The First Twenty: Ma’s House
Contemporary fine art photographer Jeremy Dennis of the Shinnecock Indian Nation explores the evolution of Native American art and building Ma’s House & BIPOC Art Studio, an artist retreat and communal art space in New York, in this verité short doc.
Welcome to "The First Twenty."
I'm James King.
In this episode, we meet Jeremy Dennis,
a contemporary fine art photographer
and member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation,
whose work explores indigenous identity,
assimilation, and tradition.
In addition to discussing
the evolution of Native American art,
Jeremy shares the inspiration
for Ma's House & BIPOC Art Studio,
an artists' retreat and communal art space
on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation
in Southampton, New York,
that will provide a safe space for free creativity and healing.
We hope you enjoy this intimate look
at the intersection of visual art and social justice.
Dennis: When I create my visual art,
I often think of the future
because, especially as an indigenous artist,
you're constantly trying to place yourself in history,
in time and space,
and you're often trying to work against the prejudices
of people that are approaching your work.
I think that, when people hear you're going to go see a show
by a Native artist or indigenous artist,
they probably think it's about the past.
They probably think it's about events
that happened hundreds of years ago.
But, in my work, knowing that,
I try to create work that blends different time periods together.
I try to appreciate the past
and incorporate it in different ways,
but I think that people need to recognize indigenous people
as a changing and dynamic culture
that we can just be ourselves
without actually having to appeal
to tropes and stereotypes.
And so I wanted to look at social issues,
look at education, look at history,
and try to figure out how, as an artist,
you can approach these topics and educate through your work.
People just know so little about you
that they don't even know that you exist
as a people and as a community.
Just the fact that you have some sort of medium --
in my case, digital photography --
and you're able to generate, from almost scratch,
these pictures that tell a story,
that give people a chance to have a conversation
and really, for me, it's about celebrating my ancestry
and sharing it with a wider audience.
For the past year, I've been working
on a communal art space called Ma's House.
Ma's House is an indigenous-led art communal space
on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation
in Southampton, New York.
We're a very small community of about 600 tribal members
who live on the territory
and the territory itself is about 800 square acres of land.
If you look at it on satellite,
north to south, it's probably one mile in length.
When you approach Ma's House,
you see this very beautiful facade
that [ Laughs ] represents a barn, in most people's eyes.
There's a plan to make it into a museum, a gallery space,
general communal art space for people of color,
especially the Shinnecock community.
And it's really a beautiful space
that will support, primarily, artists of color
through different art exhibitions,
through artist residencies, and just different programing
around bringing different people together
and, hopefully, foster the next generation of artists
in this local community.
I decided to call the project Ma's House because,
when I was growing up in this house,
my grandmother was always around the house.
She had a beloved nickname, "Ma,"
but her birth name was Loretta Silva.
When she was towards the end of her life,
my mom asked my grandmother,
"What should we do with the house?"
This family house on the reservation.
And, eventually, see answered,
"Let's just make it into a museum
to honor our family history,
along with that of Shinnecock history."
She thought it would be a good idea
because both parents thought it was always important
for all their children to learn about our culture
and just be invested in it.
You know, who we were, our identity,
and just to highlight it at Ma's house,
so, that's what she meant by making it into a museum.
Dennis: Just that, alone, is really inspiring to me,
to honor her legacy through this gesture
of fostering this art communal space.
This house represents family.
It represents community and opportunity.
Ma's House is actually a house
that was just down the road from my family's home,
and it was actually the home that my uncle
was going to retire in.
And so I spoke with him, at first.
I was just giving him general questions like,
"How much money would it probably take?"
And he actually said $50,000 would probably be pretty ideal
for the investment, to get it into a livable state.
I knew that the plumbing needed to be replaced.
Most of the electricity was sort of improvised
and so I thought maybe, in my mind,
[ Laughs ] $50,000 was doable.
I didn't really have that general understanding.
Just the plumbing alone, that was nearly $50,000.
It's just been ever-growing.
The thing that's been good, however,
is the generosity of people
who learned about the project and share the project.
And I think that, if it weren't
for that generosity of those individuals,
many of whom are my friends and family,
I probably wouldn't even be able to start this project.
I remember one --
[ Laughs ] well, it's actually two things
that were really surprising.
There are these 700-pound furnace in the basement
that was totally detached from any plumbing
and, somehow, we had to carry that
out of the basement, up two flights of stairs.
