The Blue Galleries showcases cultural symbolism through the use of various artistic mediums

Courtesy of Alex Wiseman

Alex Wiseman, an Oregon-based artist, discussed the thought process behind their latest exhibit featured at Boise State, “Invisible Family (Portraits): Smoke is a Prayer Transforming the Truth.”

This is a multilayered exhibit, both literally with multiple artistic mediums being utilized and also due to the cultural symbolism and significance.

The exhibit features several different artistic mediums such as photographs of Wiseman’s family members, colorful illustrations on inventory ledgers and a sculpture-like element of orange peels hanging from the ceiling which represent the oranges that prevented scurvy and allowed missionaries to further their efforts of colonialism. 

“What I was mostly interested in was trying to create or draw lines between deep colonial past and what’s happening now,” Wiseman said. “So the larger picture, but also using my own individual story to illustrate what happens to one family within that context.”

Wiseman’s exhibit is described as an exploration of what it “means to inherit and hold cultural wounds and resilience without ready access to external cultural support,” which is an experience Wiseman processes through their art. Wiseman was vulnerable enough to share their family’s history of addiction and the deaths that resulted from it. 

“I have all these indigenous connections, but I was separated from my tribe because of essentially the genocidal policies of the US government, that’s the short answer,” Wiseman said. “It’s not uncommon in indigenous communities for those kinds of things to happen …that was designed to happen. It was by design that I didn’t have a family, I probably by design should be dead.”

Wiseman shared their struggle with healing past wounds and finding a sense of identity. 

“I’m half white, I’m Irish and Scottish, Italian, and Chippewa. So I’m this mix of a lot of different things,” Wiseman said. “I’ve been greatly impacted by the sort of generational trauma of the indigenous part of myself, I struggled with mental health problems my whole life. Fortunately, I avoided addiction, but that’s because when I was young, to be frank, I had these visions that told me that if I did that, I would die.”

The art Wiseman creates provides commentary on the inequality indigenous people have faced for generations. With the eradication of animal and plant species, we still see the environmental impact today. 

“I’m interested in telling the story that as colonial expansion occurred, and unfortunately when European Americans expanded across the West, they did so with a lot of violence,” Wiseman said. “And kind of a lot of arrogance thinking that they knew what was right.”

One of Wiseman’s primary artistic materials is ash from wildfire sites. Wiseman discussed their personal connection to fire and its significance in indigenous communities. 

“For many Indigenous folks smoke is a prayer,” Wiseman said. “When they engage in traditional burning it is a sacred act requiring humility, reverence and respect. For indigenous folks, fire is not feared, fire is seen as a friend to be cherished and a tool that must be respected.”

Another medium utilized in Wiseman’s exhibit is creating portraits on ledgers. Ledger art, put simply, is the practice of creating art in these inventory logs. 

“There’s a tradition that I’m responding to called ‘plains tribe ledger art’. It emerged within indigenous communities in the plains, so Lakota, Dakota, Nakota,” Wiseman said. “They had these traditions called the ‘winter count’ where they would choose two significant events that happened over the year and then make graphic representations of these events and then paint them onto buffalo hides. It was a historical document and they would name the years after the events.”

Wiseman elaborated further on both the historical and cultural significance of this art style.

“At this time European materials were showing up, like paper, cloth and canvas,” Wiseman said. “As the Civil War was wrapping up and Westward expansion started happening they started transferring these winter count practices onto paper and using Western materials. The most readily available source of paper was the ledger book from the trading posts.”

A prominent part of Wiseman’s display draws inspiration from the Tunnel Five Fire that occurred in the Columbia River Gorge. Wiseman highlighted their intention behind including four layers of orange peels which was inspired by the four divisions of the smoke in a photograph of the fire, representing the 400 years since European colonizers encountered the strait of Jaun de Fuca.

“Much of my research into indigenous burning practices and the historical relationships between people, plants, the landscape and fire was centered around the Klickitat,” Wiseman said. “Whose traditional homelands were located there.”

This exhibit is incredibly detailed and each decision Wiseman made had some kind of meaning behind it.

“The wood framework I used in the installation is all plantation Douglas Fir,” Wiseman said. “Douglas Fir is privileged by the Forest Service and Timber Companies because it is the most economically valuable and commercially useful tree. …When they replant after disturbances such as clear-cuts and wildfires, [this] leads to extraordinary imbalances in the ecosystem over time—monoculture.”

Wiseman’s vision as an artist was to create a hazy effect for the individual viewing his portraits. 

“My intention was to obscure the portraits on the wall using an image of smoke from a fire that ignited largely due to the imbalances in the ecosystem created by 200 years of colonial fire suppression and 100 years of USDA Forest Service full fire suppression policies,” Wiseman said. “And the ongoing ban on traditional indigenous burning and cultural practices.”

Wiseman’s book which they say is “conceptually linked” to this exhibit will be uploaded to The Bending Library in April-May 2024. 

The exhibit is open to the public at The Blue Galleries, located at the Center for Visual Arts building on Boise State Campus, to experience Wiseman’s breathtaking and dynamic exhibit until March 22, 2024. 

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