Monarchs exhibit follows 3,000 mile butterfly journey with 35 Indigenous artists

Artist Franky Cruz and Franky Yazza giving MOCA attendees information on caring for nectar and host plants for the Monarch butterfly from his indoor greenhouse exhibit on July 21, 2018. (Photo by Benjamin Yazza)

Monarchs: Brown & Native Contemporary Artists in the Path of the Butterfly: curated by Risa Puleo & started in Omaha, NE

From July 18-22, Native American Journalists Association student fellows from across the country attended the National Association of Hispanic Journalists conference in Miami where they reported on topics within Indian Country.

NAJA fellows Taylor Notah (Diné) and Benjamin Yazza (Diné) attended the art installation Monarchs: Native and Brown Contemporary Artists in the Path of the Butterfly at Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art where curator Risa Puleo showcased the works of 35 participating Native American and Hispanic artists.

From Canada to Mexico and back, the Monarch butterfly navigates across North America each fall for its 3,000-mile migratory journey. It takes four generations of the colorful insects to complete this trek, with each generation retaining memories from the previous.

While the Monarchs can freely navigate alongside a path that connects the Standing Rock reservation to the U.S./Mexico border, the Native peoples who live in the path cannot. They encounter geological borders that systematize them as immigrants and assimilated Americans.

Entrance to the Monarchs exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Arts in North Miami. (Photo by Taylor Notah)

Monarchs: Brown and Native Contemporary Artists in the Path of the Butterfly is curated by Risa Puleo and was organized by Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Nebraska, where it was first presented December 7, 2017–February 24, 2018. The exhibit’s popularity brought it to the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami, Miami, FL on May 24–August 5, 2018. The exhibit is planned to showcase the exhibits in San Antonio, TX, Overland Park, KS and Minneapolis MN throughout September of 2019.

Earlier this Summer, “Monarchs: Brown and Native Contemporary Artists in the Path of the Butterfly,” was installed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami. Though there were a total of 35 indigenous artists featured at the exhibit, seven of the artists in the show lived in the Miami area.

Here are some of the artists and exhibits seen at the museum.

Butterfly Talk and Walk

Local featured Miami artist Franky Cruz (Dominican-Republic) hosted a Butterfly Talk and Walk panel on July 21 which discussed the migratory patterns of the Monarch butterfly and their threat of extinction. Cruz, whose exhibit featured an indoor greenhouse nursery that housed Monarch butterflies along with their host and nectar plants, gave packets of milkweed and wildflower seeds to a 30-plus audience at MOCA as an effort to provide habitat for the migrating insects as well as tips on how to grow a successful butterfly garden.

His discussion also provided historical insight on the Miami-area’s loss of many indigenous plant species which was caused by the invasion of other plants. Explaining that Florida means “flowery” or “full of flowers” in Spanish, Cruz said combatting the extinction of the monarch butterfly by raising awareness and pushing for a more natural habitat is “a beautiful solution of introducing indigenous plants back to the (Florida) landscape.”

Just as Cruz’s greenhouse and discussion explore the transformation, territory and loss of the Monarch butterfly, the collective works of the featured artists all explore the different themes of identity, beauty, belonging and migration.

Wasted: Disguising and reclaiming the narrative

For artists Cannupa Hanska Luger, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota, Scandinavian, Germanic. and Marty Two Bulls, Jr., Oglala Lakota, from the Standing Rock and Pine Ridge reservations respectively, their collaborative installation “Wasted” creates conversations on issues that impact Indian Country.

It also disguises popular culture’s views of Native Americans.

“The theme is riding on the shoulder of the Monarch butterfly, (which) spreads an Indigenous worldview that didn’t have these geopolitical borders that separated our ability for mobility,” said Luger, 39. “We both just had different approaches to opening up an conversation around this idea of waste and what it means to be wasted.”

Artists Marty Two Bulls, Jr. and Cannupa Hanska Luger conceptualize the idea of waste by incorporating Indigenous culture and perspectives in their installation titled “Wasted” at the Monarchs: Native and Brown Artists in the Path of the Butterfly exhibition at MOCA in North Miami. (Photo by Benjamin Yazza)

An array of empty red, blue, black and white clay and ceramic wine bottles, milk jugs, aluminum beer cans, cigarette and cigar butts lie untidily on a countertop seemingly with no purpose. Upon closer examination though, striking Lakota star quilt patterns that decorate milk jugs catch the eye as does the black boom box with a dreamcatcher as the speaker. Tomahawks, teepees and mascot imagery adorn the beer cans and bottles while arrows and bullet holes sharply pierce the ceramic and clay creations, hinting that the objects served as target practice.

The conceptualizations of Native culture combined with a “waste” aesthetic is what inspired each artist, but through their own interpretations.

For Two Bulls, Jr., who grew up in both Lakota and Western cultures, he examines this “cultural garbage aftermath” and explained that the use of bottles is to visualize the “aftermath of a ruckus party”, not as instruments of addiction.

An 8-year-old boy studies the ceramic and clay creations of “Wasted.” When asked his thoughts on the installation, the young boy shyly replied, “It was great.” (Photo by Benjamin Yazza)

“The thing about trash piles is that there’s a lot of truth in them and… ancient cultures are like looking at garbage,” the 33-year-old explained. “Parts of (Native) culture that were really important maybe got thrown away or parts that (Native people) were looking for … were also thrown away.”

