Companion Species (At What Cost): The Works of Marie Watt

February 7, 2022

Marie Watt (born 1967) is an American artist and citizen of the Seneca Nation of Indians, one of the six tribes of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Watt has continued a tradition in Indigenous art, in which Indigenous insight is engendered at the exhibition venue. This exhibition will spotlight two textile works assembled from panels of cloth embroidered during sewing circles (images above). Watt pieced together these smaller panels into two monumental tapestries: in 2020, the 16-½ -foot-long Companion Species (At What Cost); and, in 2018, the 17-½-foot-long Companion Species (Calling All My Relations).

About her sewing circles, Watt reports that “stories and talk tend to flow,” bringing people together, and that “each person’s stitch is unique, like a thumbprint. As the threads intersect and blend, I see them as a metaphor for how we are all related.”

Indeed, at the center of this show, are Watt’s diverse textile works. The selection presented foregrounds what she calls “Iroquois protofeminism and Indigenous teaching.” These include at least two overlapping topics: the recognition of Indigenous matriarchies (predating modern feminism by centuries, hence Watt’s use of the prefix proto); and the recognition of Indigenous ecological traditions of profound interconnection between people and the Earth.

Watt uses language as one way to speak to these topics. For example, she has beaded the words “proto” three times at the center of Companion Species (Saddle), another work featured in the show; and she has embroidered the words “mother, mother” across the span of Companion Species (At What Cost). Such language may address the authority of Clan Mothers in Seneca tradition.

Many of her words also may suggest the importance of interconnection and of kinship. Indeed, terms of kinship populate the monumental Companion Species (Calling All My Relations). The very words “companion species,” headlining this exhibition and anchoring many artwork titles, also suggest that connections extend beyond humans: interspecies relationality. Watt reminds us that “in my tribe, we consider animals our first teachers.” 

We must grapple with an advanced form of interconnection to one another, the plants, the animals, etc., and the Earth.

This exhibition furthermore features wall text prompts composed in collaboration with Watt that invite the viewer to consider some decolonizing ideas brought by her artwork and also by her community engagement practices. After Watt and the curator collaborated on these prompts, an independent designer schematized the wall text font and colors to subtly play with and against—to seek to trouble—museum display conventions. In both form and content, this special text works on decolonizing this institutional space.

About the Artist

Marie Watt holds an MFA in painting and printmaking from Yale University, and her work has been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions including at the Rockwell Museum and at the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution. In 2019, her art was featured in two landmark group exhibitions widely hailed for offering reevaluations of, respectively, Indigenous art, and craft: Place, Nations, Generations, Beings: 200 Years of Indigenous North American Art at the Yale University Art Gallery, and Making Knowing: Craft in Art 1950-2019 at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Watt’s particularly versatile practice includes textile art, woodcarving, glass beading, and printmaking; and she is increasingly known for her work assembling materials from public sewing circles, and from open calls for embroidered textiles. For example, her columnar sculpture at the Whitney stacked dozens of folded blankets, each pinned with a manilla tag documenting a story about it, and each procured from the general public through the artist’s open “call for blankets.”

Land Acknowledgement

Our Land Acknowledgement was provided by the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation

“The land upon which we gather is part of the traditional territory of the Lenni-Lenape, called “Lenapehoking.” The Lenape People lived in harmony with one another upon this territory for thousands of years. During the colonial era and early federal period, many were removed west and north, but some also remain among the continuing historical tribal communities of the region: The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation; the Ramapough Lenape Nation; and the Powhatan Renape Nation, The Nanticoke of Millsboro Delaware, and the Lenape of Cheswold Delaware. We acknowledge the Lenni-Lenape as the original people of this land and their continuing relationship with their territory. In our acknowledgment of the continued presence of Lenape people in their homeland, we affirm the aspiration of the great Lenape Chief Tamanend, that there be harmony between the indigenous people of this land and the descendants of the immigrants to this land, “as long as the rivers and creeks flow, and the sun, moon, and stars shine.”

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Programs are made possible in part by funds from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts; Hyde and Watson Foundation; The Large Foundation; and The Holt Foundation, along with other corporations, foundations, and individuals. 

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