Native American artist Luzene Hill discusses making new work at Anderson Ranch Arts Center
Luzene Hill begins new installation during Anderson Ranch residency
Working in her signature crimson red, the installation artist Luzene Hill has made a series of impactful pieces over the past decade focusing on themes of violence against women and the loss of native culture in the U.S.
Her latest began with a November residency at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village.
Based in Atlanta, Hill is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee. She often uses motifs and images from pre-contact native traditions – knotting cords systems and cochineal dyed fabric have become an aesthetic signatures.
Her most famous piece is “Retracing the Trace,” in which the artist placed herself amid thousands of red Quipu cords signifying thousands of unreported sexual assaults in the U.S., leaving her body’s imprint on them. It was inspired by her own assault during a jog in a public park Atlanta. She would return to the exhibition regularly, moving the knots to make a new shape.
She’s built upon that concept in subsequent works like “Transcending the Trace” at the British Film Institute and the new piece she focused on during her Snowmass Village residency.
The in-progress conceptual installation is titled “Traces and Wounds.”
The work will be on a 10-by-16 foot canvas panel. It will eventually include 6,956 knotting chords from the Quipu tradition. They’ll hang in a row, dyed red with cochineal, signifying the average number of sexual assaults on Native American women annually.
“Only 16 percent of assaults are ever reported,” Hill added in a video chat interview from her cabin on the Ranch. “And I think for native women it is a lot lower.”
The other side of the canvas is to hold the loose ends of loose cords knotted on the other side, which will cast shadows. She is imaging the knotted cords as the “wounds,” the shadow on this backside the “traces” of those wounds.
“The back will be filled with these loose ends and I hope it will have a chaotic look and that is what I want to convey – the chaotic, random character of sexual assault. No matter how it happens – whether you were jogging through the park as I was or whether you were on a date, the event is chaotic and feels random.”
The idea of the “loose end” also holds resonance for Hill, imagining the phrase applying to the native peoples in contemporary society.
“I feel that the government looks upon native people and native issues like, ‘Get all those loose ends on the reservation so we don’t have to think about them,” she said. “I feel it’s a way to describe how it feels as a native person, like, ‘What am I, a loose end?”
Hill recalled, with a laugh, the CNN graphic – images of which went viral on social media – in the days after the presidential election this month, which broke down voting patterns by race and ethnic groups but identified Native Americans as “Something Else.”
Though the Ranch moved almost all of its programming online over the summer and remains mostly shuttered, its visiting artist residencies have continued on the Snowmass Village campus, where the ongoing “Sculpturally Distanced” outdoor sculpture show is also open to the public and running through winter.
Hill had been scheduled for a June residency at the Ranch as part of a collaborative program with the nonprofit First Peoples Fund, supporting Hill working with a group of high school artists at Standing Rock High School in North Dakota.
When that program was canceled due to the pandemic, Hill planned a solo residency for this fall. She spent a week in early November working in the studio here.
It was her first visit to the Ranch, but perhaps not her last.
“I love it out here,” she said. “The place is beautiful and the facilities are amazing.”
Hill’s work, since “Retracing the Trace,” has had a sizeable impact on the art world, earning her fellowships from Ucross and First Peoples Fund, among others, with attention from critics and academic circles and a segment in the PBS documentary “Native Art NOW!”
But her mission is social as much as it is visual, a sustained effort to break silence about sexual violence, especially in native communities.
“My main idea was to bring these issues out of the shadows and into a conversation,” she said.
Those conversations happened immediately with gallery conversations and correspondence among survivors when she began making the “Trace” works using potent symbolism.
“I think having work on this topic, and work that is not so brutally vivid in presenting the idea – it makes the exhibition a safe place to talk about your own experience or have a dialogue about it,” Hill said. :That’s what I’ve found every time I exhibit.”
Hill’s installation work is political art that isn’t ready-made for protest placards or mass-produced posters, it’s not made to accompany slogans. Big and abstract, her large-scale installations are meant instead for a personal experience for viewers.
The new piece is schedule to debut in late March at the new K Art – owned by a Seneca gallerist and focused on contemporary native work – in Buffalo, N.Y.
“When I started working on these issues and working with numbers,” she explained, “my idea was to present those numbers and have a visual impact that would get your attention. When you see thousands of something, you can see, ‘Oh, that’s a lot.’ You can get people’s attention who are not aware and draw them in to have a dialogue.”
It’s almost time to ring in the new year and if your holiday schedule is shaping up to be as packed as mine, I wish you a well-deserved rest in 2024. In the meantime, it’s our chance to party, and party we shall.