BY Caitlin Chaisson in Opinion | 05 JAN 22

How The Forge Project Uses Art in Support of Indigenous Land Rights

Launched in the summer of 2021, the Indigenous-led initiative promotes exhibitions, programming and fellowships as part of the Land Back Movement

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BY Caitlin Chaisson in Opinion | 05 JAN 22

Along the Mahicanituck River, in the unceded territory of the Muhheconneok, is a house constructed out of four white cubes which serves as a reminder that modernism has been squatting on stolen land in America. Surrounded by the vistas that transfixed the Hudson River School and came to signify a colonial imaginary in the 19th century, this property is now home to Forge Project. The Indigenous-led organization, piloted by executive director Candice Hopkins and director of education Heather Bruegl, supports innovators in culture, education and land justice. Launched in the summer of 2021, Forge boasts a major collection of art by contemporary Indigenous artists and runs an annual fellowship, among other activities.

The many branches of the organisation coalesce around one goal. ‘Every programme is building on the importance of Land Back, not just for people but for language and culture as well,’ Bruegl, a spirited historian, tells me during my visit in October 2021. The directness of the fiat dispels the woeful ambiguity of ‘decolonisation’ through a call for the return of land and title to Indigenous nations but, as Bruegl notes, the process is incomplete without instruments of culture. Land is more than a location, and to give it back requires addressing many forms of displacement. At Forge specifically, Land Back means land back to the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians, whose reservation is currently in Wisconsin. The demand is partly met by the organisation in two ways: first, by designating one of the yearly fellowship positions to a Stockbridge-Munsee member; second, by celebrating a diversity of Indigenous cultural practices.

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Exterior view of the Tsai Residence, designed by Ai Weiwei in collaboration with HHF architects and used by the Forge Project, 2021. Courtesy: Forge Project, the unceded lands of the Muhheconneok, US; photograph: Alon Koppel

Strategically, the cultural sector can be ‘the easiest way to get access to the highest levels of capital’, says co-founder Zach Feuer, making note of Forge’s advantageous relationship to wealth. The upscale Tsai Residence, originally designed for a collector by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei in 2006, is probably not the first place to come to mind when envisioning a centre for land justice. ‘In the art world, there’s this fine line between art revealing a mystic truth and it being a luxury good,’ Feuer continues. ‘I don’t think you have to necessarily differentiate, as long as you can use it to get capital from one place to another.’ This ethos of redistribution guides the project’s operations. One example of this is through the collection, which is partially on view throughout the rooms. The intergenerational roster brings together Elder artists, such as Jaune Quick-to-See Smith and Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds, with more emerging talent, including Rachel Martin and Eric-Paul Riege. The majority of acquisitions up to this point have been artworks made in the past five years, some of which were completed by artists during stays at the home.

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James Luna, Make Amerika Red Again, 2018, hat, beads, embroidery and feather, 13 × 15 × 25 cm. Courtesy: the Estate of James Luna, Garth Greenan Gallery, New York and Forge Project, the unceded lands of the Muhheconneok, US

I ask Bruegl about the strategy to bring together contemporary art and educational programmes on subjects ranging from pre-contact Mohican-Munsee territory to the legacies of Native American military service. ‘The historical side explains why things are the way they are in 2021,’ she answers. By way of example, Bruegl motions to the kitchen where Ishi Glinsky’s painting Custer’s Calvary (2013) hangs. ‘Custer met his demise at the Battle of Little Bighorn,’ she recites. Not knowing the narrative behind one of the most successful Native American campaigns mounted against the US Army, Bruegl implies, would obscure the significance of the figures quivering like grasshoppers in Glinsky’s composition. This could be said of all artwork, no doubt, that history provides a way in – although few histories have been as poorly understood as those Indigenous ones in the US.

History is one of many elements that can provide meaning – but that meaning is shaped by context. In an indirect way, Forge fellow Brock Schreiber alluded to this during his presentation on the evening of my visit. He led the audience through movements in Mohican, a language that hasn’t been spoken in the homelands for centuries. We non-speakers could grasp the commands to stand up, sit down or turn around based on various cues. Context alters the perspective from which we look at and describe things. Creating a meaningful context to uplift Indigenous life and creativity is one of Forge’s great strengths, a place that offers many welcome comforts in support of an Indigenous presence coming home.

Main Image: Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds, Sweetheart Songs, 2017–18, 24 monoprints, 1.5 × 3 m. Courtesy: the artist and Forge Project, the unceded lands of the Muhheconneok, US; photograph: Ted West

Caitlin Chaisson is a curator and critic. Her writing has been published in Canadian Art, C Magazine, Frieze and Momus, among others.

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