We had different community members come down
and we could barely get it, with probably seven of us.
My uncle, for some reason,
stored an old Harley Davidson motorcycle in the basement
and so [ Laughs ] that was just really a headache,
to even try to get out of the basement.
I don't even know why you would store it
in such a humid and dark place, but, I think that was just --
I think those two were just different signs
that this project, possible, is going to be difficult,
but, I think, in the end, it was really worth it.
And it's hard to believe,
going down there in the basement again,
what it looks like today, versus what we started with.
One of the big difficulties of renovating Ma's House
was the fact that you can't even get
a bank mortgage or grant of any kind
for housing on the reservation.
The reason for that is the fact that,
if you have to default on your loan
or you can't pay your bills,
the bank can't take your land, they can't take your home,
especially on indigenous tribal territory.
I guess that makes sense on their end,
for their liabilities, but, on my end,
it kind of felt discriminatory.
It felt like, "Well, how am I supposed to build a house?"
Especially those who don't even have a house
or a frame to begin with.
Are they supposed to just save up
tens of thousands of dollars before they even start anything?
All of this excitement from my family came out,
in terms of helping to finance,
trying to rescue the house,
just in terms of volunteering time
to come down and do house improvement jobs.
And I really remember, when my mom walked down one day,
she was just so delighted to know the fact that
this house that, really, all of us grew up in,
my mom included,
was finally being restored to its former glory.
Out of the pandemic, a silver lining was
the rebirth of Ma's house again
because it was, you know, just a matrilineal place
of love and laughter and fun in a safe house, so,
that's going to be something to share.
We've actually already had one program
with Shinnecock Artist Andrina Smith.
It feels really great to be
in a space where I get to share a meal
and some of my work with people.
I think one of those things that has been lost most
during this time, is community,
and to be able to reignite all
of those familiar community elements again,
starting with a hearty meal with a good group of people,
is a really fun way to kind of reenter this process, you know?
To me, that was just such a relief,
to have so many people in one room at a time,
especially with COVID-19 still lingering in the background,
along with the fact that this is such an old house
that needed so much work.
With Ma's House
and this collaboration with indigenous artists,
I'm really trying to foster dialogue
between our local community and Southampton and more abroad.
"We were here for thousands
and thousands of years
before the first white settlers arrived
in 1640, she tells us,
as we stroll the rock- and shell-strung shore
of Shinnecock Bay, [indistinct]
a beautiful early summer afternoon."
And so that was just really proof
of what's possible and what the future holds.
We're really excited to work on the process
of becoming a nonprofit.
We really want to have
our mission of supporting artists of color happen
through donations and grants,
rather than being more of a commercial space.
And the other major thing that we're working on
is just the artist residency program.
Huang: I'm Yanyan Huang.
I'm an artist and I work primarily
in painting and drawing,
as well as ceramics and textiles.
This is my first official residency.
I am living at Ma's House
and, so far, I've made these two large paintings.
So, this painting is based on the outline
of the Shinnecock ancestral land,
Long Island, North Fork and South Fork,
and then, I blended my own gestural abstract style.
I have not worked in a house like this.
It feels a lot different
from commercial contemporary art spaces
that I've worked with before
because working within the commercial gallery system is
an entirely different beast. [ Laughs ]
So my research began with these pamphlets
from powwows on Shinnecock land
and it's been really lovely,
going through the history,
seeing the close-knit community.
I had hung a banner from a painting that I made
and part of the idea was
that I would put it on a flagpole here,
near the water,
so that it would look like sails coming.
[ Laughs ]
And, now, it's standing here, right outside,
and it feels like a great honor.
I covered it with blue because I wanted to
overlay the mythology of --
It is a huge honor to be here
and come to terms with issues that have plagued me
and resonated with me throughout my life,
through learning about the history of America
and what it purports to be,
versus the reality of its history.
So I've just been gathering bits and pieces
and adding to my knowledge
and drawing inspiration upon that.
I feel like this is more of a partnership,
where both sides have a lot to learn from each other
and It's more of a cultural blending,
rather than a business partnership.
If artists can work and create and share their work,
then they're going to be able to share
the cultural experience with other people
and that'll lead to more understanding
and respect for each other, and so forth, so.
But I really enjoy the idea of the collective nature
of having space to work and present.
David Bunn Martine is a Shinnecock artist.
