Marie Watt Sews Stories of Indigenous Wisdom

At Print Center New York, the artist weaves histories, mythologies, politics and ecologies into intricate, interconnected cosmologies

BY Rebecca Rose Cuomo in Exhibition Reviews | 02 APR 24

How do stories influence our sense of place? How do they inscribe meaning upon objects and events? How do they shape culture and identity? Marie Watts expansive practice coalesces around these questions, framing stories as intergenerational rituals of reciprocity and foundational elements of our worldview. ‘Storywork: The Prints of Marie Watt’, a retrospective exhibition at Print Center New York, spans over three decades of the artist’s oeuvre and features more than 50 works – including sculptures, textiles, etchings, woodcuts, lithographs and engravings – from the collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and his family foundation. Interweaving a constellation of motifs and materials with meditations on our sacred ancestral relationship with the living world, ‘Storywork’ illuminates the importance of printmaking in the multimedia matrix of Watt’s visionary practice.

Marie Watt, Companion Species (Passage), 2021, pressure print and collage on Japanese kozo backed with Sekishu, 2 × 2.7 m. Courtesy: © Marie Watt and Print Center New York; photograph: Argenis Apolinario

In several works from her interdisciplinary series ‘Companion Species’ (2016–ongoing), Watt, a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, invokes call and response – an oral tradition in which the caller raises a song and responders sound out in return, amplifying the first voice before falling silent again in continuous cycles. Companion Species (Passage) (2021) consists of eight equally sized pressure prints and collages filled with black capitalized letters that spell out repeating calls, such as ‘MOTHER MOTHER’ or ‘BROTHER BROTHER’, which echo Marvin Gaye’s consciousness-raising hit ‘What’s Going On?’ (1971). Other lyrics from the song are referenced in Companion Species (Anthem) (2017), extending Gaye’s protest against violence, systemic racism, economic inequity and social division, while serving as a passionate appeal to interconnectedness and collective responsibility.

Marie Watt, Blanket Stories: Great Grandmother, Pandemic, Daybreak, 2021, reclaimed blankets and cedar, 274.3 × 97.2 × 101.6 cm. Courtesy: © Marie Watt and Print Center New York; photograph: Argenis Apolinario

The series conjures a wider symbiosis of interspecies kinship and mutual support. In the textile work Companion Species (Cosmos) (2017), Watt celebrates animals as caregivers by sewing an image of the Capitoline Wolf – a 5th century BCE bronze statue of a she-wolf nursing the mythical twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus – into an assemblage of reclaimed wool blankets. Watt’s wolf appears sans suckling twins, expanding the geo-temporal scope of biosolidarity; she reminds us that canines are universal partners in the wider story of human evolution. Celestial bodies, birds, satellites, helicopters and planes that seem to deploy aid packages are stitched in light-blue thread around the wolf’s white outline. Collapsing distinctions between astronomical and terrestrial, technological and organic, individual and collective, Watt weaves a more complex poetics of relation and stewardship. The soft-ground etching Companion Species (Malleable/Brittle) (2021) is a diptych honouring Sapling and Flint, the first male humans from the Haudenosaunee creation story. Scrawled across two curved red forms, the words ‘Sapling’ and ‘Flint’ exemplify different energies in an existential continuum: one creates; the other destroys. Surpassing a reductive good-versus-evil binary, Jolene Rickard writes in the exhibition catalogue, ‘the twins represent a dynamic tension within us’, inviting a more expansive reading of our relationality – to humans, to animals and to our planet.

Marie Watt, Companion Species (Cosmos), 2017, reclaimed wool blankets, embroidery floss, 24k gold wrapped silk embroidery floss, and thread, 78.7 × 94 cm. Courtesy: © Marie Watt and Print Center New York; photograph: Argenis Apolinario

Anchoring the exhibition is Watt’s Blanket Stories: Great Grandmother, Pandemic, Daybreak (2021), a 2.75-metre tower of 105 reclaimed blankets, folded and stacked atop a cedar base. Blankets are markers of time: they embrace us soon after we enter this world and soothe us as we pass on to the next. We imprint ourselves on them and they on us, as they absorb our dreams, memories and associations. The blankets in Watt’s monumental sculpture were donated to the artist, their stories printed on paper tags cascading down the edges: a resourceful great grandmother sewed heirlooms from discarded fabric; a friend with cancer found comfort in a vibrant quilt; the Auntie Sewing Squad handmade blankets from leftover fabric of COVID-19 masks. Blanket Stories is a site of generous encounter, bringing together disparate stories in a colourful compendium.

Storywork: The Prints of Marie Watt’ is on view at Print Center New York until 18 May

Main image: Marie Watt, Companion Species (Rock Creek, Ancestor, What's Going On?), 2021, lithography, pressure printing, and collage on Japanese kozo backed with Sekishu, 96.5 × 232.4 cm. Courtesy: © Marie Watt and Print Center New York; photograph: Argenis Apolinario

Rebecca Rose Cuomo is an independent curator and writer based in Brooklyn, USA.