Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today
A massive new pyramid mound-shaped sculpture has arisen in New York’s Socrates Park by Choctaw-Cherokee artist Jeffrey Gibson, who was the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2019.
Known for his beaded punching bags and other Indigenous-based multimedia works, Gibson has been exhibiting for decades, with numerous solo museum shows.
The multilevel, brightly patterned new work is his project for the “MONUMENTS NOW” exhibition, entitled “Because Once You Enter My House It Becomes Our House.” It is an homage to the little-known ingenuity of Indigenous North American peoples and cultures.
Unveiled with a live performance on the sculpture stage level July 10, it will be on display through March 14 before traveling to Massachusetts next year.
The structure is made of plywood and has a steel infrastructure. It is covered in wheat-pasted posters and has LEDs inside. The sides have words spelled out – “RESPECT INDIGENOUS LAND.”
The piece is an impressive 44 feet long by 44 feet wide by 21 feet high, making it a remarkable architectural sight against the skyscrapers of Manhattan.
Gibson designed the multi-tiered structure to refer to the earth-based architecture of the ancient metropolis of Cahokia, which was the largest city of the North American Indigenous Mississippian people at its height in the 13th century.
“Even though it’s where my people are from, I had never heard of these structures being in Mississippi. I never knew about them until my 20s,” Gibson says by phone from his studio home in upstate Hudson, New York. “It’s in the middle of the country, where new ideas and things don’t usually come from. That this history existed there is amazing and moving.”
He noted the pyramid shape is interpreted in different ways in different cultures.
“This type of structure would have taken a long time to make. The layers are ancient. These had a pre-civilization underworld existence, as the Choctaw had a magical, expansive, mystical way of life,” he said.
The shape he created faces the four directions from the corners.
The posters, which can be replaced periodically, integrate geometric designs inspired by the Serpent Mound in Ohio, another monument of the Mississippi Valley, alongside words that operate as activist slogans. Gibson has curated Indigenous-led performances to activate the structure over the course of the installation.
“I’ve been thinking of this for a long time, even before I received the grant,” Gibson says. “I really started planning it 1½ years ago. I always loved earthworks and had this kind of scale in mind. When I saw the park location, I knew it needed one big piece.”
He said the context of his work is not just beading, sculpture and punching bags.
“I wanted to translate that context into something you can walk into, climb on top of. What does that kind of event say on a serpent mound?” he said. "“An opportunity to do that with one big object you can see from Manhattan and from above."
He added the piece is structurally sound, and people can go inside, where there is more art.
“Deep into the mound you can see or not see, talk about or not talk. The relationship here is to other work, and it centers around ceremony – but you don’t always talk about ceremony," he said. "There is a whole way for that conversation to go. The ideas of tradition are firm in communities, and we can make them skew to now, but I loved that it could speak to people of what that is or was, share a platform for common ground, one that is also a pop culture object.”
Gibson has curated a series of events for “Because Once You Enter My House It Becomes Our House,” including three performances by Indigenous artists that will take place on and around the artwork’s ziggurat structure.
- ONLINE CELEBRATION FOR JEFFREY GIBSON’S MONUMENT UNVEILING, on Instagram and Facebook. Archived Land Acknowledgement with the Indigenous Kinship Collective and Laura Ortman Performs
“I was always planning performances on it,“ Gibson continues, “I saw it as a contribution for dialogue, to turn over to the public. It never occurred to me what it all looked like in front of the NYC skyline until it went up. It really reads that this is not that – a pyramid is not a skyscraper.”
He noted the wheat-pasted posters can be replaced as they fade in the sun. “I’ll reorder them to get the bright color back.”
Gibson said he’s a fan of handing the structure over to the public, a “speaker’s corner, to do what they want to it and on it.” It’s exciting to see people walking around during rehearsals and responding to the structure, he said.
As to the bigger picture, Gibson said he had to answer to a greater power.
“It’s a generous gesture, an artwork of this scale, and I asked, ‘Where do I position myself? What am I contributing?’ I see more of my place as a platform that feels important, and the public can share what they think is important. They are encouraged to and allowed to.
“We need to be open even to opposing views. We need to hear each other. This is actual common ground.”
After March 2021, the piece comes down.
The steel armature can be taken apart and reassembled, and it will travel to the DeCordova Museum, Gibson said.
“That area has had a lot of communities that dipped in and out of ’60s and ’70s idealism and attempted to embrace a kind of New Age Indigenous spirituality,” said “I'm going to rethink the posters and how the structure can be used. So that will be its next life, and who knows — maybe it will have another life after that. I think it's important that it has a few lives.”
Sandra Hale Schulman, Cherokee, has been writing about Native issues since 1994. She is an author of four books, has contributed to shows at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian and has produced three films on Native musicians.
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