Arkansawyers Blog Series: Part Five

Historic Arkansas Museum - Friday, August 14, 2020

Contemporary Arkansas: A Question of How We Got Here

Sometimes, if you look deeply into the context of an artwork or object, the invisible stories of an entire people or region will emerge. In this case, contemporary objects and images – a whimsical Quapaw dance bustle, a drawing of spiraling braids, and a photograph of a disused industrial structure – represent the surface, the top layer of rich cultural soil. Through careful excavation, metaphorical artifacts are uncovered that place these objects and images on a geographic timeline reaching back hundreds or even thousands of years into the history of this place, Arkansas.

Mickey Mouse beaded fancy dance bustle, Quapaw, 20th century, hawk feathers, beads, L: 93.98 cm; W: 86.36 cm; D: 3.81 cm, courtesy of Ardina Moore

In 2012, HAM’s former Director, Bill Worthen, wrote an article for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that posed the question, “How do we remember those who lived here before America?” (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 17, 2012) In this article, Bill examined the purpose of a recently-opened permanent exhibit that endeavors to share the stories of Arkansas’s first people – the Caddo, Quapaw, and Osage tribes. These three nations in whose homelands we now live, and who no longer live here, are the voices that guide visitors through the permanent exhibit, We Walk in Two Worlds.

Bill’s favorite object in the exhibit is a fancy dance bustle that was created by a Quapaw grandmother, Ardina Moore, for her grandson who became a competitive fancy dancer. The dance bustle is part of the regalia of contemporary powwow fancy dancers. The Quapaw are known for having one of the earliest powwows in Oklahoma, starting shortly after the Civil War. Originating as an annual homecoming picnic held on July 4th, the annual powwow is one of the major summer events among Native Americans living in northeastern Oklahoma. This year marks the 148th annual celebration of being Indian. While this object initially appears to be a traditional dance bustle with hawk feathers and beads, the central design is in fact a finely beaded Mickey Mouse. It perfectly illustrates the title of the exhibit – We Walk in Two Worlds – or as Bill rephrased it, “We dance in two worlds.” The fancy dance bustle symbolizes the native tribes’ ancient history and culture while reminding the viewer that the Caddo, Quapaw, and Osage are still alive, thriving, and actively participating in today’s culture.

Black Tie Dye
by Justin Tyler Bryant. Graphite on paper, 42 x 38.5 in., 2019. Collection of Historic Arkansas Museum, Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Commission Grant Purchase. Accession no: 2020.007

Justin Tyler Bryant is a master draftsman, and one of the most talented young artists working in Arkansas today. He is interested in drawing in relation to photography and memory, and he mines personal, public, and private archives to find images that allow him to explore these themes. Bryant's use of graphite as a drawing material is intentional, but the properties that make graphite so interesting as a medium can't be captured in photographs -- it shifts and shimmers, creating unpredictable reflections that move like mercury across the surface of the drawing. Graphite can produce a wide range of marks, from fluid lines that look like fine silver wire, to dark, oily puddles that flash to become mirrored surfaces in the light.

While Black Tie-Dye makes a compelling digital image, it is even more impressive in person. Standing in front of the drawing, it’s hard to get your bearings. Initially, you may feel the disorientation of mild vertigo, as if the room is slowly spinning and your vision is out of focus. But don’t stop -- look deeper. Enter the image. Relax and allow yourself to sink into the infinite spiral of braids on braids on braids on braids on braids. Time moves backward and forward in this surreal space, from descendant to ancestor, ancestor to descendant and back again. It is the year 2000, 1900, 2020, and 2050, all at once.

Justin Tyler Bryant frequently invites his viewers to observe the world from a slightly different angle. In this case, we find ourselves looking down at the top of someone’s head. Perhaps it is the artist’s brother’s head. In this tender moment, his mother has just finished braiding his hair, and he looks down as he plays with his son. We are drawn into the spiral of those perfect braids, into the legacy of care passed from one generation to the next. Tucked into the center of the spiral is another head with another set of braids. If we examine the drawing closely, somewhere in those tiny braids it seems likely we’ll find another, smaller head. If we could zoom way out, would there be a bigger head? Thousands of heads? The (symbolic) time and space contained in this image are vast and immeasurable, like a spiral galaxy floating in the cosmos. This metaphorical galaxy holds a past and a future that are unseen and unknowable, but they exist, nevertheless.

Comet Rice by Timothy Hursley, 2018. Chromogenic print, 70 x 44.2 in. Collection of Historic Arkansas Museum, Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council Grant Purchase. Accession no: 2020.016

Agriculture, from corn to cotton to rice to soybeans, is a lead actor in the story of Arkansas, and nowhere did farming practices shape the development of culture and society than in the Delta. The town of Stuttgart sits between the Arkansas and White Rivers, in a geographical region once known as the Grand Prairie. Before European settlement, the Grand Prairie ecosystem covered an area larger than Rhode Island, including over 400,000 acres of tallgrass prairie blanketed by wildflowers and native grasses. Indigenous people lived and hunted on this fertile ground for generations; examples of duck effigy pottery (in the collection of the Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie) dating from 1100 AD suggest that waterfowl have visited Stuttgart for thousands of years.

Records of rice-growing in swampy parts of the state exist from as early as 1721, when French habitants used it as a subsistence crop, but large-scale production didn’t begin in earnest until the late 19th century. Enterprising farmers realized that beneath a fine ribbon of prairie soil lay a thick layer of ‘hardpan’ clay, which was perfect for growing rice. By the turn of the 20th century, Lonoke County farmers John Morris and W. H. Fuller proved rice could be commercially successful. Rapid development of technology and infrastructure to support industrial rice production ensued, and before long, rice mills, driers, and grain elevators rose like skyscrapers above the plains.

Comet Rice, a massive print of an iconic diptych photograph by Timothy Hursley, depicts two faces of a derelict structure on what was the industrial campus of Comet Rice mill in Stuttgart, Arkansas. While the obvious subject of this double photograph is an example of industrial architecture, it can also be interpreted as a tangible document of the passage of time -- a fugitive process that is only visible in reverse. The structure’s metal surface reveals faded white paint, broken windows, and a rusty, weathered patina, akin to the wrinkled face of an old man who spent a lifetime working in the sun. Like the commercial rice industry itself, this functional building has endured the highs and lows of Arkansas’s agricultural market and remained standing, its dignity intact.