Spirit In the Land | Through July 9  |  The Nasher Museum of Art, Durham

Discussions about the future of our planet are often framed as either/or scenarios: either we’re going to make progress mitigating climate and environmental challenges, or doomsday is already here.

What visitors can expect, instead, at the Nasher Museum of Art’s new exhibition is a rich and layered third narrative. Thoughtfully organized by curator Trevor Schoonmaker (now the museum’s director), Spirit in the Land offers a global perspective and creates an alternative touchstone that counters fears of planetary collapse with an enduring cultural, nature-based, and spiritual mythology that already exists in the folkways of many peoples.

Bringing together 30 artists in 69 total multimedia works, the exhibition runs through July 9. Admission to the Nasher Museum is free to the public.

It is difficult to be optimistic about the health of our planet. The contemporary works presented here don’t suggest it isn’t. Rather, they provide a deep dive into interconnections and highlight the existing supportive web of practices, Indigenous cosmologies, plant medicine, and folkloric remedies.

“Interconnectivity is explored in many ways, and histories of environmental degradation overlap and intersect with the legacies of colonialism and slavery, making the case that environmental justice is racial and social justice,” says Schoonmaker.

The basic message: nature is important. This is conveyed in a nonpreachy and emotionally resonant way throughout. The featured artists provide a thought-provoking and heart-opening experience that comes from ancient heritage but feels current, as it’s one that wrestles with the issues of today—and not just environmental ones.

The exhibition’s stellar catalog is a collection of writings solicited by Schoonmaker from the artists and imparts a wealth of knowledge. (With the exception of Stacy Lynn Waddell, the following artist quotes in this article are taken from the catalog.)

The artist Andrea Chung—whose collages combine archival photographs of enslaved people with herbal culture—writes, for example, about the ways that Black women brought their knowledge of herbal medicines to the New World: “Enslaved midwives were able to provide women with the power of resistance in the form of reproductive autonomy…with assistance in contraception, pre– and postnatal care, and even abortifacients.”

“The earth has no tongue, but it has its own language,” writes the textile artist Marie Watt, whose work reflects the symbiosis between humans and animals. “It communicates through natural phenomena like rainfall, hurricanes, sunshine, and drought.”

Or the recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria.

“Speaking from a wide variety of cultural perspectives [and artistic media],” Schoonmaker says, “the artists help us see ourselves in nature and remind us that we are not only connected to it but in fact part of the natural world.”

“My relationship to nature is fundamental to who I am,” writes Florida artist Allison Janae Hamilton, whose art and creative methods are linked to the land. “My experience of community, family, self, and culture are all inextricably linked to the natural environment.”

Schoonmaker notes that the artists’ works demonstrate that nature already holds the solutions to our planetary problems.

“We as people, as a society, just have to recognize this and take the appropriate actions to harness the restorative and healing potential of nature,” he says. “The broader message from the show is that biodiversity and cultural diversity not only make us stronger but are essential to our survival.”

Experiencing the works collectively at the Nasher Museum and reading through the catalog evokes a strong sense of grief and loss. Nature isn’t only important because it makes life possible but also because our identities are rooted in the land—and ice. Dario Robleto, whose piece “The Naturalist’s Lament” in part includes natural elements, writes in the catalog, of glaciologist Dan Fagre, “To be a glaciologist is to be a mourner.”

Allison Janae Hamilton, “Floridawater II,” 2019. Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Image courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York and Aspen.

Robleto describes Fagre as being in a category of scientists “who mid-career, must enfold the staggering loss and possible extinction of their chosen subject into their science.”

Still, as Schoonmaker says, the exhibition is “one that very intentionally is not didactic or heavy-handed but seen organically through the nuanced and poetic lenses of the 30 artists.”

This is true. Viewing Spirit in the Land and reflecting on it afterward, I was left with deeply affecting feelings of caring and commonality about our present challenges—and how they are served much better by acting and working collectively rather than separately.

Painter Christi Belcourt’s canvas is a large, meticulously painted floral scene depicted in highly detailed acrylic that is painted to look like traditional beadwork.

“I think about the coming generations,” she writes, “not only about our species, but also about all species the baby bears or the baby birds coming to this world in the next five hundred years, I wonder if they will have clean air to breathe and lands to be born into? What about the fish in a thousand years, will they have clean water to be born into?”

Durham artist Stacy Lynn Waddell, who grew up in rural North Carolina, often uses fire to make marks in her artwork.

“Burning paper is my drawing process,” she tells the INDY. “Burnt marks are indelible and evidence of material having transformed from one state to another. Transformation holds a deep well of ideas.”

Waddell’s personal history plays into her art too. She describes how her great-grandfather bequeathed land to each of his 14 children, “in a time and place where Black men and women typically weren’t able to initiate enduring security.”

“This legacy ensured that my family’s origin story would forever be embedded in the dirt, rocks, trees, and fields that have continued to nurture us,” she says.

Look closely at the marks made with fire, especially on “A View of Asheville, North Carolina under a Radiant, Infrared Sky (for R.S.D.), 1850/2022” and you can feel Waddell’s heritage burned into the foreground.

Waddell’s work also routinely includes treatment with gold leaf and shifts from 2-D works to installations and projections. “African American painter Robert S. Duncanson has long been of interest to me,” Waddell says. “When invited to participate in this exhibition, I immediately knew that I wanted to reinterpret Duncanson’s “A View of Asheville, North Carolina (1850).”

Depicted in three circular handmade paper pieces, replete with burn marks, gold, silver, and aluminum leaf, Waddell’s piece also uses blue pencil and ink.

“Ink,” she says, “provides the watery and atmospheric.”

In Waddell’s reimaginings of Duncanson, there’s a sense of the curtain closing. The sky is dominant, the horizon constricted, the singular blue of the mountains compressed, and the foreground seems to be suffocating.

“The proportions represent the realities of our disregard for the environment,” she says. “The curtain or window of opportunity is literally closing.”

Spirit in the Land marks the beginning of a fresh conversation regarding humanity’s challenges and how we can repair and regenerate in those areas. 

Comment on this story at arts@indyweek.com.

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