BROCKTON — Aquinnah Wampanoag artist Jonathan James-Perry is in many ways the soul of “Another Crossing: Artists Revisit the Mayflower Voyage” at Fuller Craft Museum. As work progressed on the show, he explained Wampanoag history and culture to the other artists. His piece, “Bear Witness,” is the heart of the exhibition.
“This was a society that was so hurt,” he says of the Pilgrims and their culture in a wall text, “that it felt the need to strip my ancestors of what belonged to them.”
“Bear Witness” is the first thing you see as you approach the exhibition. A Wampanoag dugout canoe called a mishoon, it’s an Eastern white pine hollowed out with fire, stocked with red medicinal bundles and floating above the gallery. It faces east, as if in exchange with the Mayflower. Its mission, the artist suggests, is to recover Native people sent to England as slaves or oddities. Many Wampanoag people were enslaved. Pocahontas, a Powhatan woman, was presented to London society as a “civilized savage” to raise investment money for the Jamestown settlement in 1616, before the Mayflower even set sail. She never came home, dying there in her early 20s.
Guest curator Glenn Adamson gathered 10 artists for “Another Crossing.” They are Indigenous, Black, and white; they are from North America, Great Britain, and the Netherlands. Several enlisted collaborators. Their task was conceptually enormous — to consider the impact of the Mayflower’s trip — but rigidly limited. They had to use 17th-century technologies, an edict they mostly stuck to.
Adamson and the artists made two research trips, to Plymouth, Mass., and Plymouth, England. Next year, the exhibition will travel to Great Britain to the Plymouth College of Art and the Box, a museum there, which partnered with Fuller Craft on this project. It’s presented in conjunction with Plymouth 400, a nonprofit that has been marking the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival in 1620.
The art in “Another Crossing” offers no solutions. Rather, it offers a kind of grace, making space to grapple with the complexity of this history: a group that sailed to these shores seeking religious freedom, a journey around which the founding mythology of our nation was built. Their arrival marked the beginning of centuries of violence and genocide toward Indigenous peoples.
For centuries, the Pilgrim story has been whitewashed. This show is corrective. Sonya Clark, a Black American artist, specializes in illuminating such erasures, giving language to stories that linger, throbbing, under the surface. Her installation “Power Tools: press / text / land / language” includes the word “Patuxet,” the Wampanoag name for the land the Pilgrims called Plymouth, written in soil from that area. Unfixed, it will fade over the length of the exhibition and perhaps disappear.
“Today, there are over 35 million Mayflower descendants, and less than 6,000 Wampanoag people in existence,” writes James-Perry, in his statement for this show.
Adamson has designed an elegant exhibition, full of rhymes and symmetry. Beneath “Bear Witness” lies British artist Katie Schwab’s “Welcome Mat (Unfinished),” plaited from wetland grass, sturdy but incomplete. At the end of the exhibition, her “Weilcom my Freinds” is hammered into the wall with brawny, hand-forged nails. Schwab found that text on a 17th-century English Delftware plate in the Museum of Fine Arts’ collection. These fraught welcomes bracket the show, open but wary, tinged with violence.
Here also hangs an echo of James-Perry’s mishoon. Alaskan artist Annette Bellamy invited six Indigenous artists to join her in crafting small boats. These point west. Tlingit artist Da-Ka-Xeen Mehner’s dugout canoe is charred and painted bloody red inside. A polar bear hangs below the Unangan and Athabascan/Dene artist Rebecca Lyon’s upended ark, evoking climate change. Dark as it is, this armada nonetheless feels hopeful, as if setting out on a journey despite peril ahead and behind. Like the Pilgrims.
The exhibition lays out differences between Native economies, with their focus on spiritual worth and land stewardship, and European capitalism. Pocahontas, remember, was used to draw investors.
In a strange twist, Dutch artist Christien Meindertsma, who makes work about trade, currencies, and capitalism, saw her piece accidentally shipped to Shanghai. It’s not here, and when it will be installed is uncertain. But American Michelle Erickson’s ceramic pots, which are here, touch on the same theme. She ornaments them with cast shells that at once reference Native American wampum, a Christian symbol for pilgrimage, and the Shell Oil logo.
This is America; we are all these things. When we see our nation simply in a heroic light and refuse to explore the darkness, we slight ourselves. To reflect on the Pilgrims and not own up to the ongoing rupture caused by European settlement is like living in a family in which trauma has occurred and nobody ever talks about it. It’s exhausting. It flattens us. It makes us less than who we are.
During the research phase of “Another Crossing,” British silversmith David Clarke thought about backing out. As a white Englishman, he wondered if he was really one to comment on the Pilgrims’ journey and the dreadful ripple effect it had on Native communities in North America.
His doubts escalated after he attended a talk by scholar Stephanie Pratt. Pratt is a former art history instructor at University of Plymouth in England.
Clarke approached her with his dilemma. In an artist’s statement, he paraphrases her response: “This is about humanity, and the clearest way we can discuss this is through art.” He pressed on.
Good that he did. White artists have a role in the discourse about race and violence: to put ego aside and listen. Making art acknowledges.
Clarke chose lead, the metal used for shot in 17th-century firearms. If a musket ball didn’t kill someone straight out, it might poison its victim. He poured molten lead over linen, thinking it would overtake and suffocate the textile, just as white society dominated and choked Indigenous ones.
It didn’t, quite. The lead soaked in and strangled the linen, but it did not destroy it. Clarke’s “Poor Trait,” in a frame that echoes that of a portrait of Pocahontas in the Smithsonian’s collection, is suspended on a butcher’s meat hook. You can see both sides — the beauty and the violence. The grit and the scars.
ANOTHER CROSSING: ARTISTS REVISIT THE MAYFLOWER VOYAGE
At Fuller Craft Museum, 455 Oak St., Brockton, through Oct. 10. “Excavating Histories — Technique, Research, and Collaboration,” featuring curator Glenn Adamson and several artists, takes place on Zoom at noon on July 15. 508-588-6000, www.fullercraft.org
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.