He's still based here on the Shinnecock Reservation
and he does a lot of portraiture and landscape
and historical reenactment type of painting.
Native American cultures, as a whole,
you know, percentage-wise, we have so many artists.
It's a very powerful quality
that Native American people have.
It's a creative quality, you know,
whether it's traditional work
or any of the contemporary practices
that we have going today.
I enjoy painting narrative scenes of Native American life,
specializing in Northeastern Woodland tribes,
Long Island Native Americans -- Shinnecock and Montauk.
A lot of it is based on research,
some of what I know, my own personal research,
rather than academic learning and books or whatever.
And then, I always try to get into a lot of detail,
accurate detail, of our unique cultures,
what made us unique, you know, among tribal peoples here,
our connection to the sea, the whaling and sea life,
and also our connection to the natural surroundings we have.
You know, since the late '60s and '70s, and so forth,
there was a strong renewal,
or revitalization, of traditional culture.
At one point, Many of the tribes,
especially in powwows and different events,
would enjoy emulating more
of the Plains Indian cultural traditions,
such as the headdress, the war bonnet, as they call it,
or the lifestyle --
living in the teepees and following the buffalo herds,
which was sort of a generic Native American kind of thing
that was popularized in the mass media,
Hollywood, and television.
And many of the tribes way back for a while were into that.
That was the thing. And I thought it would be nice
to try to show what was unique, in terms of our dress,
how it was different from the Plains Indian
or the Native American that was more popularly seen
in movies, TV, and the media.
Later on, many of the tribes began
to adopt more of their original traditional styles.
You no longer see the Plains Indian headdress as much.
Usually, it's only used by veterans today, for example.
Many of the Native peoples are more interested
in what made them unique,
as opposed to any other tribal tradition or custom.
Today, there are more opportunities
for contemporary Native American art, I think,
because people are more open-minded
to seeing that Native American art
could be almost anything today.
If the artist is Native, it's Native American art.
It doesn't have to look a certain way.
Usually, the work has some connection
to the culture the artist is representing,
whether it's symbols, story, some design elements, color --
whatever it might be.
The Native part is in there sometimes, but it's more subtle.
Here at Shinnecock, we have artists
who are doing portraiture and representational work.
We have other artists who are using
our traditional medium of wampum and beadwork and jewelry.
And so we do represent so many different forms
of expression and storytelling in the way that we approach art.
My mom, Denise Silva-Dennis, she actually went to school
for studio art, mostly painting.
Today, she actually has her own studio here
on the Shinnecock Reservation.
She painted it purple,
in honor of the traditional medium wampum.
When I was raised with my parents and my older siblings,
we were taught a lot about our history,
going to powwows and even hosting
our own little powwows on Shinnecock.
My mom helped me and showed me how
to do the beadwork, the floral design,
so she was really my first teacher of beadwork
and then, I learned more through the
Shinnecock Native American Cultural Coalition
on Shinnecock, and that was to teach culture
and have classes on beadwork and history.
But I did study formally at Hamilton College,
with studio art,
did a lot of paintings during that time,
and my professor said,
"Oh, well, if you're from Southampton,
you know, that's known as an artist's colony
and you're going to be famous there one day."
[ Laughing ] But that really never materialized
because more people were more interested in my beadwork
than my actual paintings.
A lot of the beadwork that you see
takes weeks and months to create,
depending on the size and details
and how intricate and unique the design is.
Just a section, like maybe this part,
this will take you about a week to do.
I like to use like different types of seed beads,
just to make it more interesting, you know,
and what will fit.
And then, on the seal of our flag,
the whales are much smaller on the actual seal
and I still -- I wanted to give them plenty of room
because they are, you know, a mainstay for Shinnecock.
We first taught the colonists how to whale.
I guess, when I got out of college,
it seemed like it was harder then
because there was no Internet,
so there's no way to really get your information out there.
I remember, once, this woman who owned an art gallery --
I believe it was on Main Street, right in Southampton --
so we had made arrangements that a couple of my beadwork pieces,
I think maybe two or three,
would be in a jewelry case kind of table display.
And then, the night before the opening of the show,
which I had shared the information with postcards
for the advertisement with relatives in the city
and different friends and family,
so we were all going to go to the opening,
and she called and said, "Um, well, I'm sorry to say,
but, other people have come in.
You know, now it's closer to the season
when all these different people come out
from New York City for the summer.
I have these other people,
other artists from New York City who are coming out,
so we're going to have to bump you.
