The pot Katsitsionne Fox made is a vessel, but it is also a story.
The slightly tapered cylindrical pot is circled by three rows of stylized waves of water that stand out in bas relief. In the water sits an infant. Above the water in a starry sky, a full moon looks down on the infant as if watching over the baby.
The vessel Fox fashioned is one of a series called Life Givers Pottery, says Fox, who is a member of the Bear Clan of the Akwesasne Mohawk nation. This pot’s story is told by the clay from which she fashioned the pot, which is the earth’s life-giving energy, she explains. The pot shows an infant in water because in the womb, our first home, we are bathed water. Women, who bear children in their wombs, are connected to the Grandmother Moon.
Founded four years ago by Ganondagan site manager Peter Jemison, the Hodinöhsö:ni’ show features works by artists from the six Haudenosaunee Nations: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora. Works in the show range from traditional Haudenosaunee media like basketry and beadwork to contemporary forms like photography and painting. Forty-three of the 111 artists who submitted work were selected for the juried show.
Unlike many contemporary western artists who look at the work they create as a purely aesthetic creation produced only for the sake of art, Six Nations art traditionally is rooted in function, Fox says. Pots would be pleasing to the eye, but they were made not just to look at but to cook in or hold water. To traditional Six Nations people, whose languages had no word corresponding to the English word art, the distinction between art and craft would not be meaningful.
Like Fox, some but not necessarily all modern Six Nations artists use traditional forms or a modern variation on traditional forms to tell a story, says Jemison, an artist himself.
“Not all of the artists, but some of the artists, are inspired by stories that are part of our oral tradition,” he says. They go from our creations story to our story of the unification of our five nations to one of our prophets who came and gave a message for the assistance of our people in the year 1799. That is a starting point for some.
“There are others who have taken a traditional form and changed it to a contemporary style. They borrow the traditional form like a piece of pottery in terms of the shape and roughly the way the top edge is finished. But the subject matter on the pottery, the images, take it into a new realm, something more contemporary, issues that the artist is concerned about.”
The Hodinöhsö:ni’ show’s five divisions—beadwork, basketry, traditional arts, two-dimensional fine art and sculpture—allow artists to mix traditional and contemporary forms and materials or to stick strictly to traditional forms and materials.
Basketry and beadwork entries could, for example, be fashioned from traditional materials like stone, wood bone, hickory bark or moose hair or could use modern materials. Beadwork could be traditional forms like wampum belts or moccasins or more contemporary objects. Two-dimensional entries could be paintings, drawing or photographs, but could also include mixed media.
Fox, for example, did not turn the vessel she made on a wheel but instead crafted it from clay much as her foremothers would have done. She did use some modern glazes.
Unlike past Hodinöhsö:ni’ shows in which art works were available for viewing at the Seneca Art and Culture Center at the Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor, the 2020 show will virtual. An online catalog is available at the Ganondagan web site. All works are available for purchase.
Holding the show online instead of exhibiting works in the show’s usual space in the center’s auditorium would not have been his first choice, Jemison says. But while COVID-19 forced organizers into the online format, the change has meant that more entries could be displayed and that they could be on exhibit longer. Initially slated to end Dec. 31, the show now might continue into 2021.
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.