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"The First Water is the Body" and "After the Falls" — Exhibitions Present Visual Celebration of Indigenous People


By Shen Shellenberger, JerseyArts.com

"The First Water is the Body" and "After the Falls" — Exhibitions Present Visual Celebration of Indigenous People

The First Water Is the Body and Athena LaTocha: After the Falls, the exhibitions on view through January 23, 2022, at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, were organized by VACNJ curator Mary Birmingham and present a visual celebration of Indigenous people, the history, landscape, and culture of New Jersey, the power of words and images, and inspiration, in all of its limitless forms. 

The First Water Is the Body features work by 16 artists in various mediums and is guest-curated by Maria Hupfield, artist, educator, and member of the Anishinabek Nation from Wasauksing First Nation, Ontario Canada. The exhibition title is taken from a poem published in Natalie Diaz’ collection “Postcolonial Love Poem,” which won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

"The First Water is the Body" and "After the Falls" — Exhibitions Present Visual Celebration of Indigenous People

After the Falls is an installation of large-scale works created for the VACNJ by Athena LaTocha, who is Alaska-born, and Standing Rock Lakota and Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa. LaTocha is best known for her works that explore the relationship between natural landscapes and man-made environments. This installation presents the artist’s response to specific New Jersey landscapes, including the Pine Barrens and the Great Falls of Paterson.

On view together, these shows accomplish a goal of the Art Center vision statement: “to create an inclusive and welcoming community where lives are transformed and enriched through the shared experience of art.”

Birmingham’s aim as a curator is to create a balanced schedule. “If we’ve just shown abstract art, for example, we’ll do something less conceptual next time.” And in addition to varying styles, exhibiting works by diverse artists helps maintain the balance. 

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“I want to showcase artists that reflect the diversity of the community, not just outside our doors, but the larger community – especially those with an underrepresented presence in the arts.”

“There is significant art being made by Indigenous artists throughout North America,” she said. “We must hear more of their voices in the conversation.”

What really set things in motion for Birmingham was seeing All Visible Directions Between Sky and Water, a 2018 video showing a conversation/performance with Maria Hupfield and Latina and Mohave-American poet Natalie Diaz. 

"The First Water is the Body" and "After the Falls" — Exhibitions Present Visual Celebration of Indigenous People

Sm Łoodm ’Nüüsm (Dr. Mique’l Dangeli) and Tim-kyo’o’hl Hayats’kw (Nick Dangeli), Diiłda Noo ada Ługuułgm (a mother and son collaboration). Aks Gyigyiinwaxl (Water Prayer), 2016. Video (03:25) . Courtesy of the artists.

“I was blown away!” she said, “and immediately thought to myself ‘I need an Indigenous curator.’”

Birmingham reached out to Hupfield, the pair met and talked, and they agreed to work together on a project that would focus on the interconnectivity between Indigenous people and water and the land. 

A deeper dive into Diaz’s poetry revealed a gem titled The First Water Is the Body.

“We talked a lot about the poem,” Birmingham said, “and we both kept coming back to it. So, I hired her as a guest curator.”

With inspiration from Diaz’ powerful poem, Hupfield selected water as the exhibition’s theme. 

“It is an urgent and culturally loaded topic,” she said, “and really not part of mainstream social consciousness.”

While the subject matter could be considered specific, it is quite universal. And by bringing the body in as part of the dialogue, the theme both broadens and becomes more personal.

As Hupfield said in a statement, “the work in this exhibition accepts the body as the human form of water and that the fate of water is the fate of all people.”

"The First Water is the Body" and "After the Falls" — Exhibitions Present Visual Celebration of Indigenous People

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On left side: Courtney M. Leonard, BREACH: Logbook 21 | CONVOKE, 2021, multi-ply birch wood and acrylic, coiled and woven earthenware, coiled micaceous clay, oyster shells. On right: Marianne Nicolson, Kingcome Inlet, 2019, documentary photo, and Kingcome Inlet, 1998, documentary photo.

Birmingham credits Hupfield’s extensive network in Indigenous communities as an invaluable resource for identifying and connecting with artists who might participate. And, of the 16 selected to exhibit, four artists – Anita Fields, Courtney Leonard, Shannon Gustafson, and Natalie Ball – created new pieces specifically for the exhibition. 

But when installation was complete and the objects were physically in the gallery, that was when the magic happened. 

“They all came together in conversation,” said Hupfield. “It’s the realization of it – the bringing it to being  that is so exciting.”

“When you come into an exhibition, it makes you excited about art,” she continued. “And the wonderful thing about being in a gallery is that it gives the art a place to stay.”

