You Should Not See This Exhibition

By: matt lambert

This exhibition should not exist. It seeps with possible problematics. It is a terrible, provoking thing, that should never have been put together. 

Perhaps these declarations are a bit harsh, but given the circumstances of how this exhibition came to be, it is necessary to be critical. 

When Navajo makers Daman and Marie Thompson were approached by a giant in the sportswear industry about a commission to produce 400 silver and turquoise buttons, there was no reason to doubt the deal. As is typical with many large corporations, the expectation for the artists was high while the financial offer was low—with the promise of exposure dangled as an additional form of payment. For independent artists, this kind of opportunity may not come up very often. Often big companies seem to find it is just easier to rip-off designs by artists who do not have the resources and means to fight back. By now you may have guessed that this part of the story does not have a happy ending. After the Thompsons made the 400 buttons the company lowered their per-piece offer\ making what was already a low rate untenable, causing the deal to fall through. The true cruel irony is that these silver buttons were intended for a limited edition of sneakers as part of a special collection to support Indigenous peoples. If this doesn’t make your head spin with confusion, I don’t know what will. The shameful lowballing of Indigenous makers behind the scenes while launching a product line designed to support Indigenous peoples does not add up. Once again, a corporation is just being performative, and the artists are left holding the bag—a large bag of buttons. 

This sadly all too familiar tale of corporate greed is what has brought us here, to this exhibition that should not exist. Upon learning of this predicament from a posting by Daman and Marie’s daughter Tamara Beyale online about the situation, Chelsea Radka and Heidi Lowe directly purchased half of the buttons outright at the originally agreed upon price with the company. With consent from Daman and Marie, Lowe posted a call for jewelers to purchase the buttons for the same price and to reconfigure, alter, or deconstruct the buttons. This process—of treating the buttons like material to be put to a new use—is where possible problematics come into play. What does it mean to treat finished work by Indigenous makers as a material? How should non-Indigenous makers think about and make use of this material? 

There is not a singular answer to these questions. Rather, it is a process of open, transparent conversations with all involved, as has been done here. There is not a neat and tidy way of going about things. This exhibition, at surface value, risks being perceived as an endeavor of white saviorism. As a non-Indigenous person, I am in no position to write it a hall pass. However, what I do know is that we must be open and willing to sit with discomfort while finding ways to navigate collaborating, supporting, and working, together. Once displayed to the public, there is no controlling the ways this work and this exhibition will be perceived. The intended result is that the importance be placed not on the face value of materials but on the individual motivations behind the work and the processes and narrative that go us here. 

Craftspeople are often in the margins, thought of as production robots that should turn out high quality but be fast and cheap. Making in crafts, especially in a Western capitalistic perspective, is so often thought of and depicted as a lone act of one person, working in solitude. In actuality, there are many global practices that involve community. Making individually is not a lone act but a transmission of all those who have taught us being expressed through our hands in an act of citation. Through our hands, we are always in kinship. 

An exhibition such as this dives directly into the tangled and messy conversations, about Craft, authorship, and solidarity amongst makers. It is in defiance of the beasts of corporate greed that first create the margins and only later look toward them with dollar signs in their eyes.  This exhibition opens a conversation that unfortunately, continually needs to be had. It is only through trying, possibly failing, and having conversations can we learn how to best support each other. Each gesture, such as this exhibition, becomes part of a record to look back and build forward on. This is how we help keep the beasts at bay. 

When I say that this exhibition is terrible, it is not for the quality of the work but for the circumstances it came to be. You should not see this exhibition, not because of the sticky conversations it opens up, but because these works should never have had the possibility to be made in the first place. There should be nothing to see. 

You Should Not See This Exhibition
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