SALEM — “Each/Other: Marie Watt and Cannupa Hanska Luger,” which recently opened at the Peabody Essex Museum, is a two-hander of an exhibition shared between a pair of artists, both Native American. The contrast between Watt’s and Luger’s work seems obvious: Hers is soft, his hard; hers convivial, his confrontational; hers felt and wool, his stone and rubber and steel. But in their generous, generative, super-social art-making modes, they mesh. Theirs is a shared invitation to engage.
Watt, an enrolled citizen of the Seneca Nation, and Luger, an enrolled citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, come together, literally, only once, in the collaborative piece that gives the show its name: “Each/Other,” a towering rainbow patchwork effigy of a she-wolf. It’s as pert and endearing as an enormous lap dog and fitted with bright, curious eyes. The piece is the product of their partnership, but it took dozens of hands beyond theirs. The beast’s quilted skin is the result of an open appeal to people all over the world to embroider messages on bandanas. They come together as a bright maelstrom of difference: I saw one stitched with “MMIW,” the bleak and, by now, well-known acronym for the ongoing Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women epidemic; another, embroidered in bright orange and red on pink paisley, simply said, “I’M OK.”
Their individual works merge just once: In the foyer, Watt’s “Skywalker/Skyscraper (Babel),” 2012, a heavy I-beam standing on end and planted in a stack of blankets, is a tribute to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) ironworkers unfazed by great heights while erecting sky-high towers in big American cities.
Next to it is Luger’s “Every One,” 2018, a looming curtain of handmade clay beads that coalesce in the peaceful gaze of an Indigenous woman. It’s a tribute to the same MMIW epidemic and a totem of loss, made by many hands — Luger enlisted community members to make the beads as a collective act of healing and remembrance. “Every One” merges the many with a single gesture. She is them.
The show then splits neatly in two between Watt’s largely soft sculpture and Luger’s multifarious practice of performance, video, and hard-edged figurative pieces made from a range of materials, from ceramic to truck tires and razor wire. What the two artists share, together and alone, is a collaborative spirit that runs through all their work.
Watt often convenes sewing circles, a nod to Indigenous traditions of shared learning and experience. Swatches of blanket emblazoned with words and sayings are sewn together into monumental soft tableaux. (“Each/Other” seems a direct descendent of this practice specifically.) They’re strikingly intimate — disarmingly so, given their simple proposition of fabric and text. But the touch of many hands is so present that the works radiate warmth and humanity. Two pieces side-by-side in earthy greens and browns, made while Watt was an artist in residence at the Denver Art Museum in 2020, are each festooned with a panoply of voices, dozens of individually-stitched panels merged into a collective chorus: “Guardian Tree” is sea-green thread on mud brown; “Origin Stories,” multicolored; “tough winds,” black on green.
I love Watt’s practice for how steadfastly contemporary it is. While explicitly entwined with longstanding Indigenous values, her work is a declaration of their vibrancy and relevance in the here and now. She cannily deploys canonic art history as a sly subversion: “Blanket Stories: Talking Stick, Works Progress, Steward (White Pine),” a towering wood-carved blanket stack from 2016, seems a clear reference to Constantin Brâncuși’s “Endless Column,” a totem of high Modernism from 1918. Where Brâncuși’s work was about the cold purity of form, empty of any other meaning, Watt infuses her piece with organic, explicit humanity.
Her work is often a gentle retort to backward-minded notions of Indigenous cultures as historic relics. Always generous, it can also be cheeky and good-humored: “Trek (Pleiades),” 2014, a tapestry quilted with angular motifs, is embroidered with a ghosty image of the starship Enterprise from “Star Trek” (sci-fi nerd alert: The Pleiadean system of six stars is the fictional home of a race of superior beings who walk among us with the goal of leading us to enlightenment. Keep at it, folks). Her work is also consistently, elegantly gorgeous: “Butterfly,” a 2015 piece, uses quilted geometric abstraction — another early modern motif — to frame a shimmering grid of the silvery jingles worn by powwow dancers. Its title moves the heart along with the eye: The piece was inspired by a pair of young Indigenous girls, one of whom told Watt that, when she danced, she felt like a butterfly floating.
Passing through to the Luger side of the show is a little jarring: The work is forceful, openly activist, full of complaint. “River (The Water Serpent),” a video piece, captures a collective action performed at Standing Rock, in North Dakota, where Luger was born, at the height of the pipeline protests in 2016. With an open call for collaborators, Luger had community members carry planks of plywood fitted with a reflective surface, which he called “Mirror Shields”; when facing police, they held them as shields, forcing the authorities to confront their own actions. Protestors opposed the pipeline, which they said violated their treaty rights and would contaminate drinking water for their community. In the video, drone footage captures the members from above, holding their shields parallel to the ground. Coalescing in a spiral, they become a fluid and shimmering stream, and a poetic coda to a fractious moment.
Collective action is the shared language here. Luger, polymath that he is, in 2020 co-directed an opera, “Sweet Land,” a violent tale about westward expansion and the genocide of Indigenous people that it prompted. Elaborate stage productions are collaboration in the extreme and don’t fit inside museum shows, so in this exhibit, “Sweet Land” is represented by a selection of costumes from the production. They’re useful avatars for Luger’s worldview: “Wiindigo,” a two-faced figure with thick, flowing white fur and a set of massive white teeth; “Bone,” a punk-rock cowgirl figure with a felt coyote skin on her arm wearing a T-shirt that says “Dear Patriarchy” above an image of an erect middle finger.
The crescendo in the next room arrives with expected force. An enormous tendril of rubber, plastic, and steel forged of old tires, oil drums, and ammunition cans is fitted with a ceramic snake’s head, wild-eyed and bearing fangs. It’s a heavy metaphor, to be sure. The predatory nature of oil extraction and its shattering impact on land and environment is unmistakeable; the title, “This Is Not a Snake,” 2017, makes its emblematic function awfully clear.
Grabbing the beast by the throat from both sides are a pair of colorful characters with beaded star patterns for faces, their bodies swathed in brightly-colored knit costumes. The text on the wall tells me they’re Luger’s take on warrior twins from Mandan oral tradition — Indigenous superheroes defending the Earth from rapacious capitalist plunder. (Their names: “The One Who Checks” and “The One Who Balances,” both from 2018.)
It’s important there are two. None of us can fight the big battles alone. By turns rough and gentle, Watt and Luger have a message to share, best said themselves: “We empower you as an accomplice,” reads a big quote on the wall near their joint patchwork she-wolf. “You are now invested. That creates an empathy path, a way for us to embrace one another.” With an invitation like that, it’s hard not to join in.
EACH/OTHER: MARIE WATT AND CANNUPA HANSKA LUGER
Through May 8, Peabody Essex Museum. 161 Essex St., Salem. 978-745-9500, pem.org