Artist Feature: Merritt Johnson – Cathleen Kong ’20

In 1990, President H.W. Bush declared November as National Native American Heritage Month. The intention of the commemorative month was to celebrate Native American community, culture, tradition, and way of life at the local and national level. While the celebration of the month has educated non-Native communities about Native American culture, a single month is not enough to do justice to the vast wealth of art, music, and dance generated by Native American experiences. These artistic mediums are also not just relegated to the past of tradition, but are constantly being generated by the stories of Native Americans in the current American social, political, and economic landscape. Contemporary Native American artists are creating provocative works of art that challenge popular conceptions of Native American culture, establishing solidarity amongst the Native American community, fighting stereotypes, and educating the public about Native culture in relationship to contemporary politics.

Merritt Johnson is one of these artists who breaks boundaries in how Native American art is perceived. Johnson is of Kanienkehaka (Mohawk), Blackfoot, Irish, and Swedish heritage. Her artworks deal with topics surrounding the Native American community, including but not limited to: the relationship between culture and land, navigating space and body, challenging patriarchy and empowering womanhood, and challenging the Eurocentric standard of the art community. One of her artworks dealing with this last theme is titled Creation with her Children, created in 2017. In the work, the figure sheds 17th century European style clothing for more practical material: a tarp to protect against the elements. The tarp refers to similar tarps used to build “tarpees”, a type of reinvented teepee made of 16 foot poles and a heavy duty tarp. Such tarpees were used as shelter by protestors in the below freezing conditions of the Standing Rock protests. According to Johnson, the figure is shedding herself of “hundreds of years of colonization, corporatization, commodification, and subjugation” and exhibiting power in the face of struggles of Native American communities. The figure is dynamic and wields a knife in her hand, showing her will to fight. By holding the knife near her face, which is uncarved, Johnson suggests the ability of the figure to create her own image as opposed to having expectations imposed onto her. The piece exudes both empowered womanhood and disputation of forced authority.

Creation with her Children, 2017

Johnson also explores the power of video to tackle difficult issues. She says, “Performing allows us to reflect on the past and the present and be on the edge of the future.” One of her video projects is titled Exorcising America, a series of videos posted on YouTube containing instructions on how to correct micro-aggressive tendencies through metaphorical exercises. While viewers exercise and train their bodies through simple movements, they simultaneously exorcise themselves of harmful influences and prejudices that have monumental consequences. By using YouTube as her platform, Johnson can spread her message more readily because of the connectivity of the Internet Age and the informality of YouTube videos themselves. Unlike the formal setting of the museum or live performance, Johnson does not force the viewer to be engaged or restricted in any way, allowing the audience to generate a more personal experience with the work. She navigates outside the traditional boundaries of sculpture, painting, and even film to target a more raw form of interpretation.

Exorcising America: Visibility Exercises, 2017

Johnson was also involved in the protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. She protested in order to protect tribal land and sacred burial grounds, as well as to prevent contamination of the water supply in the area and downstream. Throughout the protests, art emerged as a response and generated visibility for the #NoDAPL movement. Johnson and a few other artists named “The Unnamed Collective” collaborated on the project This is a Creation Story, a collection of videos, performance, and sound works filmed in Standing Rock in October and November of 2016. According to their artist statement, “We acknowledge that the need to protect water and land is increasing in every part of the world; we come together to cultivate gratitude and respect for water, land, and balance between all living things dependent upon them, to protect what is sacred. . . . To protect this water is also to protect the land and all our relatives, to live in balance.” The project displayed the real, raw stories of protestors and connected Native and non-Native American communities around shared needs.

Photo courtesy Indigenous Environmental Network
At the Oceti Sakowin Camp at Standing Rock from 2016 to early 2017, over 8,000 people from 180 tribes converged to defend their water and sacred sites. 

Johnson is just one of the many contemporary artists who attempt to battle stereotypes about Native American culture, empower people of Indigenous descent, and educate by bridging communities in a fragmented landscape. These artists work year round, not just during the month of November, to celebrate Native American culture and generate awareness of issues that Native American communities continue to face.