Jolene Rickard’s “Corn Blue Room” at Denver Art Museum

Denver Art Museum opened the new permanent exhibition of their American Indian collection in January of this year (2011). One of their new acquisitions is Jolene Rickard’s multimedia installation artwork Corn Blue Room. The artwork was part of the exhibition Reservation X, organized by the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The exhibition travelled in the United States, hosted by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. I had only seen Corn Blue Room in the Reservation X catalogue[1] and on websites. I was thrilled to get to see it in person.

I took some video footage as I walked around the space and I’m posting it here.

There is also a QuickTime panorama view of the installation of Corn Blue Room from one of the Reservation X installations HERE: (Links will open in a new window).

From NMAI's "Reservation X" website. The photo is in black and white, but you can see the installation was done in a white-walled room.

The new installation is in a very dark space. It creates a different effect from the white-box gallery installation I was familiar with from the Reservation X documentation. Is the new installation better? I would have to answer a tentative “yes.”

If you’re not already familiar with this work, you’ll need to know something about Jolene Rickard’s Tuscarora family and their history in the forcible development of American the electrical grid. Laura E. Smith wrote the following about Rickard’s Corn Blue Room:

The space of Indians within North American history has generally been a story of displacement. For the Tuscarorans, this legacy continued into the twentieth century when in 1958 the Power Authority of New York announced plans to flood approximately one-fifth of their reservation. Rickard’s grandfather, Chief Clinton Rickard, was one of the leaders in the ensuing demonstrations and legal battles, which the Tuscarorans eventually lost. Women’s activism in this conflict was most prominently displayed the day they sat down in front of the arriving bulldozers and by their subsequent assaults on the policemen who tried to remove them.25

For most Tuscaroran viewers, it was immediately clear that the photos of water, corn, power lines, and dams represented this struggle. The floor-standing metal frames recall the stance and structures of the electric towers, now present on their former lands. The wooden extensions and their post-like position reference the poles made of saplings that provided the structural support for a Longhouse, the traditional Iroquoian home.[2]

If you would like to know more about this artwork, read the Reservation X exhibition catalogue and Laura E. Smith’s article “Photography, Criticism, and Native American Women’s Identity: Three Works by Jolene Rickard,” in the journal Third Text. Citation information is in the footnotes.

I would say that this installation work is well-positioned to be part of the evolving canon of large-scale installation works by contemporary Native artists. The installation of Corn Blue Room as part of the permanent exhibition at Denver Art Museum makes it physically accessible for the long-term, in addition to a web-based presence for over ten years.

[1] The Reservation X catalogue, written by Gerald McMaster and published by University of Washington Press (1999), is full of meaty essays and is standard reading in the field of contemporary Native American art. It is out of print, but used copies can still be obtained.

[2] Laura E. Smith, “Photography, Criticism, and Native American Women’s Identity: Three Works by Jolene Rickard,” Third Text, (vol. 19, issue 1, January 2005): 64.

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