Sunday, August 28, 2011

Untitled work in progress by Marissa Arterberry
 As hurricane Irene blows through the east coast, I've been using the time inside to paint. I've been working on the above as-yet-untitled piece since December. I actually started it on Christmas Eve. I've been painting women with horses since about last year. For me, the horses represent freedom, power, and healing. They accompany the women on their journeys and see them through tough times.
This was the first horse I painted. They are facing west because I was on the West Coast then

      The horses are also my way of honoring my Native American ancestors. Over the past few years of researching my family, I've learned that our roots are in California, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Texas. I have also traced our family back to the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw tribes. It has been a fascinating journey, and a deeply personal one, but also a very difficult one, for a lot of reasons.
    I went through the process of learning all I could about slavery and its atrocities, and processing that ancestral grief. But there was other ancestral grief I had not dealt with, namely the Trail of Tears. It is hard for me to mention it or read anything about it without crying. The untitled painting is my way of honoring my ancestors and healing some of that grief. I put a lot of myself into this painting, and have literally wept while painting it. There were days when the grief was heavy, and I just needed to cry and paint, so I did. I painted the woman looking east, and the horse running east to create a reversal of the Trail of Tears. It symbolizes the Cherokee people returning to their ancestral home in the southeast. I added crops that the Cherokee people cultivated on their land, such as sunflowers and corn.   I also painted a flowing river to represent tears, and also because water represents cleansing and healing. The abalone and cowrie shells on the water represent the convergence of African and Native American cultures, and the shells that were sacred to them for prayers and rituals.
   The blanket the woman wears is primarily red and white, the colors of Shango, the Yoruba orisha known for his courage and warrior spirit.
My great grandmother on her farm in Oklahoma. She was half Cherokee.

Painting this piece has been a healing and comforting experience. So why is it so hard for me to share? Because of the controversy and pressure surrounding the connection between Native Americans and African Americans. There's the recent court decision to expel Black Freedmen from the Cherokee Nation, and the general political identity bickering that I try to stay away from. There's also the sentiment that Black folks who show interest in the Native American ancestry are somehow trying to "escape" their African American heritage (which could not be farther from the truth). Sometimes it's hard to rise above all that noise and just...paint.
Miss Navajo Nation '97 Radmilla Cody and her grandmother. Her selection was controversial due to her Native/African American heritage. 

 It's somehow comforting to read about seasoned scholars facing this same dilemma in presenting their research and perspectives on Black Indians. I've been reading a book called indiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas. I realized I am not alone in my struggles to share my vision: "The topic can be excruciatingly controversial in both Native and African American communities...I was not so sure I was ready to face that racialized storm. Previous meetings on the topic at other institutions had degenerated into divisive and emotional shouting matches about who was a "real Indian" and who did "not want to be black, and who won the vote for most oppressed. Later academic sessions, such as those at Haskell Indian Nations University in 2006 and at the first meeting of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association in 2007, had pushed beyond those initial explosive engagements, demonstrating perhaps how those dealing with these issues were processing historic grief." -Historian Gabrielle Tayac (Piscataway)
This piece was all about celebrating my ancestors and my Bay Area home

  I think the most important thing I take away from that passage is, don't let the pain get in the way of the work. In fact, work through the pain. There are stories that need to be told.  Black Indians and horses are some themes I'm going to continue working with. I haven't shown any of the pieces yet, and I admit that part makes me a bit nervous. But the more all of us tell our stories, the more we begin to realize we're not alone.