The Block is currently forming the exhibition Woven Being: Indigenous Art in Chicagoland (working title) through Indigenous curatorial methodologies that prioritize collaboration, reciprocity, and sustained dialogue with an expanding, intergenerational community of Indigenous knowledge sharers and non-Indigenous allies. The Block’s Lois Biggs, (Cherokee Nation and White Earth Ojibwe) Terra Foundation Curatorial Research Fellow, shares a personal account of an exhibition research trip.
In early August 2022, the Woven Being curatorial team spent a long weekend in Michigan.
I grew up in Grand Rapids, our base for the trip, and was excited to welcome my colleagues to my hometown as we visited tribal cultural centers and built relationships with Great Lakes artists. Before the trip began, I made ten sema – tobacco – ties so we could start our visits in a good way.
Janet Dees, Kathleen Bickford Berzock, and I met on Thursday afternoon at the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi tribal offices. Driving in, we were struck by road signs which indicated animal crossings in English and Bodwéwadmimwen, the Potawatomi language. We watched for “mhiské” – turtles – and “wigé wêsiyek, – wild animals including squirrels, frogs, deer, and snakes – as we made our way to the Pokagon Court & Peacekeeping Center to meet Pokagon Potawatomi artist and Peacemaking Coordinator Jason Wesaw. Jason walked us through the Center, designed by Seven Generations Architecture + Engineering to house and encourage the renewal of Potawatomi conflict resolution practices. His work at the Pokagon Peacekeeping Center and his art practice, he explained, are inextricably linked elements of his dedication to community and Potawatomi lifeways.
At the Potawatomi Center for History and Culture, we visited with Cultural Activities Coordinator Nicole Holloway and artist Madalene Big Bear. After discussing the Woven Being project over coffee, Nicole and Madalene gave us a tour of Center for History and Culture art collections which span painting, beadwork, photography, and black ash basketry. (Visit Wiwkwébthëgen for more information about the tribe’s Collections work). We were honored by Nicole’s gift of a basket by renowned Potawatomi artist Jennie Brown. The basket will join The Block’s collection, and our exchanges with the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi will continue.
Our colleagues Erin Northington and Jordan Poorman Cocker joined us at the hotel on Friday morning. Together, we drove north to the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinaabe Culture and Lifeways in Mount Pleasant, MI. Run by the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan and acclaimed for its groundbreaking, community-led curatorial approach, the Ziibiwing Center’s Diba Jimooyung (Telling our Story) exhibition walks visitors through Anishinaabe history in the Great Lakes region and beyond.
The exhibition is structured by the Anishinaabe Seven Fires Prophecy, a set of teachings which speak to the Anishinaabe past, present, and future. As our team moved through the circular gallery, we paused often for reflection and conversation. We lingered on a large painting of car bingo by late, renowned Little Traverse Odawa artist Dave Shananaquet, noting the subtle yet spirited expressions of the players in their cars and Shananaquet’s formal blending of flatness with depth. We spent time with a display of beaded bandolier bags, discussing the inextricable relationship between beauty, memory, and intergenerational survival woven into the bags. We smiled at a cedar chest carved with the Nike logo by a Saginaw Chippewa youth and noted that, throughout the exhibition didactics, Anishinaabemowin words preceded English translations and formed a base for understanding the objects and beings within Diba Jimooyung.
Our visit to the Ziibiwing Center, a moving experience of Indigenous curatorial methodologies that prioritize collaboration, reciprocity, and sustained dialogue, will inform our efforts to center Indigenous knowledge and experience within Woven Being.
Before wrapping up our day, we walked through the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s Anishinabek: The People of This Place exhibition to view black ash baskets and experience another approach to community-involved curatorial practice.
On Friday evening, my parents, uncle, and I hosted the team at our home for a dinner celebration. As we introduced ourselves, swapped stories, and visited my father’s studio, we shared zucchini-ricotta flatbread, fresh Michigan berries, and sparkling lavender lemonade.
The Biggs’ family welcomes the Block curatorial team
After our visits and conversations in Dowagiac, Mount Pleasant, and Grand Rapids, we looked forward to spending our Saturday with two Anishinaabe artists: Jason Wesaw and Kelly Church.
Jason and his youngest daughter Sophia hosted us at their family home in Bangor, Michigan. Before walking us through his own drawing, ceramic, and textile practices, Jason shared several works, including a map of his ancestral territory and drawings by Indigenous artists he admires, from his personal collection. The grounding in place and dedication to a broader community reflected in his collection suffuse his drawing, ceramic, textile, and photography practices. Jason encodes Potawatomi worldviews within abstract, colorful work which reflects the cyclical nature of life and the transmission of knowledge across generations.
We talked through his intergenerational approach to artmaking and his current projects, including an installation Of This Place: Native Nations in the Rockford Region at the Burpee Museum, before stepping down to his basement studio to view several drawings and sculptures in progress. Once again, he turned our attention to the works that inform his own – a shelf full of black ash baskets and painted bowls by West Michigan artists, a work by Mississippi Choctaw/Cherokee artist Jeffrey Gibson, and a painting by his daughter, Sophia. We thank Jason for sharing his time and thoughtful perspective with us, and look forward to further visits.
After wrapping up our time with Jason, we drove to Kelly Church’s studio in downtown Allegan. Kelly, a black ash basket maker and educator, comes from an unbroken line of black ash basket makers. Her works and teaching emphasize the importance of passing this practice to future generations, especially in the face of the environmental threat posed by the Emerald Ash Borer.
Kelly greeted us with homemade Indian tacos and, over the course of our afternoon together, taught us two Anishinaabe material practices: birch bark biting and making cordage. To create our bitings, we peeled paper-thin layers from strips of birch bark. Kelly instructed us to fold them into sections and use our teeth to create butterfly and turtle patterns. To make cordage, a versatile twine used for fishing nets and snares, we twisted together skeins of soaked and dried basswood bark until they formed a long, sturdy rope.
As we peeled our bark and twisted our cords, our conversations moved from family names to black ash gathering to the importance of treaty literacy for museum curators seeking to understand Indigenous identity. Together, we took a closer look at Kelly’s baskets as well as several baskets made by her daughter, Cherish Parrish. We came away from the visit full, happy, and appreciative of Kelly’s hospitality, carrying leftover birch squares to practice our biting at home.
We concluded our weekend by joining my parents for dinner on the West Side of Grand Rapids. The next morning, Jordan returned to Oklahoma and I prepared to move into a new apartment. Erin, Janet, and Kathleen drove out to the University of Michigan Museum of Art to view Future Cache, a solo exhibition of works by Grand Portage Ojibwe artist Andrea Carlson, and Watershed, a group exhibition focused on Great Lakes waterways.
The Woven Being team is grateful for our experiences in Michigan, and for the relationships we were able to build and deepen. Our conversations throughout the trip – over shared meals and long drives, with family members and knowledge sharers – have set key groundwork for our continued process.
Header Image: Curatorial team meets with artist Kelly Church – Left to right: Jordan Poorman Cocker, Erin Northington, Janet Dees, Kelly Church, Lois Biggs and Kathleen Bickford Berzock