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In her first solo exhibition at Murmurs, Maria Maea, a first-generation American artist of Mexican and Samoan descent, challenged the ritualized and repetitive ways of functioning within institutional structures by decentralizing herself as the sole author. The inclusion of her mother, Susan Tuilaepa, and brother, Martin Tuilaepa, in a relational exhibition-making process was deeply rooted in Indigenous ideas of community. Months before All in Time opened, Maea returned to her hometown of Long Beach, where together they wove palm fronds, a principal material found in each of the exhibition’s artworks. While they worked, the three recorded their conversations about Samoa, where Maea’s maternal family is from.1 Through this collaboration, All in Time ultimately presented an alternative and explicitly political model for exhibition-making. In exploring her multifaceted identity in collaboration with her family, Maea demonstrated the importance of moving out of the institutional structures and labels that seek to constrain Brown artists while modeling how an artist might facilitate community healing.
The exhibition can be viewed as a practice in “re-Indigenization,” which entails a transformation in ways of thinking and knowing to privilege Indigenous worldviews, natural laws, languages, voices, stories, and insights.2 In addition to explorations of both her maternal Samoan and paternal Mexican heritages,3 Maea embraced the idea of re-Indigenization particularly as it applies to biodiversity—the way plant life was included in the work embodied the Indigenous practice of honoring all ecologies as “alive.”4 Rather than use plants as props, Maea surrendered to them—sunflowers, marigolds, dried proteas, Madagascar jasmine, magnolia seed pods, Spanish moss, yellow squash, and more were left to their own devices across her sculptures. Over the course of the seven-week exhibition, they grew, died, and became infested with milkweed beetles, as the jasmine plants in Untitled (Nephew) (2020) did during opening week.
Maea’s work on that sculpture began two years prior to All in Time. After modeling her nephew’s face in concrete, Maea framed the sculpture with chicken wire and placed it on a wreath stand for stability. The sculpture was then placed in Maea’s garden, where it became entangled with the growth of various plants over a two-year period. At Murmurs, the uprooted sculpture wore a crown of milkweed and marigolds, its head lifted upwards and eyes closed. The figure’s left hand appeared to float in front of him in a prayer position, while his severed left foot took a step forward. The sculpture seemed to be in an ambiguous, liminal state, at once appearing to bloom and decay, freeze and move, break free from the plants yet be overwhelmingly engulfed by them.
The two other figural sculptures in the center of the main gallery mythologized Maea’s mother and brother. Maea’s background in performance and her interest in kinetic art were most evident in these organic compositions, which were inherently gestural and dynamic. All in Time (2022), a monumental sculpture of her mother Susan, was the focal point of the show. The sculpture imagines Maea’s majestic mother wearing a crown of marigolds; the figure tilts her head downwards, gently touching her wax hands to the foliage that makes up her form, as she emerges from a whirlpool of woven palms and Spanish moss. In my conversation with Maea, she described her mother as being stuck “midstream in her story,” one in which she constantly renegotiates the relationship to her personal and ancestral past in both California and Samoa.
In a separate gallery space, an installation by Maea’s mother, Taupō Creations (2022), presented a glimpse into her practice as a designer of traditional Samoan costumes. The installation (named for her fashion label, Taupō Creations) featured a tuiga headdress, adornment that previously marked chiefly lineage and today is used more by women in dance ceremonies as emblems of Samoan cultural identity.5 The headdress, accompanied by a floor-length dress made of palm weavings, was placed in front of a hanging Siapo textile made from u’a (mulberry bark) and dyed with natural materials. Historically, Indigenous practices have been largely omitted from the exclusive institution of the art gallery, displayed instead separated from their cultural context in vitrines of ethnographic museums. Here, they became a central part of the exhibition’s story. As Maea explained to me, her mother felt “prouder” and “lighter” after the opening, attesting to the healing powers of such communal work. By sharing her resources and platform, Maea allowed her family’s cultural capital to develop and their agency as artists to emerge.
All in Time presented a new model for art-making that relies on Indigenous practices and values such as working closely with one’s community, sharing resources, and respecting the natural world. This intuitive process of re-Indigenization in both practice and thought allowed Maea to connect with her paternal Mexican and maternal Samoan lineage as a diasporic and first-generation American artist. Exhibitions like this have proven impactful for artists with similar histories and trajectories. In our conversation, Maea noted that after seeing All in Time, a few people in her local community of radical queer Brown artists expressed interest in engaging their own family members in future projects. Most importantly, for Maea and her family, this exhibition connected them to a long history of Indigenous tradition, allowing them to imagine themselves as the future ancestors that they will one day become.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 31.