Photographer Jeremy Dennis on building Ma’s House & BIPOC Art Studio

Photographer Jeremy Dennis on building Ma’s House & BIPOC Art Studio
Scrapbook page featuring photos of Ma with family. Courtesy of Jeremy Dennis.

Photographer Jeremy Dennis discusses “Ma’s House,” premiering on ALL ARTS Oct. 11 as part of “The First Twenty”

[Video: “The First Twenty: Ma’s House.” Download transcript. Download audio description for the audio-described version (AD, CC) of the film.]

Contemporary fine art photographer Jeremy Dennis, member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, explores Indigenous identity, assimilation and tradition through his work. Recently, the artist stepped from behind to the lens to build Ma’s House & BIPOC Art Studio, an artist retreat and communal art space on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in Southampton, N.Y. With the studio, Dennis aims to provide a safe space for free creativity and healing for BIPOC artists.

In the short documentary “Ma’s House,” presented as part of the ALL ARTS ongoing initiative “The First Twenty,” Dennis discusses the building of the studio — from the challenges he and his family met while renovating to how he hopes the space will serve the community now and in the future.

Artist Jeremy Dennis. Photo Credit: Angela Pham.
Artist Jeremy Dennis. Photo Credit: Angela Pham.

Ma’s House was built in the 1960s and was the home of his grandmother and family matriarch Loretta Silva, also known as Princess Silva Arrow of the Shinnecock Indian Nation and, affectionately, as “Ma.” In the film, Dennis explains that when his mother asked Ma what she wanted to do with the house in the future, she expressed desire to turn it into a museum to hold both the history of their family and of the Shinnecock.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Dennis began work on transforming the house to honor Ma’s legacy. The home had succumbed to age and disuse over the years and required repairs. To help finance the endeavor, Dennis turned to the community, launching a public campaign to help fund the renovation. The artist set a goal of $50,000 and has, to date, raised over $40,000.

Frontside of Ma's House. Courtesy of Jeremy Dennis.
Frontside of Ma’s House. Courtesy of Jeremy Dennis.

“This generosity and ‘coming together’ made me realize the importance of dedicating part of the mission and space to communal arts for the primary benefit of supporting artists of color,” the photographer told ALL ARTS over email, noting that in addition to direct contributions, the project has also received “many other in-kind donations and furniture donations.”

Beyond practical matters of building out the space, the film dives into the historical significance of the house itself and also shows how the studio is serving as a catalyst for BIPOC artists and conversation as a cultural center. Included in the film are artists such as Yanyan Huang, David Bunn Martine and Denise Silva-Dennis, the photographer’s mother.

“My hope for Ma’s House is to invite Indigenous artists nationwide to tell their story, share their experiences, just amplify their voice because, even though we’ve been here at Shinnecock for more than 10,000 years, somehow, the dynamic with our neighbors is that we don’t even exist,” Dennis says in the film. “By inviting artists to come collaborate, whether that’s hosting them for a couple of months or allowing them to use the space to share their art, I think that we can really facilitate a type of collaboration that will help our Nation, and their Nation as well, to rise up and be recognized for all that we represent.”

Ahead of the documentary’s premiere, ALL ARTS corresponded with Dennis about his vision for Ma’s House & BIPOC Art Studio, community, how the past 20 years have shaped his work and what he hopes to see in the future. Stream “The First Twenty: Ma’s House” on the ALL ARTS site and app, and tune in to the ALL ARTS broadcast channel Oct. 11 at 8 p.m. Eastern for its television debut.

Could you describe how your film “Ma’s House” fits into the themes of “The First Twenty”?

Ma’s House is a brand new Indigenous-led communal art space based on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in Southampton, N.Y. The space itself comes out of the need for new spaces of expression and healing directed by artists of color. Reflecting on the past 20 years, having people of color being represented as leaders in the arts is a much-needed change in direction that current art institutions are slow to adopt.

Could you describe the house’s history and how you came to name it Ma’s House?

Ma’s House was built in 1960 out of recycled materials by my grandparents. Peter Silva, Sr., traditional Chief of the Hassanamisco Band of Indians, of Grafton, Mass., scraped together what he could to build this unique house for Ma and their six children about 65 years ago. My mother found a picture of her father salvaging the wood and windows for the house from a clergy house that was due to be demolished, so the materials used for the home may well be over 100 years old. My direct family, as well as my aunts, uncles and cousins, have lived at “Ma’s House” and sustained it until recent years, with its leaky plumbing, dry rot/mold areas, unfinished basement and outdated furnace.

My grandmother, Loretta Silva, also known as Princess Silva Arrow of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, was affectionately called “Ma” by her children and grandchildren. She passed away in 1998 when I was eight years old. We still call the home where we lived with her “Ma’s House,” and it was always filled with so much love and warmth, welcoming all who came to visit and spend time with our family.

How do you see the space expanding over the next two decades?