Luger’s interpretation is a literal one that is conveyed with the use of mascot imagery and wording. Challenging the notion of Native identities being used to sell products as an “honor”, Luger argued that the result is a dehumanizing tool that only fills a “rubbish pit.”

“How is that any sort of honor?” Luger asked. “(In Monarchs) we wanted to say, ‘We could’ve had something beautiful, but you wasted it.’ And that is the level of waste that we are talking, a missed opportunity.”

While their artwork explore issues that impact Indian Country, Two Bulls, Jr. said their interpretations are not intended to disrespect Indigenous audiences.

“It’s not meant to be disrespectful,” Two Bulls, Jr. said. “The aspects that I use are Native iconography (and) imagery that come from my culture, the things that I grew up around. It’s uncomfortable incorporating, (yet) evolving and reclaiming.”

Broken treaties: Healing with quilts

From 1778 to 1871, 364 treaties were negotiated between the U.S. government and Native American tribes, nearly all of which were either broken, nullified or amended. For contemporary hybrid artist Gina Adams, her life’s work is to transfer the wording of all 364 treaties onto quilts to educate the public about the broken promises of these treaties.

Miami resident Alexandra Suco, 18, studies the “Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, 1848” at MOCA. (Photo by Benjamin Yazza)

“I keep thinking about what I want to say based on what needs to be said, what needs to be more educated, what needs to be told about history (such as) boarding schools, forced removals and relocation of children,” Adams, Objibwe/Lakota descent, 53, said. “Now we have the immigrant children who are being forced into these prison camps and history has totally repeated itself.”

Thalia Rodriguez, 18, of Miami closely examines the Broken Treaty Quilts at the Monarchs exhibit on July 21, 2018. (Photo by Benjamin Yazza)

From her series Its Honor is Hereby Pledged, Adams created six Broken Treaty quilts for the Monarch exhibit, two of which (titled “Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, 1848” and “Fort Laramie Treaty 1851”) are on display at MOCA. All six are treaties that originate along the line the Monarchs travel from Canada to Mexico, Adams explained.

“I try to find an exhibition in a certain geographical location, then I start researching the treaties of that area and I create (them),” she said. “This is my way of recognizing Indigenous peoples of that area.”

All quilts must be at least 100 years old, a carefully chosen characteristic where Adams only seeks quilts that are roughly the same age as the treaties. The lettering on the quilts is hard to read, another intentional feature as the treaties themselves had vague and confusing language.

Starting on the quilt project four years ago, Adams hand cuts and hand-stitches the calico fabric lettering onto the antique quilts front and back. She has 27 completed quilts and is currently working on three at her studio at Dartmouth College where she has an artistry residency.

The concept came to her in a dream the same day that she and her mother had purchased an antique quilt at a Maine flea market. Her grandfather attended the Carlisle Boarding School, and just as Monarchs retain memories from previous generations, Adams wanted to take her cultural and ancestral knowledge to educate others.

Describing herself as a social-political artist, Adams said it is her responsibility to seek out answers from cultures even though it may be uncomfortable.

“The creators of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution all created this system of reservations, forced migrations, assimilation practices and boarding schools,” Adams explained. “I’m trying to educate people with in my work in a kind way by using the quilts so that it’s enticing, it’s about comfort, but then you realize, ‘Oh, it’s about something else, and that something else, I don’t know anything about.’ Most people have told me that they don’t know anything about the existence of the treaties or boarding schools.”

For Adams, Monarchs is a collective message about community.

“The community created with these people who we all call ourselves brown, we are of many many different communities, we care about giving and want to share with others,” she said, “but we’re also deeply concerned with the future and we want to hang on with a connection to our past. In my smaller attempt, that is what I’m attempting to do, is to change something and somehow. I’m just one artist, but I really believe that everything will have the potential for larger change and I have to be the one to start.”


According to the Bemis Center website, Monarchs: Brown and Native Contemporary Artists in the Path of the Butterfly is traveling to several venues across the United States and is accompanied by a catalog supported, in part, by the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation, Sandra Fossum, and Watie White. The publication is designed and will be distributed by [NAME] Publications.

The Tour Schedule is as follows:

Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami, Miami, FL (May 24–August 5, 2018)

Blue Star Contemporary and Southwest School of Art, San Antonio, TX (October 4, 2018–January 6, 2019)

The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Overland Park, KS (March 7–June 2, 2019)

The Soap Factory, Minneapolis, MN (June 21–September 1, 2019)

Exhibiting Artists

Gina Adams
Carmen Argote
Natalie Ball
Margarita Cabrera
Juan William Chávez
William Cordova
Rafa Esparza
Nancy Friedemann-Sánchez
Guillermo Galindo
Jeffrey Gibson
Sky Hopinka
Donna Huanca
Truman Lowe
Ivan LOZANO
Cannupa Hanska Luger
Salvador Jiménez-Flores
Nicholas Galanin & Merritt Johnson
Rodolfo Marron III
Harold Mendez
Mark Menjivar
Ronny Quevedo
Wendy Red Star
Gonzalo Reyes Rodriguez
Josh Rios & Anthony Romero
Guadalupe Rosales
Carlos Rosales-Silva
Sarah Rowe
Edra Soto
Francisco Souto
Marty Two Bulls Jr.
Rodrigo Valenzuela
Mary Valverde
Dyani White Hawk
Nathan Young
Sarah Zapata

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