You know, you won't be in the opening.
It's not going to happen."
So then, I said to her,
"Well, I have all these people coming.
You know, you're telling me this the night before."
When it came time for the opening,
my mother and my sister and I went to the gallery
and we showed up in our full regalia
and we shared the story of how I was just bumped
and it was just going to be here,
you know, for that one night
and then I have to remove my things.
So all her patrons actually learned of that mistreatment
and I actually sold a couple of pieces
and then I had like a little bit of a following, then.
But it's just that whole thing of getting your story out.
And, you know, I've learned the term --
it's a microaggression when people do,
you know, things like that.
It could be perceived that way.
In these past 20 years, I really noticed a big shift,
in terms of indigenous representation
and just opportunities
for indigenous people working creatively.
Different cultural institutions have been more receptive
to artists of color and indigenous artists.
There's always been indigenous artists.
Here on Long Island, we had been known for our wampum jewelry
and we still have artists that continue that practice.
Tohanash Tarrant is a Shinnecock artist
who creates work around beadwork and jewelry.
Tarrant: I did spend time here as a young child.
I would come over and visit
and I remember the house being filled
with laughter and love
and it just felt really comfortable.
Every year, every summer,
my parents would take my family --
I'm one of six siblings -- to powwows across the country
and we would visit with other tribes
and we would dance with them.
And, in order to dance, we would have to prepare
and one of those things is making our own regalias --
the outfits that we wear to dance.
So that was really my focus when I was a teenager
because I wanted to get out there
and I wanted to dance
and I wanted my stuff to look beautiful.
So I spent a lot of time focused on my own dance regalia
and now I have two children that I get to dress
and make things for, as well as nieces and nephews,
and I've been focusing more
on things that contribute to my community,
ways that I can bring the beauty of our culture back
into our day-to-day lives.
That's why you'll see items that I have here,
such as a graduation cap,
and this one is for my bachelor's in Early Childhood.
So, I spent a lot of time decorating it
and it's something that I hold very dear
and something I will always have
and pass down, hopefully, to my children as well.
Something like this would take me a good two weeks.
It's not something you can do full-time
because it's very hard to sew through the cardboard,
but it's something that, also, you put a lot of thought into.
These are epoxy cabs.
They're made with Native prints on the inside.
And I also have some with our Nation seal,
the Shinnecock seal.
This is Pueblo-style inlay earrings,
surrounded by beadwork and rhinestones.
And these are rather large and sparkly or blingy earrings.
These are very popular, these days.
So it incorporates the seed beads
that I've been using for the last 20 years,
as well as new inlays, which reflect
my Pueblo background, my Hopi traditions,
as well as making contemporary style.
So I brought with me regalia that I've been working on.
This is a woman's fancy shawl regalia.
These are the leggings.
And the significance of the flowers are beauty.
And the dance is a butterfly dance,
so butterflies and flowers kind of go together very nicely.
I have blue in here for the ocean,
and the yellow is like the sun or the back of our our flag,
the Shinnecock Nation flag.
And the seal, I beaded in size 13 beads.
And this is the seal that's on our flag.
With Ma's House developing, I hope to include Tohanash
as a featured artist in different programs,
maybe workshops on some of her skills
and just having her work featured
for the public to enjoy.
Art is something that is living, that is part of our culture,
and I'm so happy to be able to share it.
Silva-Dennis: People want to know, "Well, how can I help, you know?
I wasn't there during slavery times.
I wasn't there when
Native Americans were being assimilated
or the children were being taken away.
But I live now, so what can I do?"
So, what can you do?
You can help to, you know,
lift up, you know, different artists
who are trying to tell the story of what happened
because, that way, we can all move forward
as a society and just really heal.
People really want to have an opportunity
to visit Shinnecock
and engage with our community and support our artists,
but people are really trying to figure out a way
to do that, to facilitate visitation
without intruding or trespassing.
Ma's House is filling that gap
on a very intimate, one-on-one level,
and just do a tour of what's going on at Ma's House,
whether that's the garden,
whether that's a program similar to that of Andrina Smith.
I was talking to him and like --
I think that we're just part of a longer narrative
of what art can do, what art is,
and this indigenous art world.
Even though Ma's House today
is getting so much support and attention,
it's also important to recognize those who came before us
because, without them, we probably wouldn't be able
to express a lot of what we're expressing today.
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.
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.
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