I hope that Ma’s House can come out strong after COVID-19 to counter all of the isolation we have been facing with social distancing and [to be] all-inclusive but primarily serving BIPOC who wants to make art for the first time, or those who are emerging and need a space to show work or present and need a venue. Maybe eventually it can just be an open space just to gather and feel a sense of belonging.

Since we are located on Shinnecock and being an Indigenous holder of space, I hope to take some of my experience as an artist and participating in other art spaces to create something new and fulfill a communal need.

Yanyan Huang, Artist-in-Residence at Ma’s House, from "The First Twenty: Ma’s House." Photo Credit: Jeremy Dennis.
Yanyan Huang, Artist-in-Residence at Ma’s House, from “The First Twenty: Ma’s House.” Photo Credit: Jeremy Dennis.

And as an artist, I have always lacked a space to show my own work, with some occasional exceptions in group shows, and so Ma’s House will provide a platform for myself and other artists of color to show their work and be acquired by institutions and private collectors. I think there really is a strong desire to support Shinnecock and BIPOC artists, along with a clear need to redistribute resources and wealth, and I hope that through Ma’s House and art, that can be possible.

I also want to mention or clarify that the space is only for BIPOC because oftentimes we are tokenized by galleries and museums.

Denise Silva-Dennis, artist and mother of Jeremy Dennis, from "The First Twenty: Ma’s House." Photo Credit: Jeremy Dennis.
Denise Silva-Dennis, artist and mother of Jeremy Dennis, from “The First Twenty: Ma’s House.” Photo Credit: Jeremy Dennis.

For Indigenous artists, for example, I have experienced instances of tokenism and moments of “one or the other” — as if group shows and galleries can only feature one Native artist at a time or else they become redundant.

According to recent surveys, 40% of Native people get income from arts and cultural-based practices, and so having an art space will be a form of economic development for myself and others here at Shinnecock.

What challenges did you face when building out the space?

The biggest challenge of rebuilding Ma’s house was the financial burden and physical undertaking. My father and I were the primary individuals who completed the renovation work and have been crowd-sourcing the renovation money since June 2020. Now that much of the work is complete, our current challenges include how to sustain the space, the cultural work and be a place of inclusion in times of COVID.

Frontside of Ma's House with Shinnecock tribal members and volunteers. Courtesy of Jeremy Dennis.
Frontside of Ma’s House with Shinnecock tribal members and volunteers. Courtesy of Jeremy Dennis.

How do you see art and community intersecting, and how do you see Ma’s House fitting into this vision?

The Hamptons is an incredibly segregated place to live, racially and economically. As an Indigenous community, we struggle with being seen for who we truly are — as a still present and proud people. I believe that through the arts, storytelling and cultural exchange, we can bridge these separations and come together to help one another.

Turning to your work specifically, how has the past 20 years affected your practice?

As an Indigenous artist, I believe there has been an awakening towards acknowledging us as legitimate contributors in contemporary art, and that our work is being taken more seriously and with more attention. But we are still being marginalized and tokenized. I try to steer this new attentiveness towards Native artists in directions of learning and education because so much needs to be retaught or learned in the first place. I am hopeful that as time goes on, people will know how to appreciate and talk about Indigenous art in a more nuanced and sensitive way.

Jackson Orzel. Photo Credit: Jeremy Dennis.
Jackson Orzel. Photo Credit: Jeremy Dennis.
"The Great Stone Face." Photo Credit: Jeremy Dennis.
“The Great Stone Face.” Photo Credit: Jeremy Dennis.

At the beginning of the film, you talk about how the future finds its way into your photographs. Could you speak to how the future and your work as a digital photographer interact?

When I think about my work and digital photography, I think about how it may surprise people to learn that Native people exist, they exist in the present and are using digital mediums to tell their story. People still have the idea in their minds that we are primitive or stuck in the past, and one of the benefits of using digital photography as a tool is being able to fight back against those old stereotypes.

[Editor’s Note: Jeremy Dennis’ work is currently on display in exhibitions at Hudson River Museum, Cold Spring Harbor Whaling Museum, Parish Art Museum, Second Avenue Firehouse Gallery and Southampton Arts Center. More information about upcoming events can be found on Dennis’ website.]

What do you hope to see in the next 20 years?

My hope for the next 20 years is that there are more art institutions like Ma’s House that are led by artists of color and for artists of color. It is so important that communities engage with arts at all ages as a means to connect, express themselves, archive and engage intellectually. These types of projects are financially difficult to pursue, and so another hope is that more grants and opportunities will be afforded to creatives of color to create these spaces.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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About the Series:The First Twenty” is a new content initiative from ALL ARTS uncovering the ways that the first two decades of the 21st century have impacted American art, culture and the collective consciousness. The program continues Nov. 9 with “The First Twenty: 20 Years of Asian American Playwriting,” a 30-minute documentary from Ralph Peña and the Ma-Yi Theater Company. To learn more about “The First Twenty” and to stream more from the series, visit our program page.

Top Image: Scrapbook page featuring photos of Ma with family. Courtesy of Jeremy Dennis.