SMC Taps Into Art Initiative as a Lens for Change
A new photography exhibit sparks innovative learning practices.
What strikes you first is the uniqueness of each image. In one photograph, a prominent author and activist of the Tongva Nation grins warmly back at the lens, her face adorned with traditional facial tattoos. In another, two brothers, decked in the regalia of the Lhaq’temish and We Wai Kai, sit placidly during the protocol — a traditional day of stories, songs, and teachings — of a power paddle journey to the Puyallup Territory of the Medicine Creek Nation. Yet another photograph catches a woman in mid-step as she performs the traditional Bird Dance of the Viejas Tribe, her crimson dress vivid against the storm clouds in the distance.
These are just a few of the images featured in Project 562: Changing The Way We See Native America by acclaimed artist Matika Wilbur of the Tulalip and Swinomish Tribes. On exhibit at the Barrett Art Gallery at Santa Monica College (SMC) through May 2023, Wilbur’s photographs are vibrant and alive, evoking a sense of intimacy and immediateness. Yet the distinctiveness of each image also speaks to a broader, timeless truth about Indigenous people — a truth that has been overlaid over the years by false narratives.
Project 562 represents a labor of love for Wilbur, who traveled more than 600,000 miles over the course of more than 10 years to meet and photograph the more than 500 Tribes in the U.S. in an effort to explore Indigenous identity in the modern age. But over the course of that journey, that mission has expanded to include countering the prevailing narrative about Indigenous people.
To support Wilbur’s mission, SMC is taking a different approach to providing students with new and meaningful learning opportunities while also engaging others throughout the College and the Santa Monica community. The key to that approach lies in refocusing art venues like the Barrett Gallery into student-centered spaces where social justice and restorative justice practices can be explored through the lens of art.
“The gallery was much more traditional in the past,” says Emily Silver, the director of the Barrett Gallery. “Definitely impactful, great shows — it was an active space. But I felt it really catered to the art students and not to the community and the College.”
Walter Meyer, chair of SMC’s Art Department, agrees. “Traditionally, art galleries are about putting things on walls and inviting people to come and look at things on walls,” he observes. “But with Wilbur’s exhibit, what’s on the walls is just context for what happens inside those walls. So how do we activate the actual space to have the conversations?”
This was the question that Silver and Wilbur had in mind when developing the programming around SMC’s Project 562 exhibit. They began by designing a richer educational experience for students who, for the first time ever, now had the opportunity to work directly with an artist-in-residence. Last May, more than 22 SMC students signed up to work with Wilbur as part of a summer study course. During the eight-week course, they played an active role in building the Project 562 exhibit — constructing gallery walls, printing and framing prints, and creating full-size reproductions. Students also had the unique chance to work together in curating 60 pieces for one of the exhibit’s walls. Over the summer, Wilbur also brought students to a local tribal songfest, as well as to one of her photo shoots.
Christopher Franco, an SMC photography student who worked with Wilbur over the summer, says that the experience helped him gain a better understanding of his craft. “Photography can be very commercial,” he notes, “You do need it in the real world. But then, in the Art Department, it’s who you are. And when you combine both, you become indestructible.”
Fellow student Hannah Render agrees, pointing out how the immersive nature of the experience has helped her gain confidence in herself.
“We got to see how an exhibit came together from start to finish,” she says. “From building the walls to painting them to deciding the images that we wanted to show, and working hand in hand with Matika in designing all the images — I felt involved and appreciated in every aspect leading up to the exhibition opening.”
It’s not just students working directly on the project who benefit. SMC faculty are collaborating with Wilbur to develop learning guides that will help other departments incorporate elements of the exhibit into their classroom curriculum. Spanning diverse areas of interest, these guides offer discussion questions, resources, and project ideas that can be incorporated into class activities. Political science classes, for example, can take up the topic of sovereignty to discuss the concepts of self-governance and nationhood. Students in arts and media classes can explore the role of the media in shaping societal narratives about Indigenous people. And in fashion design courses, instructors and students can discuss the ways in which one’s identity can be represented by the choice of clothing on any given day.
The exhibit isn’t just limited to the gallery and the classroom. Gallery director Silver worked with students to stage a Native American film festival based around Wilbur’s work. Students have also been working with Wilbur and SMC faculty to create a series of art installation cubes featuring Wilbur’s photographs throughout the SMC campuses. The College is also working with the City of Santa Monica to create extension exhibits of Wilbur’s work at City Hall and other sites throughout the city.
Silver is especially happy that the collaborative undertaking with Wilbur has helped demonstrate how art-centered projects like these can help students in their professional and artistic journeys.
“Art is for everybody,” she says. “With such a beautiful space in the center of Santa Monica, why are we not having bigger conversations? How can our students get experience in these spaces so that when they graduate or transfer, they have a skill set to get hired in a museum or gallery? To really see the business end of the art?”
The Project 562 exhibit is just the beginning. Silver is already in active discussions with potential new artists-in-residence who will work with students while taking the lead on a year-long exhibition around Black lineage in contemporary art in Los Angeles.
For Wilbur, the residency at SMC has been unlike anything she’s ever done before.
“It’s been a true partnership,” she says of her experience. “I’m so grateful for all those that I’ve come to know here. But I’m especially grateful for the opportunity to work with the most amazing students. They gave their all and were willing to learn new things, and to step up as champions of art for social justice.”