The term “based on a true story” gives promise of an almost reality, while lending full disclosure that what’s before you is not teeming with truth; and herein lies the most humbling preface for an exhibition about history. Artists Frohawk Two Feathers and Duke Riley navigate the world of the omitted, the imagined, and the true in their exhibition, Based on a True Story. Through cartographic renderings, war-time portraiture, and decorative vessels, Riley and Frohawk present us with a sort of anti-history, one where the relegated are extolled and the envisaged are as real as you want them to be. Subscribing to the belief of history as a construct, Riley and Frohawk take reign as the historians, the storytellers, and the proponents of their own narrative.
Tapping into the archaeological aesthetics and archival glory, Riley constructs a world where artifact turns fiction and fiction becomes reality. Structural components of Items Salvaged from Vessel: Whale’s Teeth Believed to Have Been Engraved by Gordon Davis While Inside the Acorn Vessel transform the way we understand the work. The preservative nature of the glass case in which the relics are fixated, shifts our relationship with the work from art object to historical artifact. Here, we aren’t thinking so much about what is inside the glass case so much as we are thinking about the fact that it is inside a glass case. We are moved by its display; one that implies far more than a frame could, one that has everything to do with what we believe about the work. We are drawn further into the narrative through formal components and artistic compositions. A modern made mosaic, Spero Meliora holds an old world feel, fraught with travel and discovery, pilgrimage and triumph. As we conjure up this sense of significance, this deep sense of past and place, two things happen. We recognize our propensity to deduce history to our own individual experience, giving way to an autonomous and unaffected life. Even more, we become increasingly aware of our sore detachment from our own heritage.
Textbooks, as finite as they are, hold this immense ability to shape our understanding of history. From them, we establish much of our framework for relating to culture, geography, religion, people groups, and ourselves. But gradually and ever so subtly, corruption has seeped into the pages of history, leaving us with an agreeable and repeatable rendition. We see this on the shelves of mainstream bookstores in titles like “100 People Who Made History” and “History in a Nutshell.” While the covers tout unflattering images of Albert Einstein, Elvis Presley, and Gandhi, they are a sure and pithy display of our tendency toward iconography, specifically within a historical context. What happens, then, is we relate to history in a much more fictional way; we contend actual events as tales and real people as characters. Frohawk employs these very faculties to delineate his own version of history in Horace and Isabel. Characters of his own fabrication, Horace and Isabel are symbols of a history never told; one that was forgotten or one that never really happened. We are then faced with a stunning reality that our history is either flawed or somewhat imagined.
Exploring the land of lost people groups, Riley puts forgotten civilizations back on the map. The story of the Laird family is one that dates back to 1850, and is more than likely unknown to you (or at least me). A king and altruist, Ralston Laird of Petty’s Island was driven from his territory at the hands of industrial development, causing his legacy to dim and his lineage to disseminate. Reconciled back to their former glory, the Laird Royal Family Commemorative Plate Series celebrates descendents of the bloodline. From this series, we are presented with the most striking and relevant concept yet. As we (Cincinnatians) witness families and communities (ones just like the Lairds) displaced by development, how do we deal with the implications of these changing landscapes? We turn history into one that is palatable and purchasable. While an “OTR” embellishment on a tri-blend v-neck is a sign of opulence and trendiness for one people group, it holds an entirely different connotation for another. In his effort to restore and appease a broken history, Riley subscribes to a modern-day coping mechanism. The irony of the plate series is profound and irrefutable.
Frohawk Two Feathers and Duke Riley unearth the ramifications of a history untold (or mostly told). To reckon with the exploitation of entire people groups, to identify our profound detachment from our own heritage, and to greet our disillusionment that is so deeply engrained into the framework of our understanding of reality, is to re-think history. History, then, is not just for the historians but also for the disillusioned, the detached, and the exploited.
To see history at it’s finest, visit the CAC through March 22, 2015.