“As a curator, it makes you want to create the kind of exhibition that invites repeat visits.”


For Athena LaTocha: After the Falls, Mary Birmingham’s approach to presenting the artist’s work as a solo show was somewhat indirect. 

“I was researching contemporary artists for the group show, and I found Athena (LaTocha),” Birmingham said.

“I thought her work would fit well, but after talking with her and seeing photos, I knew I wanted to bring in more than only one piece,” she continued. “I suggested to her that we present a solo exhibition that she would develop, and I would curate.” 

Birmingham made a wise decision. Having LaTocha’s works in their own space allows the viewer to fully appreciate them and their distinctive approach.

"The First Water is the Body" and "After the Falls" — Exhibitions Present Visual Celebration of Indigenous People

Athena LaTocha at work

In her artist statement, LaTocha explains her fascination with disparate elements and the ways her work brings them together: “Having grown up in Alaska, my understanding of the land was influenced by both the rugged monumentality of the terrain and the impact of the oil and gas industry upon the land… I have a natural affinity for the mountains and deserts… and excavation sites and earthmoving equipment found in the industrial landscape.

To address these big ideas, LaTocha creates massive pieces, often 7 or 8 feet wide and tall. 

“I try to do large-scale work as often as I can,” said LaTocha. “Scale reminds us to understand human capacity and the way it influences how we think.”

Starting with enormous sheets of paper rolled out on the studio floor, LaTocha uses typical artists’ supplies like ink and paint, which she physically manipulates, together with organic and not-so-natural elements that she has collected for the works. For this current New Jersey-specific project, LaTocha added impressions of rock faces in the Garden State that she made by molding the surfaces with large sheets of lead. 

The wide-open spaces are often where LaTocha begins her process, but even the “wildest” parts of New Jersey bear little resemblance to those expansive landscapes, so LaTocha came at this project from other angles.

She looked at New Jersey’s complicated history and the tremendous cultural shift the region underwent in the 17th century. She became interested in geological formations and the movement of glaciers in the area and visited sites to take imprints and have “direct physical contact” with glacial bedrock. 

"The First Water is the Body" and "After the Falls" — Exhibitions Present Visual Celebration of Indigenous People

Athena LaTocha #940, 17th Century (angle), 2021. Shellac ink on paper, lead, steel. 59.25 x 93.25 x 5.5 inches (overall). Photo by Etienne Frossard

LaTocha also studied Passaic-born Robert Smithson, whose prolific passion for everything from travel to science fiction informed his life and his art, and William Carlos Williams, a Rutherford-native poet, who, while living a relatively conventional life as a practicing physician for 40 years, frequently wrote about American subjects and was considered an inspiration to the Beat generation. 

She brings all of this together – the thoughts and ideas, the study and the immersion, the concrete, and the intangible – then draws on her accumulated knowledge and experiences to create works that carry understated but compelling messages. 

And what does she hope viewers take from seeing the work?

“What I am really interested in,” LaTocha said, “is how what I do pushes their understanding of landscape.”

“And what I hope is that seeing these works can change their perception a bit. Maybe change the very way they know something.”


Gallery hours at the Visual Arts Center of NJ are Monday-Thursday, 10 AM to 8 PM; Friday-Saturday, 10 AM to 5 PM.; and Sunday 11 AM to 4 PM. The exhibition galleries will be closed Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day. A curator-led tour will be held on November 13, 2021. Admission is free; registration is required.


All photos in header by Etienne Frossard. Included: Installation views of The First Water Is the Body and Athena LaTocha: After the Falls at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey. | Carrie Allison, Red River, 2019, 6/0 Seed beads on interfacing, and Shan Goshorn, This River Runs Red, 2018, Arches watercolor paper splints printed with archival inks, acrylic paint, artificial sinew. | RYAN! Feddersen, Micro Spill, 2016. Acrylic, cement, and Astro Turf in a snow globe. 11 x 7 x 7 inches. Courtesy of the artist. | Anita Fields, On Behalf of Water, 2021, 7 figures, clay, gold luster glaze and mixed media collage.

originally published: 11/05/2021

About the author: Shen’s been a Jersey girl for most of her life, other than living for a three-year stretch in Portland, Oregon, and six magical months in Tokyo. Shen loves the arts in all of its various forms – from the beauty of a perfectly-placed base hit to the raw energy of rock 'n' roll – and has successfully passed on this appreciation to her three grown children. Shen’s most recent jobs include WXPN (1993-2001) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2003-present). Shen also has been a working freelancer for 25 years, and operated her own frame shop in Mt. Holly in the late-70s.

Content provided by Discover Jersey Arts, a project of the ArtPride New Jersey Foundation and New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

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