Signs of Your Identity is an ongoing project that documents the legacy of coercive assimilation polices in Indigenous communities. These portraits show Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian survivors of the U.S. government’s Indian boarding school system and parallel American institutions. The boarding schools were explicitly meant to eradicate Indigenous identity and culture—separating children from their parents sometimes for years at a time. They were the sites of severe physical, emotional, and psychological violence, all under the guise of providing education. They are a continuing source of intergenerational trauma in many Indigenous communities, but there are also widespread Indigenous-led efforts to heal and reclaim what was lost. Each of these portraits has been embellished in collaboration with one of three Indigenous artists: multidisciplinary artist and jeweler Catherine Blackburn (Dene), performance artist and activist Gregg Deal (Pyramid Lake Paiute), and artist and visual storyteller Mo Thunder (Oneida). This work is meant to honor the experiences of these survivors while looking to the future and the possibility of reconciliation.
These portraits are reflections of Indigenous beauty, brilliance and power. Through this collaborative project, Signs of Your Identity, a space was created for my own celebration and healing. I was instantly connected to this project by virtue of my own family experience and history as my mother is a residential school survivor. I am so honored to have been part of this project and to have been trusted to hold space for these truths.
My contributions included adorning 10 portraits via two-thread applique beadwork, caribou hair tufting, and painting. I first began by creating acrylic gel photo transfers that I then adhered to canvas. I gravitate to this approach as I am able to treat the image as a “skin.” By creating a surface material representative of skin that I stitch into, I am connected to the art of “skin stitching”—a technique used in Indigenous mark making/tattooing. Adorning Indigenous bodies has always been a way of life for Indigenous people; the suppression of these art expressions began in the early 19th century with the arrival of the first Christian missionaries. Through this ancestral way of stitching and adorning the body, these portraits are rooted in power, reclamation, and sovereignty. As I reflected on each story and experience, I was guided to certain colors and patterns. Some designs harness strength while others reveal a playful tenderness. I hope to have captured the essence and spirit of each individual.
In this work, it was important to me that the portraits interact with the spaces they exist in. The interaction with this space is meant to take the image out of a simple portrait form and allow an intersection of something that is not obvious to the figure, but still relevant to Indigenous experience. Oftentimes basket patterns, pottery patterns, or even beaded patterns can exist in creating a simple environment, amplifying the figure. Illumination is another aspect of this. Halos, or the alluding to some type of illumination is a direct challenge of Judeo-Christian views of divinity—all noting that Indigenous people are inherently divine, despite Western perceptions of Indigenous existence. So much of these portrayals are contending with not just the perception of Indigenous people, but also contend with the indoctrination of Western colonial constructs that have been weaponized to eliminate culture, and thus by extension, self-worth. Such is the case with government-sanctioned, and religiously-run boarding schools, which were little more than schools meant to indoctrinate those Western ideas and destroy Indigenous identity. This identity now exists in massive ways, and in subtle ways, but they are all in Indigenous ways.
Stretching and securing the edges, I begin to plant medicines.
They show me what I need to know so I can highlight with paint, line with florals, and stitch star seeds with seed beads.
This is medicine and healing for my kin and me.
The layers and textures meet my sensory needs so I become rooted through creativity and creation.
I’m reflecting on faces I don’t know personally, but I can feel the connection each of us embodies because our stories are interconnected.
There is so much beauty, strength, joy, and pride embedded in these bodies that carry us to thrive.
Catherine Blackburn was born in Patuanak Saskatchewan, of Dene and European ancestry, and is a member of the English River First Nation. She is a multidisciplinary artist and jeweler, whose common themes address Canada’s colonial past that are often prompted by personal narratives. Her work merges mixed media and fashion to create dialogue between historical art forms and new interpretations of them. Through utilizing beadwork and other historical adornment techniques in her practice she explores Indigenous sovereignty, decolonization, and representation. Her work has exhibited in notable national and international exhibitions and fashion runways including BorderLINE: 2020 Biennial of Contemporary Art, Àbadakone: National Gallery of Canada, and the Santa Fe Haute Couture Fashion Show in New Mexico. She has received numerous grants and awards for her work, including the Saskatchewan RBC Emerging Artist Award, the Melissa Levin Emerging Artist Award, publications in Vogue and In Style, and her inclusion on the 2019 Sobey Art Award longlist. Most recently, she was one of five artists selected for the prestigious Eitlejorg Contemporary Art Fellowship.
Gregg Deal is a husband, father, artist, and a member of the Paiute Tribe of Pyramid Lake. As a provocative contemporary artist and activist, much of Deal’s work deals with Indigenous identity and pop culture—touching on issues of race relations, historical consideration, and stereotype. With this work—including paintings, mural work, and performance art—Deal critically examines issues within Indian country such as decolonization, the Native mascot issue (locally and across the U.S.) and appropriation.
Mo Thunder is a non-binary, neuroemergent, Onyota’a:ka (Oneida) and French-Canadian art-maker and visual storyteller. They are currently based on Dish with One Spoon Territory (Tkaronto) and grew up on Anishinaabe land, downriver from Aamjiwnaang First Nation, where they have family ties.
Thunder holds a BFA in studio art with a focus on silkscreen printing, photography, and video from Fanshawe College and Lethbridge University. They are currently completing their thesis/major project at the Toronto Art Therapy Institute. From 2016-2021, Thunder co-facilitated a community, art, and land-based creative expression program for Indigenous youth aged 18-30 in Tkaronto called Our Stories Our Truths (OSOT). They are currently working on a visual art journal with and for Indigenous folks, scheduled to be released in 2022!
Thunder has over 15 years of experience in community arts facilitation, collaboration, and consultation. Since high school, they have been working as a community arts organizer by starting an art club with a few other students. They’ve also been creating solo and collaborative murals since high school. They love co-creating with communities to connect visual imagery, ideas, concepts, and stories to create a final design that is painted by everyone who shared input.
Their multidisciplinary art practice (painting, collaging, beading, journaling, and sewing) aims to express stories about intergenerational growth/healing, neurodiversity, identity, and empowerment.
Daniella Zalcman (Women Photograph, b. 1986) is a Vietnamese-American documentary photographer based in New Orleans. She is a multiple grantee of the National Geographic Society and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, a fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation, and the founder of Women Photograph—a nonprofit working to elevate the voices of women and nonbinary visual journalists.
Her work focuses on the legacies of Western colonization, from the rise of homophobia in East Africa to the forced assimilation education of Indigenous children in North America. She is also a co-founder of Indigenous Photograph, a co-founder and creative director of We, Women, and one of the co-authors of the Photo Bill of Rights.
Zalcman is a proud member of the Authority Collective and Diversify Photo, as well as a member of the board of trustees of the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund and the board of directors of the ACOS Alliance. She graduated from Columbia University with a degree in architecture in 2009.
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Signs Of Your Identity
Brookfield Place, 230 Vesey St
New York, NY 10281
- Monday 10:00 am - 8:00 pm
- Tuesday 10:00 am - 8:00 pm
- Wednesday 10:00 am - 8:00 pm
- Thursday 10:00 am - 8:00 pm
- Friday 10:00 am - 8:00 pm
- Saturday 10:00 am - 8:00 pm
- Sunday 12:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Curated by: Arts Brookfield and Photoville
New Authors, Old Histories
Join National Geographic photographers Philip Cheung, Kris Graves, and Daniella Zalcman in conversation with National Geographic Executive Editor Debra Adams Simmons, as they discuss their ongoing projects visualizing racist and discriminatory histories through a new lens.Learn More