Sarah Rowe: Indian Time
by J. Fatima Martins
February 22, 2017
“Indian Time” is not a casual art exhibition that one takes in for pure pleasure. What appears to be easy to decipher, at first reading, proves to be extraordinarily authentic and complex. Although beautiful, skillfully composed, and aesthetically satisfying, the exhibition goes beyond the shallowness of profane ‘art object’ designed for collecting. “Indian Time” resonates a sacrosanct tonality.
Omaha-based interdisciplinary artist, Sara Rowe, who is Native American of Lakota and Ponca descent, and a practitioner of the Ghost Dance, honors her ancestral identity as an indigenous woman by commanding the sacred cultural motifs of her people, as well as the handicraft process associated with feminine domestic life both Native and European, to create and arrange with thoughtful consideration, a contemplative, meditative, and shamanistic installation.
In “Indian Time,” Rowe presents twelve mixed-media and mixed-process works of art, including four of her signature and well-known “Power Bundles.” The works on view are composed of a variety of materials including vintage and found fabric, synthetic and natural plants, animal hair, feathers, vintage household objects, liquids, and contemporary painting, printmaking, and drawing that are all interconnected symbolically into a holistic dialogue.
Her artistic aesthetic expands upon traditional Native American design and process to include blended contemporary modes. The style is a sophisticated cross-cultural mix of old and new, urban and agrarian, intuitive and studied. At her core she is a contemporary craft artist,
but she’s unconventional in the manner in which engages history. Her work borrows the earth forms and domestic technique of people who live close to the land yet have adapted to the concrete jungle of the city. Rowe has broken out of the stereotypical styles of Native cultural art
to create something unique that doesn’t fit any formal definition. Her work encourages questions about the intersectionality of contemporary art and cultural sacredness.
“Indian Time” is a physical and spiritual audience immersive Ritual (capitalized here to mean that it is a complete action, not a generalization.) The entire gallery space exists as an Altar, a place
to offer and interact with extramundane forces. Rowe calls the exhibition a ‘beacon of light.’ Within this space, the installation of objects which are all symbolically connected, engage a sacred and soulful experience working as a ‘call to action’ uniting indigenous people and their allies into a global community. The purpose is to generate powerful inter-dimensional transformative protective energy against the destructive power of consumeristic violence. Is it possible that the exhibition evokes Ghost Dance as contemporary resistance strategy?
The center piece of the exhibition is a ritual altar called “Make America Turtle Island Again,” featuring an upside-down stylized American flag with long blue-fringed attachments hanging downward, and an embellished fabric turtle attached at center point on top of the blue and white star square known as the ‘union.’ The turtle is a universal indigenous symbol representing the creation story of the known world as an island existing on the back of giant cosmic turtle. The flipped position of the flag indicates that it is in distress. The United States Flag Code Title 4 states, “ The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.” Reading the symbols together (upside down flag with blue fringe + turtle mother) the understanding is that mother earth’s waters are in danger. How long can the sacred turtle survive flipped on its back?
“Make America Turtle Island Again” also includes as its base a glass jug of clear water, a symbol of pure life force, and a shell filled with sacred sage. On a lower platform is a decorative glass water
pitcher containing black crude oil - Black Gold - representing wealth and death. A white glass container for burning a sacred offering (representing the fire element) is placed in front of the water motif. On either side of central scared space are platforms holding vintage teacups, delicate and feminine, filled with black oil and plant seeds. It is in the teacups where the elements converge into potent symbology alive with agency and spiritual energy. The teacups are a physical reminder that we cannot drink oil; water has been polluted.
The altar also alludes to European cultural experience and the tradition of pagan household altars, in which harmful energy generated by destructive events can be driven away by engaging their existence. In this case, the ‘bad luck’ created by the violent force of bringing up oil (which is a dead thing/ fire demon) out of the earth is confronted during the process/ act of counteracting its negative forces via ritual by unleashing them at the sacred altar. Another interpretation of the teacups is that of ‘reading of tea leaves’ as in identifying prophetic omens.
It is at ‘turtle altar’ where time collapses; ancestors are called up to assist and protect the living as history repeats itself. The term/phrase “Indian Time” is a colloquial modern expression derived from the sacred “Ceremonial Time” which is a concept describing ‘collapsed time and space’ where the past, present, and future exist together. In “Ceremonial Time” the energy of the past lives as memory; there is no beginning and end, and existence is layered and cyclical where contemporary people live with the ghosts, continually experiencing the sins and virtues of their mothers and fathers. “Ceremonial Time” is incorporated in Ghost Dance and there are references to the practice in Rowe’s fabric pieces in the form of drawings of what appear to be ‘ghost warriors’ or ancestors.
Europeans, being mostly tied to linear time and property-ownership constructs, have denigrated the fluid concept of holistic time, misunderstanding or ignoring ‘indian time’ as important nature
philosophy, devaluing it into a pejorative quality. To battle the insulting view, Native Americans have taken back the concept, owning it as a power characteristic. In her exhibition statement, Rowe writes,”Indian Time is a phrase I grew up hearing in jest within my Native family, mostly when guests arrive an hour late for dinner. I understood it more deeply as a connection to one’s own biorhythms not bound to the rigid ticking of a clock. Today, I consider it as an
In two works Rowe addresses the idea of time directly. The first is “Indian Time,” a mixed material wall sculpture that is made of a reused wooden cabinet from an old clock into which horsehair, flowers, and other materials have been placed. Attached to and projecting out of the clock face are fabric ‘prayer ties,’ small colorful fabric pieces that are tied to strings generating the appearance of butterflies and alluding to the idea of ‘time flying’ or ‘sending blessings out into the time and space.’ The second work takes on the ‘prayer ties’ again. In “Cascade” a series of long strands of white yarn hold more colorful fabric remnants, again symbolizing movement and fluidity, cascading down from a discarded wooden shelving piece.
The themes holding the exhibition together are the process of weaving, sewing, or ‘tying together’ objects infused with meaning as well as the fluidity and of water. In the banner “Earth, Air, Firewater,” which is an eleven segmented fabric construction of made of vintage domestic cloth material, Rowe has reduced the four sacred elements - earth, air, fire, water - into three, combining ‘fire’ and ‘water’ into the explosive term ‘firewater’ referring to the toxic consumption of alcohol on Indian reservations as well as the invasion of the oil pipeline snaking through ancestral native land.
The need to protect the earth’s environment from unrestricted consumption and waste is the most important struggle that humans will continue to experience into the future. “We must pay attention to our biorhythms and make certain that our instincts sway in the direction of stewardship for the land we have grown to commodify,” urges Rowe.
“Indian Time,” which has the potential to be one of the most important and relevant Nebraska-based exhibitions this year, is only one of the countless sacred responses and ‘calls to action’ and prayers that indigenous people, globally, continue to project into the universe in hope of transforming hate into love.