people a little extra time to take in what she is trying to show them,” said Bethany O’Connell, the MAM Marketing and Communications Coordinator.
The largest installation in the exhibit, “Unveiling the Romantic West,” is Feddersen’s reproduction of Edgar Paxson’s idealistic images of the Old West. Done in a way that is new for both the artist and the museum, these pieces were created using thermochromatic ink which becomes transparent when touched.
“This is an experimental process that the artist is trying for the first time at MAM,” O’Connell said. “Kids are just drawn right in. They want to figure it out and are really into the hidden messages and want to find each one.”
For Feddersen, these hidden messages represent the inaccuracies that Paxson inadvertently left out of his work. Intricate Salish bead designs and images representing the diseased blankets given to Native Americans are among the hidden messages in these pieces.
“It’s called romanticizing the West,” Education Curator Renee Taaffe said.
Representing reality in this romanticized way was the paradigm of his time, Taaffe added.
“Disconnected Towers,”the third in the series of four installations,represents the disintegration of diverse neighborhoods in Seattle where gentrification has disconnected people from their homes and communities. Echoing the displacement of Native peoples from their land, this piece represents the artist’s experience of seeing new towers constructed next to older homes.
“I approach these subjects through a historical, cultural and urban lens. Seeing work that falls outside the expected canon of Native art is validating for young native artists with complex and often urban backgrounds,” Feddersen said.
The most colorful installation in this exhibit is “Martha Stewart Cocktail.” Glass bottles and brightly-colored felt create a slow-motion sequence of bursting Molotov cocktails while shadows dance in the background.
“This exhibit is symbolic of revolution,” said Taaffe. “As a piece of art, I just find it really wonderful.”
Feddersen’s use of these mediums sets the stage for contemplation and introspection.
“The more artists I meet like myself, mixed-race tribal members who struggle with authenticity, self-representation, and the perceived value of their voice, the more important I feel that it is for people to keep pushing the boundaries, to keep honoring the legacy of innovation in our culture,” Feddersen said.
RYAN! Feddersen: “Resistance” will be at the Missoula Art Museum until April 22. The official opening will take place during First Friday in March. Julie Cajune, a Salish Native American scholar, will join Feddersen at the opening and provide a deeper historical context for the exhibit. Students and artists are encouraged to attend.
“Nothing feeds creative problem solving skills the way that art does. Considering the state we are leaving the world in, that’s about the last skill we need our future generations to lose,” Feddersen said.