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Exhibition considers influence of art on Indigenous histories


The James A. Michener Art Museum presents “Never Broken: Visualizing Lenape Histories,” an exhibition that considers the power of art to construct and dismantle inaccurate Indigenous histories through a dynamic display of contemporary work by Lenape (also called Delaware) artists in dialogue with historic Lenape ceramics, bead work, and other cultural objects and representations of Penn’s Treaty by European American artists.

On view Sept. 9 to Jan. 14, “Never Broken” features recent and newly commissioned work by Ahchipaptunhe (Delaware Tribe of Indians and Cherokee), Joe Baker (Delaware Tribe of Indians), Holly Wilson (Delaware Nation and Cherokee), and Nathan Young (Delaware Tribe of Indians, Pawnee, and Kiowa) that express personal and tribal identity and address the Lenape’s violent displacement from Lenapehoking, the Lenape homeland which encompasses the region where the Michener Art Museum currently stands.

Curated by Joe Baker, co-founder and executive director of Lenape Center in Manhattan, and Laura Turner Igoe, chief curator at the Michener Art Museum, “Never Broken” will include approximately 50 artworks and objects from 10 private and institutional lenders. It will be accompanied by an illustrated catalog with essays by Baker, Igoe and Brooklyn-based writer Joel Whitney that will be published later this fall.

“We are excited to share this groundbreaking exhibition with our visitors,” said Igoe. “Through a focus on Lenape art and culture and a critical examination of historical visualizations of Native and European American relationships, ‘Never Broken’ demonstrates the ways in which art can create, challenge, and rewrite history.”

Baker added, “The Michener Museum of Art has assembled the legitimate heirs to Lenapehoking in this evocative new exhibit, ‘Never Broken: Visualizing Lenape Histories.’ Four contemporary Lenape artists through their arts practice push back against a silenced history and shed light on one of the world’s most horrific genocides.”

The exhibition interrogates many prints, paintings, and decorative arts that incorporate imagery from Benjamin West’s iconic painting Penn’s Treaty with the Indians (1771-72). West’s composition depicting a treaty of peace between the Pennsylvania Province’s founder William Penn and Tamanend, chief of the Lenni-Lenape Turtle Clan — praised by Anglo-Americans as an agreement that was “never broken”— went viral in a pre-internet age, appearing on textiles, fine porcelain, and other printed material in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Bucks County painter Edward Hicks (1780-1849) appropriated West’s composition for his own paintings of Penn’s Treaty (a recent Michener acquisition) and incorporated the scene into his well-known Peaceable Kingdom series. Paintings of Penn’s Treaty by Hicks and others attempted to rewrite the fraught history of Native and Anglo-American conflict with a myth of peaceful co-existence. To counter this narrative, the exhibition features historic and contemporary Lenape art demonstrating that the Lenape’s ties to the area were — unlike Penn’s Treaty — never broken.

Surrounding the installation of a carved and painted Big House post, central to the Lenape belief system, will be paintings by Joe Baker and the sculpture “Bloodline,” by Holly Wilson, which explore the artists’ lineage and tribal identity. Large-scale abstract paintings by Ahchipaptunhe, newly commissioned for the exhibition, respond to the geometric forms and shapes inscribed on Lenape pottery and decorated splint wood baskets borrowed from the New Jersey State Museum.

Nineteenth century bandolier bags and contemporary beadwork by Joe Baker underscore the continuing legacy and evolution of Lenape visual expression and cross-cultural exchange. A video and sound piece by Nathan Young commissioned for the exhibition will explore the events of the Walking Purchase, in which William Penn’s sons defrauded the Lenape out of millions of acres of land in Eastern Pennsylvania.

“Never Broken” encourages visitors to think critically about historical images and colonial narratives and to consider an Indigenous perspective as an important part of the history of the Delaware Valley.

Never Broken Programs include: “Celebrating the Lenape Spirit – A Conversation with the Artists of Never Broken,” from 1-2 p.m. Friday, Sept. 8; “Curator Talk with Laura Turner Igoe,” from 1-2 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 27; and “Curator Talk with Joe Baker,” from 1-2 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 26.

“Never Broken: Visualizing Lenape Histories” is one in a series of American art exhibitions created through a multi-year, multi-institutional partnership formed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art as part of the Art Bridges Cohort Program.

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