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Exposure: Native Art and Political Ecology brings together 36 primarily Indigenous artists and collectives to reflect on the catastrophic impacts of nuclear technologies at the hands of the West. The exhibition, which debuted in 2021 at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) in Santa Fe, now occupies the galleries at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena. It achieves its ambitious aim, accounting for the global scope of nuclear encroachment on Indigenous lands and highlighting the local and embodied impacts. Wall texts offer a suitably bleak overview of uranium extraction, weapons testing, and waste disposal since World War II. The consistently vivid artwork then grabs hold of these bare facts, transforming a colonial history into an absorbing counternarrative of testimony and dissent.
All of the work grapples with such narratives, but there is no dominant style on display—a credit to the curatorial team helmed by MoCNA’s Manuela Well-Off-Man. Instead, artists from across the world contribute videos, sculptures, poems, and installations that are by turns somber, satirical, and complexly critical. Near the gallery’s entrance, Ainu artist Kohei Fujito’s sculpture The Singing of the Needle (2021) is made of rusted iron spirals, with spikes traditionally meant to ward off demons, built up around a painted deer skull. The work plays off Ainu and Japanese reggae artist Rankin Taxi’s strobing, irreverent music video, You Can’t See It, and You Can’t Smell It Either (2011), which loops on a nearby screen. The juxtaposition of Kohei’s somber mood with Rankin Taxi’s surrealist one gives a glimpse into the affective complexity of Japan’s nuclear trauma. In the next space, Diné artists offer complementary takes on the precarity facing their ancestral lands. Jerrel Singer’s eerie, impressionistic landscape painting, A Warning Ahead (c. 2017), shows gathering clouds above a radiation hazard highway sign; Will Wilson’s aerial photography series, Mexican Hat Disposal Cell, Navajo Nation (2020–21), offers a hyperdetailed survey of abandoned uranium mines on Navajo land in southern Utah; and Klee Benally’s VR installation, Poise/end (2017), provides an immersive encounter with a contaminated Southwest desert landscape.
In addition to highlighting these focused geographic parallels, the show offers an overarching critique of nuclear colonialism. An etching by Carl Beam (Ojibway), Sitting Bull and Einstein (from the series The Columbus Suite) (c. 1990), features repeating black-and-white portraits of the icon of Indigenous resistance above those of the atomic scientist in a stylistic nod to Eadweard Muybridge and Andy Warhol and a reflection on the power struggle within knowledge itself. The critique resonates across works from different regions, as well: Tahitian and Hakka Chinese artist Alexander Lee’s Antechamber (2016) includes two burnt wood vitrines holding distorted ceramic objects that suggest ceremonial significance as well as ruination, while Nucleus (U235) (2021) by Yhonnie Scarce (Kokatha and Nukunu) consists of warped blown glass renderings of Aboriginal Australian foods, such as yams and bush plums, as if crystallized in a nuclear blast. Each conveys a sense of endurance within shattered worlds. Lee’s ink-on-paper series Untitled (2017) covers a wall with fuzzy, Rorschach-like monoprints of a mushroom cloud—an emblem of geopolitical destruction that recurs, along with the trefoil radiation symbol, throughout the exhibition.
While popular media often construes nuclear devastation as a looming threat, this precise yet far-reaching exhibition illustrates the scope of catastrophes that have already occurred. In Anointed (2018), a video poem about the Runit atoll in the Marshall Islands, where the U.S. conducted mid-century nuclear weapons tests, Marshallese-Majol poet Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner mourns this once sustaining island, now a concrete-capped “crater” of “solidified history.” The poem and the show reject the colonial narrative of “remote” locations and “invisible” radiation, providing an important and richly imagined alternative account.
Exposure: Native Art and Political Ecology runs from January 27–June 11, 2023 at the Armory Center for the Arts (145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena, CA 91103).